Buying a new alternative sweetener, whether it’s as simple as sucanat (which intimidated me for over a year!) or as complicated as stevia or sugar alcohols like erythritol or xylitol, can be a tricky foray into healthier food preparation.
It’s not quite like trying a new recipe or substituting whole wheat flour for white flour in your favorite healthy pumpkin muffins, you know? You’re really trying to incorporate a new ingredient into your old recipes, and all you want to do is figure out an easy substitution and roll with it.
Before I understood that usually, sucanat (aka rapadura) can be subbed with a 1:1 ratio for white sugar in baking recipes, and it almost always tastes just great, I didn’t even want to bother with it. Now that I’ve played with it a little bit – after I chose to give into the higher price point, because I could – it’s become old hat.
Subbing honey can be tricky as well, because you are supposed to take some liquid out, and sometimes lower the oven temp, and sometimes you worry about the final flavor. (In case that’s all new to you, here’s How to Bake with Honey.)
But if that’s a little tricky, it’s almost dastardly to attempt something with stevia, where a drop equals a teaspoon of sugar, and some of the sugar alcohols that might be less sweet than sugar or impart an aftertaste. I talked about sugar alcohols last week right here, and I am basically of the opinion that they’re marginally acceptable on a real food diet. If I was talking to a diabetic who was choosing between an artificial sweetener and erythritol, I’d recommend the sugar alcohol every time (although officially I steer people toward well-processed stevia instead).
What’s up with Stevia Blends?
If you shop the baking aisle at your local store, you’ll see plenty of products marketed as "stevia." Almost all of them are going to be formulated to look like sugar and act like sugar. This means the companies (PepsiCo and CocaCola both have a brand name of "stevia") have added quite a bit of bulk, since real stevia powder is 300 times as sweet as sugar and could never be subbed one-for-one.
Usually these blends – TruVia and PureVia are two that are neither True nor Pure – are mostly erythritol, sometimes dextrose (a corn sugar), sometimes other stuff. I do understand why the companies are trying to make blends that act like sugar. As I mentioned above, even someone like me who does plenty of experimenting in the kitchen doesn’t really know what to do with something that has too many "rules" to use it in my favorite recipes. However, it’s tricky labeling to emphasize only the stevia.
It’s really important to remember to read the backs of the labels – if you’re buying a blend, you need to understand that your research on safety must focus on all the ingredients, not just the stevia the company is trying to highlight.
I was listening to a great podcast from Sean at Underground Wellness (at least I hope I’m sourcing that right!), and he was sponsored by ZSweet – he’s big into the low carb movement, and discussed with his guest how awesome the stevia-based, zero-calorie sweetener was.
Naturally, I contacted them for a sample for the Sweet, Sweet Summer series.
When it came, I realized it was mostly erythritol with a little stevia.
That just goes to show you shouldn’t always listen to everything a random blogger says…
I was determined to try it anyway, since I don’t think erythritol is harmful. We tested it in yogurt and on strawberries, and I used the powdered version for a batch of my homemade frosting – side-by-side with regular white powdered sugar.
Here are my results and opinions as I wrote them last summer:
DH likes the ZSweet packets better than the stevia white powder – no bitterness at all.
I thought they were (1) quite sweet and (2) starting feeling odd in my mouth after a while. There’s still something “artificial” feeling about it. It coated the spoon with a slippery, tacky film. I didn’t like the feel of my mouth afterward. ??? I would recommend it, of course, over any artificial sweetener, so if you have someone in your life who uses Nutrasweet or Splenda, for example, I’d try to talk them into switching, or if you absolutely cannot have sugar or even honey or maple syrup because of a medical condition, this seems like a great option to sweeten tea, coffee or yogurt. However, I’d still go with plain stevia extract as a top choice for both flavor and real food/health.
The powdered ZSweet "poofs" like a mushroom cloud. This was a bit disconcerting… (top photo)
The frosting smells like a Smartie or something, very sweet, whereas the regular sugar version (of the frosting) smells like nothing.
ZSweet acted very differently than powdered sugar when stirring in the egg – crumbly – but once I added the sugar syrup, it all looked “about” the same.
On the taste: there’s something – maybe citrusy – that overwhelms the almond flavoring. People could still taste the almond, but I barely could. It explodes in the mouth with sweetness – MUCH more sweet than the regular sugar version of frosting. There’s something more tingly than the regular frosting – like if frosting is something creamy, this stuff is disintegrating or dissolving in your mouth.
Personally, I prefer the regular frosting MUCH more.
