Cooking without sugar.
Images by Noel B. Pabalate
We attended a unique cooking demo over the weekend; from snacks and main dishes to ice cream and desserts, not a single grain of sugar was used. Instead, the chef modified the recipes to incorporate an organic, all-natural sugar substitute from stevia, a shrub that has been used for centuries by native people in Paraguay and Brazil to sweeten their yerba mate and other stimulant beverages.
Almost everyone I know avoids sugar, the new bad guy blamed for everything that ails us, particularly obesity and diabetes. Food conversations these days, even among the young, often center on sugarless dishes and sugar substitutes, such as coco sugar, palm sugar, and the new star of the group--stevia.
Coco sugar is the dried sap of coconut flowers, while palm sugar is from the sap of swamp palm or sasa flowers, which in the past had been used only to make tuba or vinegar. Sold in some health stores and select supermarkets, coco and palm sugar resembles muscovado or brown sugar from sugar cane.
In the Philippines, stevia is popular among hobbyists, herbalists, and diabetics who raise the plant in pots and small plots for their own personal use. At the cooking demo, stevia was poured out from sachets.
When using sugar substitutes for other than coffee and drinks, a lot of factors have to be considered. Perfect examples are tocino and barbecue, which are normally enhanced by charred edges, characteristic results of sugar caramelization.
Maura de Leon, pioneer stevia entrepreneur in the Philippines, markets the powdered essence under the label Sweet and Fit. She recommends adding a little maltose to the meat marinade to induce caramelization and charring. For other savory dishes, she suggests soy sauce or oyster sauce. She observes that a Pinoy favorite, paksiw na lechon, benefits from the sharp sweetness of stevia.
"Considering how serious our diabetes and obesity problem is, it is important to reduce sugar content in everything we eat and drink," she adds.
When making desserts, stevia consultant Chef Carolyn Limbang advises adjusting the ratio of dry versus wet ingredients, to make up for the absence of sugar.
Muffins, cookies, and brownies without sugar also tend to be paler; Chef Carolyn compensates by adding cocoa powder to the batter and increasing the amount of chocolate chips used.
Another trick is adding mashed overripe bananas to muffins and brownies for nutrition, bulk, texture, flavor, fiber, and color. Bananas are best for baking when the peels develop brown spots.
NOT FOR OLD FOLKS ONLY
Diabetes, obesity, heart, and kidney problems are now observed to be affecting younger segments of the population worldwide. The Philippines is no exception. The solution may not be in artificial sugar substitutes such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, which not only leave an after-taste but have limited application.
According to de Leon, in other countries, stevia is now used in soft drinks, powdered juices, and dairy products, thereby effectively reducing the sugar content in their respective products by 15 to 30 percent.
She points out that studies are now underway to use stevia in candies, ice cream, cakes, and other products consumed by the youth to prevent obesity early. Considering that the pioneer commercial stevia farm is less than seven hectares, more farmers will have to raise this healthy sugar alternative to meet the demand. It means bigger incomes for Filipino farmers as well.