First, the good news: Quality sugar is part of a healthy diet! So your opportunity is to discern the good sweeteners from the bad ones and then to enjoy natural sweeteners occasionally rather than daily. For details about why to avoid agave, fructose, noncaloric sweeteners and many “natural” cane products like muscavado, see Sweeteners to Avoid.
Here’s a common sense rule of thumb for determining a good sweetener: That it is as close as possible to being a whole food with its trace nutrients intact and that it is a product you could make in your own kitchen (or if you were a honey bee, in a beehive) using simple technologies like pressing and concentrating. It’s really not surprising that the most natural sweeteners are also the most healthful and the most delicious.
If you feel you’re eating too many sweet foods, see Free Yourself from Sugar Cravings. Some people find that the natural sweetness of veggies high in complex carbohydrates, like yams, sweet potatoes and winter squash can help satisfy a sweet tooth.
Honey Favor unpasteurized honey for its wonderful medicinal properties (it helps relieve fluid retention and ease constipation and a dry cough). Pasteurized honey is denatured and mucus forming. As possible, favor local honey for the pleasure of eating from the ’hood and to support the local economy. And should you have pollen allergies, the honey from neighboring plants may decrease your allergic response to pollen. Wild honey has greater genetic diversity and is more energetically potent; personal favorites are honey gathered from the wild blossoms of blackberry, star thistle and poison oak.
Whole cane sugar There are two domestically available cane sugars, Rapunzel’s Whole Cane Sugar (formerly called Rapadura) and Sucanat, which are 90% crystalline sucrose with 10% trace minerals. They are a less refined product than other “natural” cane sugars, and one you could theoretically replicate in your own home by pressing the juice from cane and dehydrating it.
Whole Cane Sugar and Sucanat are tan colored and have a light, molasses flavor that enhances many foods. Other “natural” cane sugars have a lesser mineral content and a more harshly sweet flavor that aptly reflects their lower mineral content and more refined state. Substitute whole cane sugar or other natural cane sugars cup for cup for white sugar.
Maple syrup and birch syrup These two excellent and delicious sweeteners are concentrated sap from maple and birch trees. The sap is collected and its water is reduced (historically by evaporation, today by reverse osmosis). Maple syrup primarily comes from the northeastern United States, while birch syrup is primarily produced in Scandinavia and Alaska. Both are energy intensive and therefore pricey.
Grain sweeteners Any grain can be malted into sweet, maltose-rich syrup that is less sweet than honey and more deeply flavored. For table use, rice syrup, and sorghum molasses are the most common. Enjoy either as a spread on toast or pancakes or, more rarely, in baked goods. Their sugar content varies, they require no refrigeration and, unlike honey, do not crystalize.
Coconut Sugar or Syrup Cut coconut blossoms from the palm tree, collect the resulting sap that exudes from the palm, and evaporate its water to yield a natural sweetener. Coconut sugar tastes rather like a caramel flavored honey and is available both as a syrup or, if more fully dehydrated, as a granulated sugar. As coconut sugar is lower on the glycemic index than honey, maple syrup and cane sugar it is considered more healthful.
Unfortunately coconut sugar production is not sustainable for once the blossoms are cut from the palm, more are not produced. So if you do use coconut sugar, use it with discretion, if at all. Available on line and in natural food stores for as much as $7 a pound, you may also find it in an Asian market for a fraction of that cost. Be sure, however, to purchase a 100% coconut sugar product. Substitute coconut sugar for cane sugar, cup for cup.
Stevia The herb stevia is up to 30 times sweeter than sugar (when extracted, it’s up to 300 times sweeter). It’s nonnutritive and essentially noncaloric and has several health benefits including suppressing dental bacteria and stabilizing blood sugar. It is most commonly used in beverages Do not expect stevia-sweetened products to have the same flavor or texture as sugar-sweetened foods. Favor pure stevia over more refined products like Truvia and PureVia which contain other ingredients including the not-recommended synthetic sugar alcohol, erythritol.
Luo Han Guo The sweet fruit of a cucumber relative, luo han guo is like stevia in that it has no calories and doesn’t trigger an insulin response. In China its traditionally used to treat obesity, diabetes and other ailments and is available today as a sugar substitute.
Fruit Juice In some recipes, 100% fruit juice may be used as a sweetener.
Yacon Syrup Juice from the tuber of a sunflower relative is extracted and concentrated into a sweet syrup. It is used in the Andean region as a sweetener and to treat blood sugar, digestive and kidney disorders. Yacon syrup has increasing availability in natural food stores and on line.
Date Sugar is 100 percent pitted, dehydrated dates that are coarsely ground. Use as a sprinkle to top foods like yogurt or baked goods or dissolve it in hot water to make a syrup. Date syrup that is further condensed is available as silan, or date honey.
You might also enjoy reviewing Sweeteners to Avoid.