Quality Sweeteners

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.

22 Responses to Quality Sweeteners

  1. Love your site! One thing. All sweeteners initiate a large insulin response. The insulin index isn’t widely publicized like the GI index. Walter Willet is currently co-researching insulin with an Austrailian team. The powers that be in the U.S. really don’t want the public to know. I’m a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in California. Luo Han Guo is a reducing phlegm herb in Chinese medicine. I have never tasted it,so I can’t speak for the sweetness. But as for Stevia, my IQ drops about 30 points anytime I consume it. That’s because my insulin response is high. I definitely have a degree of IR.
    Most people are familiar with the GI and think that insulin release is only tied to glucose. It is also tied to proteins (like milk and yogurt) and anything sweet. That’s why research shows that people with a weight problem gain weight when they drink diet soda. NutraSweet and Stevia are both super-sweet, and our bodies release extra insulin. This may bring down glucose levels to stabilize blood sugar, but it will also eventually deplete the blood sugar and cause re-bound eating

    • Compare the flavor of muscovado to an unrefined dehydrated cane juice and you’ll have your answer. Muscovado is more highly refined and therefore has a more harshly sweet (versus a rounder) flavor.

      • I wonder what you think of the Muscovado sugar sold by wildernessfamilynaturals.com I have no connection to them, but they describe how the muscovado sugar they sell is made and it seems that it is made from unrefined, dehydrated juice…maybe I’m wrong?

        • The term muscovado is not regulated and so it may, or may not, mean a whole sugar. What you’re wanting is an end product in which the minerals have never been separated out. Check with the manufacturer to know for sure.

  2. Do you have any suggestions on a sweetener to use in baking? I have recently made some major dietary changes. While I have eliminated dessert type foods, I am looking into recipes made with organic whole grains and healthy ingredients for muffins and some other enjoyable treats for myself but mostly my children. I appreciate any help you can provide! Thank you!

  3. I was curious about your comments on coconut sugar sustainability because I’ve read that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the World Bank called it “the single most sustainable sweetener in the world.” Some growers’ spokesmen say that the same trees can produce alternately both sap and coconuts, and do so for the many years of life of the plant. Here are a couple of websites:
    Thank you.

  4. In the paragraph between Coconut Sugar and Stevia your spell checker or autofill (probably not a human editor!) wrote
    “desecration” where the author must have intended “discretion.”

  5. What is your knowledge of Xylitol. I have been reading a lot about it’s dental benefits, but wonder if it is really all they claim.


  6. I have been using sucant, and enjoy the pleasant flavor, however I am eager to use WCS for its superior nutrition. So far no luck in finding it. Any suggestions?

    • Turbinado sugar is more refined sugar than any of these quality sugars.Do a taste comparison of it and the two recommended cane sugars. It’s revealing. More details in my next blog.

  7. I am most interested in natural sweetners that are low GI foods. I have done lots of reading and Low GI is that way to go to keep the blood level swings from occuring. Aguava and coconut sugar say they are low GI. Any comments would be appreciated.

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