Sorghum syrup and maple syrup have been healthy sweeteners for centuries; find out how much iron, calcium, and minerals are in these little gems! (Plus some ideas for how to use them)
I saw a list recently of sweeteners humans consumed 100 years ago. It was about five items long, and sorghum and maple syrup were two of them. (Ha! If there were still only 5 I would have been finished with the Sweet, Sweet Summer series a lot sooner!) The article also mentioned that folks back then ingested about 2 pounds of sugar per year, total, and we’re up to well over 150 per person in modern times. Seriously, we question why our waistlines are expanding??? If you’re going to use a sweetener, why not use one that comes with a little nutritional value, as well?
I once I put my pure Michigan maple syrup right next to my in-laws’ sugar-free (taste-free?) maple “syrup” in the fridge and reflected on how people try so very, very hard to find a “healthy” alternative to sweets.
In the mainstream, this usually means something “low-calorie” with little nutrition in it or something with artificial sweeteners, i.e. laced with poison.
Sweets are a multi-million dollar industry.
Are you paying your dues?
I hope not. There are plenty of delicious ways to satisfy your sweet tooth without resorting to flashy marketing, fake foods, or even white sugar (although I’m not personally opposed to a little of the white stuff in moderation).
Besides that, you can always try conquering your sweet tooth and avoiding sweeteners altogether, the healthiest route.
That said, I love a little sweetness on my pancakes (among other things).
My First Impressions on Sorghum Syrup
To be honest, although I’d seen sorghum often in real food recipes, I never tasted it until I requested a sample for this series on various sweeteners.
I was surprised to hear that some people use it on pancakes as well as in baking, so of course I tried that straightaway. Sorghum is sweet, of course, but I’d say not quite as sweet as honey or maple syrup, and there’s a bit of a hearty taste like molasses, although not quite as strong as molasses.
It’s fine on pancakes…but nothing compares to maple syrup when it comes to breakfast!
How is Sorghum Syrup Processed?
Sorghum syrup comes from a plant usually called “sweet sorghum,” a plant popularly grown in climates too hot and dry for corn. It originated in Africa before traveling to Asia, Europe, and North America. Other varieties of sorghum are grown for grain or livestock use, but sweet sorghum has a juicier stalk.
Sorghum syrup is made by cooking the juice from the stalk of the plant, evaporating the water and concentrating the sweetness. Sorghum syrup retains all minerals, and it should never be cut with anything or need any chemicals to produce. You can see a video of the process from Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill in Tennessee, the folks kind enough to send me a bottle, right HERE.
In America, sorghum became an important crop for hot southern states in the early 1900s, and sorghum as a sweetener became rather popular when sugar was scarce in the 30s and 40s. However, once cane and beet sugar, and then corn sweeteners like corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, were established as cheap (subsidized!) sources of sweet, a nail was put in the coffin of sorghum syrup. It is left now to small family farms to supply the niche of healthy-minded folks with sorghum syrup.
The positive part of all that is that you can get to know your sorghum farmer, and quite often you’ll find organic or almost organically grown sorghum.
Health Benefits of Sorghum Syrup
Unlike sugar, which is 100% empty calories devoid of nutrition, you can actually expect some nutritive value from a purely natural sweetener like sorghum. Before multivitamins, doctors sometimes prescribed sorghum syrup to help folks get the necessary iron, calcium, and potassium.
Check out the nutritional value profile for just a tablespoon of sorghum syrup:
- 30 mg calcium (3% DV)
- 300 mg protein
- .76 mg iron (almost as high as blackstrap molasses; 4% DV)
- 20 mg magnesium (5% DV)
- 11 mg phosphorus
- 200 mg potassium (almost 6% DV)
- .80 mg zinc (5% DV)
- .03 mg riboflavin (a B vitamin; almost 2% DV)
Some of those percentages seem low, for sure, but remember that’s in just a tablespoon of a sweetener, where if you choose honey or table sugar, you get practically nothing. I’m impressed!
Possible Disadvantages of Sorghum
Sorghum syrup is still a sweetener, and it actually has more calories per tablespoon than molasses, maple syrup, or white sugar and about equal to honey. If you’re diabetic or need to avoid blood sugar spikes, sorghum is not a safe alternative sweetener.
