Welcome to the second episode in the Vegan Kitchen Simplified series! Today we are talking about such natural liquid sweeteners as agave nectar, maple syrup, and molasses.
Why these liquid sweeteners? If you’ve ever expressed interest in eating healthier, you’ve probably wondered about the alternatives to the common white sugar and corn syrup that are widely used in mass-produced foods and in the conventional home cooking. (I’m not going to talk about artificial sweeteners today – the bottom line with those is that most of those have a chemical makeup not known to our bodies, thus making artificial sweeteners harder for us to process than regular sugar, which is not always worth the trouble of using them.)
Agave nectar, maple syrup and molasses all come from natural, plant sources. Does this fact make them healthy, whole foods? Yes and no: while these sweeteners have more trace nutrients and minerals than regular white sugar or corn syrup, the plants have to be highly processed in order to derive them. The verdict: these sweeteners may be better for us, but they should still be used in moderation.
So where do agave nectar, maple syrup, and molasses come from, and what can we do with them?
Where it comes from: Agave nectar/syrup is derived from the blue agave plant (over 300 varieties grow in the Southern US, Mexico, and northern South America). The core of this plant contains the aguamiel, or ‘honey water’ – a substance that is processed to make the syrup (or, when fermented, tequila). Ancient people widely used agave nectar as a medicine, applying it to wounds and cuts.
Healthy or not? Agave nectar that we buy in stores contains between 55 and 90 percent pure fructose, depending on how it was processed. The rest is glucose. Since the glucose amounts are relatively low, agave nectar is considered a low-glycemic food, meaning that it doesn’t create a sudden spike of blood sugar when consumed. However, since it’s highly processed, agave nectar only contains trace amounts of nutrients or minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium), so it can’t be considered a nutrient-dense food. Besides, the high amounts of fructose make agave similar to high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (Karo) syrup.
Uses. Agave syrup comes in two varieties – light and dark. Nutritionally, they are almost identical, but they have differences in taste due to different types of processing. Light syrup is more filtered and heated to lower temperatures, so it tastes milder and can be used as a universal sweetener. Dark agave syrup is less filtered, and has some residual solids left over in the finished product. Dark syrup has a richer, more bitter flavor, so if you’re trying to achieve a generic sweet taste, light agave syrup may be a better alternative.
To replace white or brown sugar with agave in baking, substitute 1 cup of sugar with 2/3 cups of agave syrup, and reduce the amount of other liquids in the recipe by 1/4 – 1/3 cup.
Where it comes from: Maple syrup is a result of processing maple tree sap. The sap is collected from the trees in the spring (late February through April), then boiled down to a syrupy consistency, filtered to remove impurities, and packaged for sale. It takes between 20 and 50 gallons of maple tree sap to produce just one gallon of maple syrup! Interestingly, the variations in color from light to dark are not a result of different processing, but depend on how early or late in the season the sap is collected. Early season sap produces light amber maple syrup that tastes light and sweet. As the season goes on, the syrup becomes darker (first medium amber, then dark amber), and the flavor becomes stronger and slightly less sweet. The syrup produced after dark amber is considered ‘Grade B’ for its less than perfect color (at least in the manufacturers’ opinion).
Healthy or not? When it comes to its nutritional profile, maple syrup can be considered healthier that agave nectar: in addition to iron, calcium, manganese and potassium, it contains antioxidants with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Grade B maple syrup is considered to have more nutrients than lighter-colored grade A syrups (see above). While all of this sounds appealing, let’s not forget that the type of sugar in maple syrup is sucrose, which is the same as in white sugar. Plus, it’s still a refined, concentrated food, even though it came from a plant.
Uses. You can use maple syrup in the same way as other liquid sweeteners – who doesn’t love it on pancakes? Maple syrup can be used in baking to replace white or brown sugar: use 3/4 to 1 cup of syrup for every cup of sugar in the recipe, and reduce the amount of other liquids by 3 Tbsp per every cup of syrup used.
Where it comes from: Molasses is a by-product of refining sugar cane (the most common), beets, or grapes for sugar production. In the Southern US sweet sorghum can also be called molasses, and the British use the word ‘treacle‘ for it. The process of making sugarcane molasses includes extracting the juice from sugarcane followed by three steps of boiling this juice. During each step, the sugar from the original sugarcane juice is crystallized and removed to be sold as table sugar. The leftover syrup is called molasses. The first boiling produces a lighter syrup called ‘light molasses’/’cane syrup’; the second boiling makes the syrup thicker and more intensely flavored (‘dark molasses’); the third step results in the rich, slightly bitter syrup called ‘blackstrap molasses’.
Healthy or not? Sugarcane juice is high in sucrose, but during the processing a large amount of sucrose is removed, so the resulting molasses have lower amounts of it. Blackstrap molasses (third boiling) may contain 40% less sucrose than regular molasses (second boiling). In addition to that, blackstrap molasses contain the highest amounts of nutrients out of all liquid sweeteners I’ve covered in this article: lots of iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, as well as some amounts of copper and selenium.
Another aspect: sometimes sulfur dioxide is used in the production of molasses to lighten its color and extend its shelf life. While it is unclear if sulfured molasses have health benefits or disadvantages over sulfur-free, it might be a good idea to look for unsulfured molasses to be on the safe side. (Read more about this here.)
Uses. Unlike agave nectar and maple syrup, molasses cannot be freely substituted for granulated sugar in most recipes because of their strong, slightly bitter flavor. There are some recipes, however, that call specifically for molasses (like the abundance of molasses cookies on Pinterest). When making a recipe with molasses, make sure to use the right variety – I’ve had some unfortunate results when I used blackstrap molasses instead of regular in some recipe 🙂
And if you are still wondering about which sweetener is considered the healthiest by nutrition experts, check out this short video by Dr. Michael Greger, the founder of the incredibly informative site NutritionFacts.org:
To see other posts in Vegan Kitchen Simplified series, click here.
Question: Do you use any natural sweeteners? Which ones are your favorite?
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