Natural sweeteners are definitely big news lately. From classics like molasses and honey, to new fangled agave and stevia, every week seems to bring about a new favorite, each touting its own unique ‘health’ benefits. Sure, some natural sweeteners contain more nutrients than white sugar, while some digest a little more slowly, thus causing a slower rise in blood sugar levels. But the fact of the matter is that these foods are all still sweeteners, and most of them break down to the same molecules as plain old sugar, and are digested in the same way. Therefore, we should still use moderation with sweeteners, no matter which ones they are. This is especially true for those who need to keep watch on their blood sugar levels.
One of the most classic ‘natural’ sweeteners is honey, which comes in many varieties that all lend slightly different subtle flavors. Raw honey, which you can find for sale here at the market, contains a host of enzymes, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants along with natural sugars. Raw honey is nutritionally superior to pasteurized or processed honey because many of the beneficial properties are lost when honey is heated. There is also some evidence that eating locally produced raw honey, which contain local pollen spores, can help alleviate seasonal allergies by acting to build immunity much like a vaccine would. Unfortunately, there are no studies yet to back up this belief.
Honey is also a natural humectant (something that attracts and retains moisture), so it can help to keep a dish moist when used in a recipe, or retain moisture in the skin when used in a skin care product. Honey is also known to soothe and coat a sore throat, and one study has shown that buckwheat honey provided better relief for nighttime cough in children than an over the counter cough medication! However, please note that it is not considered safe to give honey to children under 1 year of age because of the risk of botulism poisoning. Honey may naturally contain spores of Clostridium Botulinum, a toxin which adult digestive systems can easily fight off, but could sicken a young child.
Another classic is of course maple syrup, which has it’s own wonderful and distinct flavor. Recent research shows that maple syrup is high in polyphenols, an antioxidant that helps ward off inflammation as well as supplying the minerals manganese and zinc. Maple sugar has become very popular lately too, and is made by boiling down maple syrup until all of the liquid has evaporated. It should be noted that maple sugar is about twice as sweet as regular sugar. It is recommended to use ¾ cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of granulated sugar called for in baking, and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for every 1 cup of maple syrup used.
When substituting honey for sugar in baking, Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Cooking, recommends substituting ½ cup honey for every cup of sugar, reducing the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup, and increasing the baking soda by ¼ tsp. It is also advisable to turn down the oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning.
The recipe for this week, Sweet and Sour Braised Fennel, was simple and so warming and delicious. Especially on a VERY cold and windy day at the market. The weather conditions made the stove a little hard to deal with, but the result made it all worthwhile. I of course substituted honey instead of the sugar that the recipe called for!