How to Use Sorghum Syrup
It sure sounds like sorghum can be used successfully in any recipe calling for a liquid sweetener. A huge benefit of sorghum is that it might cost less for you than honey or maple syrup. It depends on where you live – I can get local raw honey (use the code Katie15 for 15% off at that site!) for about $16-17 a half gallon and maple syrup for $40 a gallon (and that’s CHEAP compared to buying online, because we have local maple syrup here in Michigan).
I’d start using sorghum to replace one-fourth of the honey or maple syrup in any recipe, and probably up to a half. Like I said, the molasses-ish taste is not strong at all. In something with lots of strong flavors anyway, like these soaked pumpkin muffins, I bet you could start with half and move up to almost all sorghum. The grain-free granola recipe in Healthy Snacks to Go works really well with just about any liquid sweetener subbed for either the maple syrup or honey.
It sounds like it’s excellent in homemade bread products, and even along with sugar in cookies, especially gingersnap types. In the comments, Lizi says to use half the sorghum as white sugar – so if a recipe (especially chocolate cakes and such, she recommends) calls for 1 cup sugar, you can use 1/2 cup sorghum instead. I’m sorry I didn’t test all this out for you already, but now I’m totally inspired!!
Apparently, I need to do more experimenting with this little gem!
What about Maple Syrup?
I’m fortunate enough to live in Michigan, one of the few states where maple syrup and maple sugar are truly local foods. Our raw milk farm even makes their own, although I bought two gallons for $40 each elsewhere, an incredible deal.
How is Maple Syrup Made?
Have you ever seen a 40-gallon drum? It’s big enough for both my kids to fit inside, plus all their favorite stuffed animals.
Forty gallons of maple sap from a sugar maple has to be boiled down to only one gallon of maple syrup. (source: personal visit to Blandford Nature Center’s Sugar Bush tours)
The process of tapping a tree to collect sap, which is only about 1-3% sugar and 97+% water, then transporting it to a sugar shack or other raging fire, then boiling it down to the perfect density (and not too far), is a time and labor-intensive endeavor.
That’s why you’re not finding real maple syrup in your grocery store on sale with the 10/$1 items like you can the fake stuff, which is made of corn syrup and water, mostly.
Maple sugar is even more expensive, because it extends the process one more step. Maple syrup must be boiled down even further until it crystalizes into sugar. Delicious, but complicated.
Is it worth the premium price?
Health Benefits of Maple Syrup
Maple syrup may be the healthiest sweetener yet. As much as I love baking with honey, using maple syrup is even better. The catch is that it’s often twice as expensive, so it’s a big judgment call.
Here’s a great list of all the good stuff packed into a maple tree:
- Antioxidant defense – 100% daily value of manganese in 1/4 cup (also improves HDL cholesterol)
- Heart health – high in zinc
- Immune support and anti-inflammatory properties (zinc and manganese again)
- Male reproductive health and prostate support
- Potential benefits for Type II Diabetes
- New research:
Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have found more than 20 compounds in maple syrup that are associated with human health. Many of these antioxidant compounds are also believed to have anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and antibacterial properties. These researchers have also recently discovered that maple syrup is a source of phenolics, a class of antioxidants that are found in berries. source More on the new health benefits here or here…
Maple syrup comes in various grades, such as Grade A (light amber, medium and dark) and Grade B (the darkest), and recently has undergone some grading system changes. No matter what you call it, the lighter the color, the sweeter and less intense the flavor. However, the darker the color, the more minerals are concentrated. Many folks use Grade B for baking (now called Grade A Dark or Very Dark), when the strong flavor doesn’t come through quite as clearly as when used straight on pancakes.
Nutritional Profile of Maple Syrup
- 52 calories per Tablespoon
- 13.4 g of carbohydrates
- trace amounts of:
- B Vitamins
- Made of mostly sucrose, with only a little fructose and glucose
How to Use Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
Easy. Pancakes. Right?
If you’re going to use two gallons of syrup, though, you’ve got to broaden your perspective a bit more. One of KS’s past sponsors, Shiloh Farms, not only sells real maple sugar (and it’s AMAZING), but they also have lots of recipes that call for maple syrup and sugar.
