The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners

guide to wholesome sweeteners

 

Did you grow up with a large canister of white sugar on the counter?  Did you read Nourishing Traditions and learn the word “rapadura” for the first time?  Did you jump into the real food world and wonder what the hell stevia even was?!

Me too.

One of the things I found most daunting when I first transitioned to real food was learning about all the options for natural sweeteners.  I needed a chart of what was “good” and what was “bad”and what seemed like it was good but it was actually bad!

Fortunately, I have put together all the different sweeteners I have encountered, and compiled them here for your easy reference!

When I embarked on getting rid of white sugar…

At least I had heard of honey, maple syrup, and even sorghum.  But I had never encountered whole cane sugar, or heard it’s various names: rapadura, sucanat, or piloncillo (panela).  And forget about coconut palm sugar, or agave, or stevia.  What were those?  It was so overwhelming!

The funny thing was thethought I had heard of healthier sugars, what with clever marketing ploys like calling unbleached sanding sugar “Sugar in the Raw”.  I thought the regular brown sugar from my local grocery store chain really did have naturally occurring molasses in it, but I learned that even that is usually white sugar with the molasses added back in.

While I don’t think that white sugar is toxic, I do try to stick with whole sugars as much as possible.  I like the flavor better, and I find that they are generally better quality than the store-bought, typical, cheap, bleached, white sugar.  (But even I use it sometimes!)

QUICK REFERENCE List of Natural Sweeteners

There are two groups of whole sugars: those that come from sugarcane and those that don’t.  Typical white sugar found at the grocery store is refined and bleached granulated sugarcane.  Whole cane sugar is the unrefined version of white sugar.

Natural Sugarcane Sweeteners

    • Evaporated Cane Juice Crystals (borderline natural): unbleached organic white sugar to use in water kefir, to flavor simple syrup, or to use in recipes
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    • Molasses: a by product of processing sugarcane, this is where all the minerals are!
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    • Muscovado: a true moist dark brown sugar where most of the molasses is still in tact
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    • Whole Cane Sugar: naturally dehydrated granulated (dry) sugarcane, with all the minerals and molasses still in tact; also called rapadura, sucanat, piloncillo, panela, or jaggery.

Non-Sugarcane Sweeteners

    • Brown Rice Syrup: brown rice syrup is a reduced combination of barley sprouts and white or brown rice, resulting in a thick syrup
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    • Coconut Palm Sugar: made from one of many varieties of the coconut palm tree, coconut palm sugar is sold granulated (dry) or in a paste; make sure you buy from a sustainable company
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    • Date Sugar: date sugar is one of the simplest sugars around: it is simply ground dry dates!; be careful when substituting since date sugar does not dissolve like other sugars
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    • Honey (raw, powdered): raw local honey is best, since it contains local pollen to help your immune system where you live; otherwise buy the best quality honey you can find; powdered honey is also sometimes available, but difficult to find
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    • Maple Sugar: dehydrated and granulated (dry) maple syrup, maple sugar is perfect for delicate flavors like shortbreads and tea cookies
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    • Maple Syrup: always buy grade B organic maple syrup, to ensure that the syrup has the most minerals and has not been processed with formaldehyde (source)
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    • Sorghum: dark syrup made from the sorghum plant, with a milder flavor than molasses (that can be used interchangeably with molasses), a great syrup for pancakes and waffles
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    • Stevia (unrefined): only buy extracts or powders that are organic and green in color and use in very small amounts as it is incredibly sweet and has a distinctive aftertaste; best in teas, drinks, or whipped cream

QUICK REFERENCE List of UNnatural Sweeteners

  • Turbinado sugar: the most common brand name is “Sugar in the Raw”, but it isn’t really raw!; this is really just refined dry light brown sugar that hasn’t been bleached, and it’s not organic
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  • White sugar (bleached, non-organic): the most highly refined sugar, best if used as a last option and bought unbleached and organic
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  • Powdered sugar (bleached, non-organic, usually with GMO cornstarch added): avoid this one as much as possible, since it is not only highly refined, but also cut with cornstarch; buy organic and unbleached as needed
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  • Brown sugar (non-organic, usually made from bleached white sugar with molasses added back in): several brown sugars are available: demerara, turbinado, muscovado, but you need to make sure they are as dark as possible, and retain as much original molasses as possible; plus, aim to buy them organic
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  • Agave: agave is actually highly refined and nothing like the original traditionally made syrup called miel de agave; be careful which brands you choose and research them yourself; I think this brand looks promising, but I am still hesitant to use it
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  • Beet Sugar: beet sugar is not necessarily bad, since it is simply made from sugar beets; but unless you find organic beet sugar, you can bet that it is genetically modified (GM) (source)
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  • Stevia (refined): any white powder or clear liquid stevia has been processed so much that the green color of the stevia leaves is gone
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  • Xylitol: touted as a healthy natural sweetener, xylitol is actually a processed sugar alcohol that has a mild laxative effect on the body; I avoid this sweetener

