The holidays are upon us and while they may be radically different in our COVID era, one thing is bound to stay the same: We’ll be spending a great deal of time in the kitchen, perhaps more than ever. And with #quarantinebaking going down as one of the most popular ways people have dealt with the stress of 2020, we’ll likely be pulling out our favorite recipes for everything from pie to pudding.
Yet, with good health also on our minds, it’s a wise time to swap out your less-than-wholesome baking ingredients for smarter choices.
Chief among these is sugar, a substance that has been linked to a host of health complications, including a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and an increase of both blood sugar and chronic inflammation. A surplus of sugar, as you probably know, can also lead to weight gain and the issues that arrive with it, such as diabetes and obesity. (For these reasons, the American Heart Association recommends that women limit their intake of added sugar to six teaspoons per day and men nine teaspoons.) At the same time, artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin—think: those light blue packets of Equal and bright pink packets of Sweet ‘N Low—have been linked to weight gain and a weakened immune system, in that the chemicals they contain strain the body’s natural detoxification capacities.
With this in mind, I’ve rounded up the five trendiest natural and alternative sweeteners on the market and how they might enhance—or derail—your holiday baking efforts. Here are the pros and cons of each:
- Monk Fruit:
Monk fruit has been gaining popularity in recent years, thanks in part to the fact that it’s frequently touted as a zero-calorie sweetener. Derived from a melon-shaped fruit that’s indigenous to Southern China and Northern Thailand, it can be obtained as a liquid extract, powder or as granules (similar to cane sugar). Unlike most fruits, monk fruit isn’t sweet due to natural sugars. Rather, it contains a distinct type of antioxidant called mogroside that offers a degree of sweetness 200 to 300 times higher than table sugar.
Pros: In addition to the fact that it doesn’t pile on calories—while not “zero-calorie,” it has only a scant amount of calories and carbohydrates—the mogroside monk fruit possesses is presently being researched as a potential treatment for diabetes and cancer. Traditionally used as a cough remedy and for relief from constipation, monk fruit has also been shown to inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, particularly oral bacteria that may result in periodontal disease or tooth decay.
Cons: While no research to date has shown that monk fruit could be potentially dangerous for consumption, it has only been approved for use by the FDA since 2009—meaning, it doesn’t have a long track record of use as a sweetener. What’s more, keep in mind that it doesn’t taste exactly like sugar, and may alter the flavor of your favorite baking recipes. My advice: It won’t hurt to give it a try, as long as you don’t ingest vast amounts of it.
For more than 1,500 years, the Guarani people of Brazil and Paraguay have referred to the Stevia plant as ka’a he’ê, or “sweet herb.” For a good reason, too: extract from the stevia plant, a botanical in the family of marigolds, ragweed and chrysanthemums, is roughly 200 hundred times sweeter than cane sugar, meaning you only need a touch to sweeten up your baked goods.
Pros: Stevia not only honey-ups your favorite cookies, pies and cakes, it’s also been proven to be good for you. In 2012, a study published in Nutrition and Cancer determined that stevia extract may help destroy breast cancer cells, while an animal study revealed that stevia can reduce bad cholesterol levels.
Cons: In 1991, Stevia was banned from the U.S. market after early studies indicated that the natural sweetener may cause cancer. Four years later, the ban was lifted when additional studies refuted the original claims. Now, it’s approved as a food supplement (translation: it hasn’t undergone rigorous studies and companies are not allowed to market stevia additives and stevia leaves as sweetening products). Additionally, some stevia products contain added sugar alcohols that can contribute to a range of unpleasant symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, indigestion, cramping and bloating. As for its taste, some complain that it’s a tad too similar to licorice for their palates. Still, should you sample it, be sure to go with an organic, non-GMO purified stevia extract or green leaf stevia—the least processed of stevia products.
Xylitol bears the closest resemblance to sugar—at least in terms of taste—which has contributed to its leading spot as one of the best alternative sweeteners. Extracted from birch bark, found in a number of fruits and vegetables and even produced in the body, this celebrated sugar alcohol has 100% of the sweetness of cane sugar and is often praised for keeping food moist, making it a great substitute for sugar in baking recipes.
Pros: Dentists across the country often recommend reaching for Xylitol gum and mints over their sugar-filled or sugar-free cousins. Why? Because research has shown that the sugar alcohol naturally encourages dental wellness. In addition, it has a low glycemic index; as such, it won’t cause spikes in blood glucose or insulin levels in the body.
Cons: Xylitol is not absorbed from the digestive tract. Meaning, if an excess of it is consumed, you might face diarrhea. Indeed, many products that use Xylitol carry a warning about its laxative effects. Also, if you happen to have a dog, make sure it doesn’t come near the xylitol you have in your kitchen, as it’s toxic for canines.
- Maple Syrup:
Maple syrup has long been a staple in most households. After all, few “dressings,” if you will, turn a pancake into a slice of sweet heaven. The maple syrup I’m recommending here is the real stuff—100% pure and organic.
Pros: Maple syrup is an often-untapped source of numerous antioxidants, with Pharmaceutical Biology reporting that it contains 24 different types of them. Most of these are in the form of phenolic compounds—plant composites that can help prevent chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Maple syrup also boasts handsome amounts of zinc, manganese, calcium and potassium.
Cons: Nutrients and antioxidants aside, maple syrup does contain high amounts of calories and sugar—as in, 52 calories per tablespoon and 50 grams of sugar in ¼ cup. You won’t save on calories by swapping out your table sugar for this, but you will gain a more luxurious taste.
Derived from the agave plant—a group of succulents that grows in Mexico, Southwestern US, and other warm climates—agave nectar has long been a hit in the alternative health scene, in large part because it’s vegan-friendly and has a low glycemic index.
Pros: Given its low glycemic index—the measure of how quickly sugar enters the bloodstream—agave has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels and is believed to be a suitable alternative for those with diabetes. It’s also roughly 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar, so less is needed in baking recipes and elsewhere.
Cons: Agave holds highly concentrated amounts of fructose, a form of sugar, found in fruits, vegetables and honey, that has been linked to a rise in obesity, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Furthermore, it contains high amounts of calories and carbohydrates. Should you choose to use it, use it sparingly—or opt for one of the more waistline-friendly choices mentioned here.
Above all, savor the process of baking, and have a wonderful—and healthy—holiday.
Click here to buy Dr. Laurie Steelsmith’s books, Natural Choices for Women’s Health, Great Sex, Naturally and Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essential Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance at Any Age.