I’ve heard that people often use maple syrup for bread baking, where most recipes would call for brown sugar or honey – I say just try substituting in your own favorite bread recipes if you want to use more maple syrup!
I also made the best strawberry shortcakes from this book, using just a touch of maple sugar in the shortcakes and maple sugar-sweetened strawberries (a must-try), but alas, although I wanted to share that recipe with you this week, I packed up every single cookbook I have already! Shucks. Maybe next strawberry season.
Maple sugar has also been really fun on toast with cinnamon, in oatmeal, and in muffins in place of white sugar. Yum! I tend to conserve this stuff because it’s so expensive though. Just my nature!
Other ways I use maple syrup:
- Grain-free granola (recipe can be found in the newly expanded Healthy Snacks to Go eBook along with over 45 real food snack recipes – click HERE to learn more.)
- in breads
- to flavor cream cheese frosting (whip yogurt cheese with a bit of maple syrup and vanilla or almond extract)
- to sweeten real whipped cream
- in oatmeal, although I usually use no sweetener at all, just unrefined coconut oil
- on sweet potatoes and squash in the fall
- and our favorite pancake recipes: soaked whole grain pancakes, sourdough pancakes, grain-free banana Paleo pancakes, grain-free almond-apple pancakes, and gluten-free soaked buckwheat pancakes, from the top photo, an exclusive recipe that I’ll share in this month’s KS newsletter. (Sign up HERE or in the sidebar.)
The Only Disadvantage to Using Maple Syrup
Maple syrup isn’t allergenic, but it does have more carbs than perhaps some folks should eat. Used in moderation, though, there are more benefits than deficits to be sure.
The only disadvantage I see is its high cost – but then again, that teaches you to use less and conserve what you have!
Our pancake plates, for example, never look like those cleared away at an IHOP restaurant, drowning in leftover syrup. We use every last drop, or else!
How to Stretch your Real Maple Syrup (and your budget)
1. Cut maple syrup with honey (and maybe a bit of water to thin it out). Raw honey has many wonderful health benefits (see this post for info), and it’s often about half the price of real maple syrup with all the sweetness.
2. Pour your real maple syrup in shot glasses for dipping, especially good for folks who would put on too much. (Nothing makes the family budgeteer cry more than plates full of leftover real maple syrup going into the sink after a big pancake breakfast!) Try the dipping method, and then figure out if this is better for your family or just using self-control on the pouring and allowing a little bit to be “enough”. (Sometimes you end up with more on the dip than you might pour on in the first place.)
3. Try this recipe with fruit that our children’s librarian sent me, substituting other fruits depending on what you have on hand:
- 1 1/2 cups frozen blueberries
- 1 1/2 cups frozen unsweetened raspberries
- 1/2 cup real maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Heat over medium heat until berries are juicy. Blend (optional) if you want a thin syrup instead of fruity chunks. Serve warm over pancakes or waffles.
I would probably add a lot more cinnamon, because (a) I love it and (b) I know it helps keep me healthy. It lasts at least a few days in the fridge, enough for leftover pancakes and stirring into plain homemade yogurt.
4. Speaking of cinnamon, dusting your pancakes or french toast with cinnamon can add such flavor and a guise of sweetness (try Ceylon cinnamon for an even sweeter experience with more health benefits!) that you may find you don’t need as much syrup to have a pleasant breakfast experience. Food Renegade’s blender pancakes include cinnamon right in the mix – heavenly!
5. Put maple syrup in a cleaned up soy sauce bottle or some sort of glass bottle with a smaller pouring spout. This is the key – that extra little piece of plastic on the top of the bottle that prevents actual pouring and forces you to more or less “shake” the contents out.
I used to use a repurposed lime juice bottle, which did a decent job, but I started thinking more about the amount of plastic we use and wishing I could find a glass alternative. A search of my basement “bottles and jars” box came up with this idea, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was for my kiddos!
The soy sauce bottle is the perfect size for children to pick up easily, and it comes out about 1/4-1/2 teaspoon at a time, so it’s almost impossible to waste. Perhaps certain dressings bottles would work as well, and I think a wine vinegar bottle would be another contender.
See more on natural sweeteners HERE.
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