My mother-in-law didn’t notice the difference at all in a side-by-side taste test – maybe because her mouth is used to artificial sweeteners? Or just because.
DH notices the difference and prefers the regular, but still likes the Zsweet, and my sister-in-law, who does use artificial sweeteners, said the same.
I discovered that the ZSweet frosting made my teeth hurt. That really bothered me at first and made me think it was totally unnatural, but then I realized that sometimes, eating plain dates also make my teeth hurt with the sweetness. (I really should get back to oil pulling…) I suppose this just goes to show that even though ZSweet is marketed as "zero calories, zero glycemic effect, zero worries!" there’s still a definite bodily response to the sweetness.
One other difference: at room temp for the same amount of time, the Zsweet frosting stayed more solid, very slightly crumbly, rather than creamy and quickly softening like the sugar version.
My parents and godparents visited us during Michigan strawberry season, and I subjected them all to a sweetener taste test. Beware of visiting me; I’ll probably ask your opinion on something!
Overall, the ZSweet scored rather well: it definitely adds sweetness, doesn’t have much flavor of its own, little to no aftertaste, and everyone liked it the best of all of them.
This was compared to palm sugar (which everyone agreed added too much flavor and hid the lovely strawberry taste) and NuNaturals stevia packets, which made my godmother grimace and practically spit it out. I really notice a bitter aftertaste to the NuNaturals packets. Both men didn’t notice any difference with ZSweet, NuNaturals, or sugar. My godparents do use artificial sweeteners, Sweet ‘n’ Low only (saccharin); my parents do not. My godmother did say that she has tried Truvia and it made her physically ill – not an uncommon reaction to erythritol.
I didn’t have my Sweetleaf stevia at that point, but personally I prefer that over all the packets we tested. I think it has the least aftertaste (none), although my husband prefers NuNaturals over Sweetleaf. I still choose the liquid stevia, and both brands seem to be processed without chemicals.
Find links to both brands of liquid stevia at my Amazon store.
Baking with Sugar Alcohols
You can purchase just plain erythritol and use it in baking – it’s 70% as sweet as sugar and heat stable, so technically you’d need to use a bit more than whatever sugar is called for in your recipe, or just accept less sweetness. I admit, I had a sample from NuNaturals and after a year of avoiding it because I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I gave it to my mother-in-law. I think for diabetics or anyone who is using an artificial sweetener regularly, erythritol is a better option.
However, I don’t think she knows what to do with it either. I think it’s just sitting on her counter (can’t say I blame her!).
NuNaturals also has a stevia baking blend which I did try in my trusty pumpkin muffin recipe. I’ve used a lot of sweeteners in that thing – white sugar, sucanat, honey, maple syrup, a bit of molasses – and it always tastes wonderful. This batch had a decided aftertaste which I can only compare to the cringe effect I get when I accidentally ingest artificial sweetener. (I’m not sure the blend I linked to was the one I tested out; perhaps they’ve updated the formula.) I gave away the rest of the tub to my sister-in-law, hoping she could get some use out of it.
I can’t say I had great luck with natural sugar substitutes that are dressed up to look like sugar. They’re all incredibly expensive, so if you had trouble digesting the triple cost of sucanat over white sugar (or empathized with my hesitance), you’ll really want to steer clear of stevia and erythritol baking blends.
My final decision is that they’re not worth it for me (even if they were less expensive). I’d rather use another really natural sweetener or just find another way to have a fun dessert without the carbs if that was vital to my health. Grain-based muffins and birthday cakes aren’t the best for diabetics, anyway, and who needs a sweetener on the perfection of a fresh Michigan strawberry!
We come back to last week’s Monday Mission – to wean your taste buds off sweeteners (or at least down). I’m cutting all white sugar for Lent again plus all sweeteners on Fridays, and I guarantee that by the end of the 40 days, I’ll find regular sweets too much for my newly trained taste buds. I’m looking forward to it.
If you’ve missed any of the natural sweeteners series, here’s a list:
- Why is White Sugar Bad for You?
- Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
- Does Raw Honey have Health Benefits?
- How to Bake with Honey (and Honey Recipes)
- Unrefined Dehydrated Whole Cane Sugar (Rapadura, Sucanat, Panela and Muscovado)
- Facts on Stevia: is it natural?
- How to Use Stevia
- The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
- Sorghum: a Sweetener with Actual Value (update: tried sorghum on cornbread, and WOW, is it awesome!)
- Xylitol, Erythritol, Sorbitol…What’s That "Ol" About? (sugar alcohols)