5 Natural sweeteners explained

If your New Year’s resolution is to cut back on your refined sugar intake, it can be an uphill battle to tame your (refined) sweet tooth. Using natural, unprocessed sweeteners can help wean you off the hard stuff; but remember, “natural” doesn’t give you a license to overindulge.

Woman with jar of joney

Sugar! Oh, the lengths we’ll go to get it — especially mid-afternoon!

Truth is, we need sugar (glucose) — our body’s basic source of energy — for survival. Ideally, our blood sugar should not be too high or too low. How we choose to satisfy cravings for sweetness has a huge impact on our blood sugar levels, and, consequently, our energy levels, hormones, mood and mental focus.

Refined sweeteners — like cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup and dextrose found in sodas, sweetened teas, fruit juices, candy and processed snacks — are easily digested and enter our bloodstream quickly, giving us a “sugar rush.” Although you may feel instantly energized, refined sugars supply only empty calories, devoid of vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Then there are artificial sweeteners, like saccharin, Sucralose and aspartame (found in diet sodas as well as in gum, yogurt and sugar-free products). Consumption of artificially sweetened beverages is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Not only are artificial sweeteners addictive, they can actually increase your appetite and trigger adverse effects, from skin rashes to diarrhea. Studies have linked their consumption to depression, anxiety and headaches. Animal studies have also shown that aspartame can cause cancer.

It is, however, possible to satisfy our desire for sweetness in a healthy way. The key is to view sugar as a “food” and to consume it as whole and unprocessed as possible. And in moderation.

The following five sweeteners can be considered “natural” because they retain their original nutrients.


Maple syrup

Maple syrup

A traditional sweetener, maple syrup dates back to colonial times, when early settlers in the northeastern region of the U.S. learned from Native Americans how to collect sap from sugar maples and boil it down to a brown sweet syrup.

Grade B is better

Sap extracted early in the season yields a light, amber-colored and mild-flavored syrup that is labeled Grade A, the kind most commercially available. Even better, however, is Grade B maple syrup (from late-season runs), which is darker and thicker, with a strong maple flavor and a higher mineral content than Grade A has. Maple syrup is a rich source of both manganese and zinc.

The best choice in terms of quality and nutritional value is 100 percent organic Grade B maple syrup, available from producers like Coombs Family Farms or Tropical Traditions.

You can substitute maple syrup for white sugar in cooking and baking: use 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar. When baking with maple syrup, set the oven 25 degrees lower, because maple syrup caramelizes at a lower temperature than sugar does.

Try using it in pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, drizzled on top of pancakes, roasted squashes (like acorn) or incorporate into a marinade or glaze for duck, lamb or salmon.

Eat: Drizzled on homemade applesauce, plain grass-fed yogurt or oatmeal.


Coconut palm sugar

Coconut palm sugar

Made from the sap of coconut trees, this natural sweetener is a healthier sugar alternative. It rates low on the glycemic index — just 35 versus 68 for cane sugar — and is beneficial because it causes only a gentle rise in blood sugar levels (not a dramatic spike and crash) after consuming.

Coconut sugar looks and tastes similar to brown sugar. Substitute coconut sugar for granulated (white) sugar or brown sugar at a 1:1 ratio when cooking or baking. It can also be used to sweeten tea or coffee. Brands such as Wholesome Sweeteners or Navitas Naturals contain 100 percent organic coconut palm sugar — no additives, preservatives or sugars.

Eat: Mixed into yogurt and smoothies or when baking brownies or chocolate chip cookies.

Up next: Sucanat, molasses and raw honey >>