I'm about ready to throw in the towel and declare our home a completely sweetener-free zone, focusing only on fruits to satisfy our family's sweet teeth. BUT, that doesn't work when you have kids that are old enough to remember the allure of the frozen yogurt, jelly beans, candy bars, and Halloween candy they ate just weeks ago.
Thus, a healthier option is called for and so far it seems as though there is much debate in the wide world of health as to which option is healthiest.
You see, rapadura, though practically UNprocessed and still in possession of all its vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, is nevertheless derived from the sugar cane plant. Therefore, it is sugar. Period. BUT, because it is unprocessed, it retains a natural balance of fructose, sucrose, and glucose. And apparently balance between these different sugar elements is something to be highly sought after. Plus, part of me wonders if I just have lingering prejudice against sugar cane because of the completely awful, horrible, documented effects of white, refined table sugar. It is our nation's current drug/poison of choice. Maybe I need to give the plant, when approached as a whole food, another (sparing) chance. Oh the indecision! Woe is me.
Coconut palm sugar comes from tapping the flowery buds of the coconut palm, and we've all heard the endless praise for all things coconut. However, coconut palm sugar is boiled at high heats to evaporate the water and extract the sugars. More processing than rapadura, even. Also, though claims have been made that coconut palm sugar is low carb and has a low Glycemic Index number, it has conversely been found to contain mostly sucrose: quick, habit-forming, nutritionally devoid, caloric energy. Soooo . . . still a question mark next to this one.
I have been recently using xylitol, a plant-derived sugar alcohol. It has a low Glycemic Index rating. It subs for sugar one to one. It doesn't have the gross aftertaste that stevia does. But there is controversy over it, nonetheless. First, it is highly processed to finally arrive at its crystalline/granulated state. Any amount of processing = loss of whatever nutrients may have populated the whole food. Second, many people complain of digestive issues such as IBS-like symptoms after consuming xylitol. We've never had that problem in our family. And supposedly the issue resolves itself if you start eating it in small amounts and increase your intake slowly. Just gotta get ye ol' digestive track acclimated, I suppose. A word to the wise about xylitol, though, is that most xylitol is corn derived which means - dun, dun, dun - hello lovely genetic modification. Boo. Luckily, we found Emerald Forest Xylitol, which is made right here in the USofA from birch trees rather than corn. Yay! On the downside (again), I don't think birch trees are considered a "whole food" for human consumption, so anything derived from them (especially in such a processed manner), already has one strike against it from the get go. Boo. So, I'm definitely still conflicted as to whether this is THE sweetener we should be substituting for sugar. I'm leaning toward "no".
Raw organic honey has phenomenal health benefits, but can't be heated at high temps or those health benefits are zapped. So, we use it primarily for slow-melting in hot breakfast cereals and a nutritional, sweet boost in smoothies. No good for baking, though. I mean, it'll still sweeten your baked goods, but what you're left with after your bread is baked is a higher calorie sweetener than sugar even rather than a propolis-infused super food.
Pure organic maple syrup is supposed to have many nutrients as well, but you have to really research which brand you'll purchase to make sure that it's absolutely 100% pure (rather than maple syrup + corn syrup or table sugar) and that formaldehyde tablets have not been used to keep taps open longer during the seasonal flow. It's also pricey since it takes an astronomical quantity of sap to end up with just a small amount of syrup.
Dried dates can be finely ground in a blender and used in baking, but the resulting imitation sugar won't dissolve and burns easily, so bakers beware.
I have no idea how to make, store, and incorporate my own fruit juice concentrate. I'm too tired to look right now. My eyes hurt and I feel like I need divine intervention in my search for the most perfect, most healthy sweetener for my family. Maybe I just need to embrace a quote I saw on one of the trillion websites I visited in the course of this lovely Friday night: "Does anyone really eat sugar for health benefits?" Ha! Right then. Perhaps my approach should be to find the least harmful rather than the most healthful. Annnnnd then use that ever-so-sparingly whilst throwing fresh fruits and veggies at my kids all day long. :) Wish me luck . . . and a good night's sleep. :)
Update: about sucanat, demerara, muscovado, and turbinado. All are various derivatives of the sugar cane plant. I did not include them in my searches because it became clear early on that none is as UNprocessed as rapadura and all more closely resemble white, refined table sugar than rapadura (except maybe sucanat). Likewise, erythritol and maltitol are sugar alcohols like xylitol and are even more processed.
Update #2: I can't believe I forgot to address the controversy surrounding agave syrup/nectar, too! So, after a lot of reading, it seems as though the latest studies are proving that despite agave's natural origins, to get it to its final health-food-store version requires TONS of processing and refinement. Also, while it may be relatively low on the Glycemic Index, it conversely has "more concentrated fructose in it than high fructose corn syrup." For a more in-depth look at agave's diabolical diabolical-ness (:D), check out this article from Food Renegade. It's pretty thorough.
Conclusion: I'm sticking with raw, organic honey; pure, organic maple syrup; and organic rapadura . . . until I hear otherwise. :D