We read and hear over and over again that as a nation we consume way too much sugar. I've read estimates that individually we consume as much as 152 pounds of sugar per year, or 6 cups a week. If that's true, no wonder there is an obesity epidemic.

While sugar is definitely the most popular sweetener, a recently published book gives alternatives that are healthier but still add sweetness -- namely, maple syrup and honey.

"Sweet Nature: A Cook's Guide to Using Honey and Maple Syrup," by Beth Dooley, a James Beard award-winning author, shows the many ways these two ingredients can be used in salads, condiments, vegetables, entrees, desserts and even cocktails. The many recipes are accompanied by mouth-watering photographs by Mette Nielsen.

The way Dooley writes about maple syrup, we should all be using the real thing, not Log Cabin or Hungry Jack, taking us way beyond pancakes, waffles and French toast. With its flavor hints of caramel and toffee and a smooth texture, it blends well with all sorts of other ingredients. There are even those who add a spritz of it to their coffee.

In addition to its sweetness, maple syrup and maple sugar contain healthy amounts of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and also have lower scores on the glycemic index.

Dooley also gives simple directions for using syrup as an ingredient rather than sugar: Substitute 2/3 cup of syrup for every cup of processed sugar in a recipe; reduce the quantity of liquid (water, milk, juice) by one-fourth and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees when baking. She also says it can serve as a 1-to-1 substitute for a liquid sweetener such as molasses, agave and corn syrup. Dooley suggests storing opened containers in the refrigerator.

Writing about honey, she draws attention to the bee crisis, very much endangered. Though the Upper Midwest is the highest honey-producing region in the country, yields are declining as crops of corn and soybeans replace flowering plants, critical to the survival of bees. Managed hives have decreased by 50 percent, she writes.

Bees, sometimes referred to as angels of agriculture, are critical to our food supply as we know it. More than one-third of the world's crops (fruits, vegetables, alfalfa for meat and dairy) depend on bee pollination, valued in North America at $20 billion a year.

Dooley also distinguishes between types of honey. Raw honey is never heated or pasteurized, so has the highest nutritional value. Commercial honey -- what we buy in the store -- has been pasteurized and blended from different sources for consistency in flavor. Single-source honey is when bees feast on a particular flower. This is raw honey, not heated or processed. Beekeepers will usually identify the flower that defines the flavor on the label.

Since honey is sweeter than sugar, Dooley does give recommendations when substituting for sugar: For every cup of sugar substitute 1/2 to 2/3 cup honey; for every cup of honey subtract 1/4 cup of other liquids in the recipe. Finally, to balance the natural acids in the honey, increase the amount of baking soda by 1/8 teaspoon for every cup of honey.

Honey should be stored at room temperature since it will crystalize if kept in the refrigerator. If that happens, set the jar in a pan of warm water and move it around until they dissolve. Or do as I have done -- set it in the sun.

"Sweet Nature" was published by the University of Minnesota Press and has a list price of $24.95.

What's your reaction?