With so many 'healthy dessert' recipes being published online every single day it can be almost impossible to know which ones to choose from. They often (although not always) use almond flour, coconut flour or other types of gluten-free flours as the base and are sweetened either with fruits (such as dates or bananas) or unrefined sweeteners including honey, maple syrup or stevia.
So many sweeteners... so many names... but what do they all mean? They may sound healthier than the term 'sugar' but are they or is it just clever marketing?
Here is your essential guide to 'healthy' sweeteners... no need to feel confused anymore because this will give you all the answers you need.
Comes from the sap of the agave plant and is considered a 'popular' healthy sweetener. However, it contains over 70% fructose and we all know by now that fructose is not good for us (read more about this here). In fact, agave syrup has a higher fructose content than high fructose corn syrup! So although it may not have a high GI level as it doesn't spike your blood sugar levels, this does not mean it is healthy - high fructose is damaging on the liver and causes a whole host of problems.
Verdict: Stay away!
As I'm sure we all know, honey is made by bees from nectar collected from flowers. It is often seen as a healthy alternative to regular table sugar however it is actually still made up of glucose and fructose. Although it tastes great in baked goods, we should still be using it in moderation as it contains up to 50% fructose (the type of sugar our body can't utilise). The best form of honey to use is manuka honey which has antiviral and antibacterial properties and is a great remedy for sore throats and skin wounds.
Verdict: although quite high in fructose, raw unprocessed honey or manuka honey is ok to use in moderation due to its nutritional value.
Brown rice syrup (rice malt syrup):
Yep, you guessed it - made from brown rice! Brown rice is cooked down into a thick liquid which has a slight butterscotch taste. It is completely fructose free which is a great thing, however this means it is only glucose and therefore it does have a big effect on blood sugar levels. It works really well in baked goods but it is not as sweet as sugar which means you might need a little bit more of it, depending on your taste buds.
Verdict: fructose-free which makes it a great alternative to use in baking but shouldn't be used too regularly as it still spikes our blood sugar levels and doesn't have any nutritional value.
Once again the name gives it away - syrup made from the sap in maple trees. It contains up to 40% fructose and is about as sweet as regular sugar. Although high in sugar it is completely unrefined and also contains some important minerals such as manganese and and zinc. It tastes great in baking, for glazes on meats and also used as a syrup on pancakes.
Verdict: A good alternative to use in cooking as it raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar or brown rice syrup and also contains some health benefits. The only downside is the relatively high fructose-content but as long as you aren't eating it daily then I think it is a good alternative sweetener.
A plant-based sweetener derived from the stevia plant. It is completely fructose-free and has no calories. However it is 300x sweetener than regular table sugar which means it can be quite difficult to cook with - a little goes a long way! It can also leave a bitter aftertaste which many people find unpleasant.
Verdict: The positives are that it doesn't cause our blood sugar levels to spike or cause any damage to the liver. However, it is still relatively new and therefore there aren't many studies on its long-term effects on the body. I use stevia for recipes where I only want to add a tiny bit of sweetener - it is too bitter to use for recipes requiring a lot of added sweetener.
It is a sugar alcohol extracted from birch trees but it is rare because, unlike most sugar alcohols, it doesn't spike our blood sugar levels. It is completely fructose-free and has 40% less calories than regular table sugar. As it is not completely unrefined it doesn't have much nutritional value, but it is often used in chewing gum and other oral products to help prevent tooth decay (unlike regular sugar which does the opposite!). One known side effect is that it can cause a laxative effect if over-consumed. It is also highly toxic to dogs. My protein banana bread recipe uses a small amount of xylitol as the sweetener - you can find the recipe here.
Verdict: It is good for baking as it can replace sugar 1:1 in recipes - it also looks and feels like sugar (with less calories). I don't think it something to use daily as it is a refined sweetener but I think as a one-off in baked goods it is quite a good alternative. It isn't easily sourced from supermarkets though - I get mine from a health food shop.
I think the main thing to take away from all of this is that any sweetener should be used in moderation. If you feel like you need something sweet most days then you are most likely addicted to sugar, in which case it would be better to try and re-tune your taste-buds rather than simply finding sugar alternatives.
If, like me, you just absolutely love cooking and baking but don't want that passion to lead to health or weight problems then there are definitely better options than using regular table sugar. However, just because a sweetener is advertised as 'healthy' it doesn't necessarily mean it is (e.g. agave syrup!). I also recommend that sweet foods, regardless of the sweetener used, should not be consumed daily.
What are your favourite sweeteners to use? Have I missed any out that you think should be in there? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below - I love to hear your feedback!