How to choose the healthiest sweetener is hands-down the most frequent question I’ve received in the past year. Sugar is a hot nutrition topic, and because of strong political lobbies, there is a bunch of information (and misinformation) swirling around the blogosphere.
Your sweet tooth exists for good reason. Mother’s breast milk is naturally sweet and is something that the baby should want. That inclination for sweets also made early humans search for sweet fruits and veggies, which supplied essential nutrients and good amounts of carbohydrates to lend enough energy to survive.
Natural sugar in very small natural doses is actually a good thing. Think eating a handful of blueberries or a ripe tomato. Sugar in overly processed, high quantities will wreak havoc on your body. Think pouring two cups of white sugar into a cookie dough mixture or drowning out your coffee with Coffemate. (Yikes too much!)
Natural sweeteners are sugar sources that are in a close to pure state. The less refined the better so they still contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and in some cases fiber. Even natural sweeteners should still be consumed in moderation as they are still sugar, however, they’re better than the nasty chemical and highly-processed alternatives. Stick to these natural sweeteners and forgo the white processed stuff, you’re sweet enough already ;)
The 5 Best Natural Sweeteners
In no particular order…
Stevia is a leafy herb and has been used for centuries by native South Americans. The extract from stevia is approximately 100 to 300 times sweeter than white sugar and can be used in cooking and baking, however, I think it’s used best as sweetener in most beverages. Stevia does not have a significant effect on blood sugar levels and is considered low glycemic. It’s also the only item on this list that does not contain any calories.
Some scientists think that since it doesn’t contain calories that it should still be consumed in moderation because the sweet taste can “trick” your body into thinking it’s eating sugar and send mixed hormonal signals. I agree, so 2-4 drops in beverages is enough for sweetness but is still benign. Stevia is available in a powder or liquid form; I prefer the liquid form the best as some people think the powdered form is bitter. Sweetleaf is my favorite brand of the liquid version. If you do choose the powdered form be sure to get the green or brown powders, as the white and clear versions are highly refined.
Raw Local Honey
One of the oldest natural sweeteners, honey is sweeter than sugar. Depending on the plant source, honey can have a range of flavors, from dark and strongly flavored, to light and mildly flavored. Raw honey contains amounts of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins, so it’s important to look for raw on the label because the pasteurization process with kill most of the good stuff in it. It’s also said that consuming local honey can help build up your immunity to common allergens in your area by introducing your body to the bee pollen from local bees. It you can’t find local that’s ok, just look for raw.
Organic molasses is one of the most nutritious sweeteners derived from sugar cane or sugar beet, and is made by a process of clarifying and blending the extracted juices. The longer the juice is boiled, the less sweet, more nutritious, and darker the product is. Molasses imparts a very distinct flavor to food. Blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Real Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is made from boiled-down maple tree sap and is a great source of manganese and zinc.11 Approximately 40 gallons of sap are needed to make one gallon of maple syrup. Maple syrup has a much lower fructose content than agave. It adds a pleasant flavor to foods and is great for baking. Be sure to buy 100% pure maple syrup and not maple-flavored corn syrup.
Coconut sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar or coco sap sugar, or coconut crystals is made from the sweet nectar of flower buds of the coconut palm. The coconut nectar is heated until the water evaporates and then the caramelized nectar is dried and ground into granules. Coconut sugar is a good source of potassium, iron, and vitamins. Although it provides the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar, it has a lower glycemic index, providing a more stable release of glucose into the blood.
Whole pitted dates and date paste made from blending soaked dates with water both also make great sweeteners, but since you have to blend them up to use them as a sweetener I didn’t include them on the main list.
Everything on the list above is easily accessible in most grocery stores. I like to recommend things that are easily accessible to most of my readers. There are thousands of types of plants on the planet and smart people have figured out how to extract natural sweetness from many of them. Here are a few less common natural sweeteners to try if you can find them in your local stores (or online) and want to experiment: brown rice syrup, birch syrup, yacon syrup, and lucuma powder.
You’ll notice that agave nectar did not make the list.
Agave nectar (aka agave syrup) is touted as a natural liquid sweetener made from the juice of the agave cactus. Technically that is correct, however the process to extract it from the plant makes it extremely processed, similar to the process of how white sugar is made. Agave nectars are sold in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties. Many diabetics use agave nectar as an alternative to refined sugars and artificial sweeteners because of its relatively low effect on blood glucose levels. However, agave is high in fructose and has been under much scrutiny due to possible manufacturing processes which are similar to that of high fructose corn syrup. Some research suggests that fructose affects the hormone lepitin, which controls your appetite and satiety. Too much fructose may result in overeating and weight gain, so it’s important to consume agave nectar in reasonable moderation. I used to use it occasionally but haven’t used it in a long while.
I’d love to hear from you! How do you incorporate these natural sweeteners into your eating plans? What’s your favorite way to use them?