Refined sugar and products containing refined sugars are generally accepted to be significant contributors to cavities and diseases such as diabetes. Here are some nutritious and natural alternatives to refined sugar:
Natural honey has been used as a sweetener, preserving agent and beauty treatment for centuries in numerous cuisines, healing and beauty practices around the world. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda both teach of the healing properties of honey. For skincare purposes, honey helps nourish the skin and keep it moist. One of Cleopatra’s most famous “beauty secrets” is a regular bath of milk and honey and this combination of milk and honey for beauty is still used today.
There are several varieties of natural honey to choose from, depending on the variety of flower from which the pollen was harvested by the honeybee. Each honey type is rich with its own unique flavor, color, aroma, nutritional and medicinal properties.
To name a few:
Orange blossom honey
Note: It is not recommended to feed honey to babies as natural honey may contain traces of botulism which is harmless to adults but harmful to young babies.
Unrefined Palm Sugar
This is a traditional and natural sweetener in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia (known as “gula melaka”, Indonesia (“known as “gula merah”), Philippines, Sri Lanka (known as “jaggery” in English or “hakuru” in Sinhalese), India (known as “jaggery” in English or “gur” in Hind), Brazil (known as “rapadura” in Portugese), and Mexico (known as “piloncillo” in Spanish).
In Latin America, fresh sugar cane is crushed using a machine and the resulting fibers are discarded or used as fuel, while the sugarcane juice is heated until it forms a thick liquid. This liquid is poured into molds and left to solidify.
The same process is used to produce Indian “jaggery”.
Sri Lankan jaggery, Malaysian and Indonesian “gula melaka” or “gula merah” undergo the same production process as well, except that more often it is the sap extracted from coconut flowers rather than sugar cane juice that is used as raw material.
These traditional unrefined sugars are not only uniquely delicious, offering an unpatrolled depth of flavor, they are also considered to be highly nutritious because having undergone limited processing, they retain micronutrients which refined sugars lose during the refining process.
Date Syrup or Date Honey
Dates are an integral ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine and these small, sweet fruits have been consumed for thousands of years in the region. Date syrup also known as date honey, has been the traditional sweetener in Middle Eastern and North African kitchens for generations. Known as “dibis ttamarru” دبس التمر in Arabic (which means “date molasses” “dibis” دبس = “molasses”, “ttamarru” التمر = “dates”), date syrup is believed to have significant nutritional properties. It is one of the first foods fed to a baby and nursing mother.
The most popular molasses worldwide are sugarcane molasses however in reality there exists a far wider variety in the world such as those derived from fruits (known as fruit molasses) which have been used since ancient times. For instance, molasses (made from grape juice known as “defrutum”), along with honey, were the main sweeteners in ancient Rome. In Middle Eastern cuisine, molasses such as carob molasses (made from carob pods), figs, pomegranates, mulberries are traditional sweeteners which have been used for generations and are still widely used.
Brown Rice Malt Syrup
Also known as rice syrup or rice malt, this is derived from wholesome brown rice. This is a traditional sweetener in Japan known as “mizu ame” and has been used for centuries in ancient Japan. One of the few remaining authentic brown rice malt syrup manufacturers in Japan is the Uchida Toka Company in Fukuyama. Organic barley grains are first soaked until sprouted. They are then dried and crushed. Next, the brown rice is processed into flakes by passing the grains through two rollers which flattens the grains into flakes. These brown rice flakes are then soaked overnight. The next morning, the flakes are steamed with water added to form a thick porridge known as “kayu”. Next, the rice porridge and sprouted barley are combined. This sprouted barley provides the natural enzymes to break down the starch in the brown rice porridge and convert it into sugars. The porridge and sprouted barley are cooked at a certain temperature (which cannot be too high, else the natural enzymes are destroyed) for several hours during which time the enzymes in the barley break down the complex carbohydrates in the rice into simple sugars. After this process is complete, the cooking is stopped (if left to cook further, it ends up fermenting instead, developing alcohol). The porridge is then pressed to extract the syrup, a dark brown sweet liquid. This liquid is cooked, then steamed, filtered and ready for use.
Modern day Japanese rice malt syrups omit the natural enzymes from sprouted barley, instead relying on chemically produced enzymes. While these are faster and more efficient, true connoisseurs generally agree that they are no match to the flavor of rice syrup produced with natural barley enzymes.
Barley Malt Syrup
Barley malt syrup, is produced with just sprouted barley grains and water. Barley grains are left to soak, then left in a humid environment in optimum temperature which encourages them to sprout. The sprouted grains are then dried and cooked. The liquid is filtered and boiled down until it reaches a desired consistency, after which, it is ready for use. Barley malt and honey were the chief sweeteners in Chinese cuisine for centuries before cane sugar gained popularity.
Native Americans are credited with being the first peoples to produce maple syrup and this natural sweetener has been used in Native American cuisine for generations.
The process of producing this natural sweetener is more difficult and time-consuming and consequently this product is not only rarely available, but also considerably expensive compared to more commonly available syrups such as maple syrup. Birch syrup production is an emerging cottage industry, in particularly in Alaska where birch trees thrive in Alaska’s forests.