Substitutions

White Sugar: Use dry sugars like whole cane sugar, coconut palm sugar, or maple sugar in a 1:1 ratio for white sugar in recipes

Brown Sugar: Use moist sugars like muscovado sugar or dry whole cane sugar in a 1:1 ratio for brown sugar in recipes

Powdered Sugar: Use dry sugars like whole cane sugar, coconut palm sugar, or maple sugar blended dry in a blender until they become powdered, then measure and use in a 1:1 ratio for powdered sugar in recipes.  Sometimes the strong flavor of whole cane sugar doesn’t work in frostings or icings that call for powdered sugar.  At that point, I would use a honey glaze (honey, milk or water, lemon juice).

Corn Syrup: Use sorghum, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, or runny raw honey as a 1:1 replacement for corn syrup in recipes

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support my blogging activities, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog.

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Comments

  1. I thought that sucanat was one of the best sugars you could buy… What do you think of sucanat?

  2. this is great. Definitely going to share this. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the list! It’s so confusing to figure out what is good or bad. Thanks for doing the research and sharing 🙂

  4. What is a reputable brand of liquid stevia and powdered stevia?

  5. Pretty interesting stuff! Do you have any thoughts on this brand? http://www.groovyfood.co.uk/pages/groovy_nectar.html

  6. My daughter’s birthday is tomorrow. I would like to make a cake, but have had no luck with coconut flour. I did buy organic whole wheat pastry flour, which I’m sure isn’t the best, but I needed a sub for white flour. I don’t know what to use for a sugar. I don’t want to use white sugar, but don’t know what would work as a good sub. I have used rapadura, but not in a cake and it doesn’t seem to dissolve very well. What do you suggest and do you have a good cake recipe. She is turning 1.

  7. You should have this list in a print-out version that we can post inside our cabinets for quick substitutions.

  8. what about organic mesquite powder?

    • I hadn’t heard that mesquite powder was sweet. I have only seen it used as a flour. Have you used it? If it’s just ground mesquite then I think it’s fine!

  9. It was my understanding that xylitol comes from birch trees, thereby making it a good, natural sugar.

    • Xylitol does come from birch trees, just like agave comes from a plant, but that doesn’t mean it’s a natural sweetener. You want to look at the refining process, and judge for yourself whether or not it is natural enough. Plus, I think a lot of people use xylitol because they like the low-calorie aspect which isn’t a good reason to use it in my opinion. If, on the other hand, you want to use it for it’s health benefits like tooth remineralization or reducing the inflammation in the ears, then I would source the most natural xylitol you can find. Look at a health food store or chiropractors office, and call the company directly to see where they derive their xylitol.

  10. I really enjoyed this post. I used to think the same thing about Stevia. Most stevia is really processed. However, if you grow the plant, pick the leaves and put them in a paper bag and put them some place pretty hot (maybe a car in the sun) and let the leaves dry quickly they turn brown instead of green. Then if you look at the veins in the leaves, you will see white. Crush the leaves up in the bag with your hand and then strain out the powder and you have white Stevia powder. Then you can take 1/4 tsp. of that powder and put in a jar (about the size of a soy sauce jar) and fill it with water. Leave it on the counter for 24 to 48 hours with the lid off. That off weird flavor disappears and you have a bottle of sweet water to use.

  11. Great concise list!

  12. This article notes that there is GMO corn in powdered sugar but If you are eating white sugar in any of its forms, you are likely eating GMO sugar beet:
    http://www.grist.org/industrial-agriculture/feds-to-farmers-grow-gmo-beets-or-face-a-sugar-shortage/#homescreen

  13. AVOID AGAVE SYRUP! It has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup. It is highly processed and damages the liver.

  14. At risking sounding stupid, I still don’t totally understand. Are the categories you listed like best, good, ok, don’t use? Everything under the first list the best? I wish after each name you would say GOOD or BAD! Ha 🙂 -heath newbie!

    • Hi Kelley. There appear to be four lists. The first two lists, Natural Sugar Cane Sweeteners and Non-Sugar Cane Sweeteners, appear to be the recommended sweeteners to use. The third list, UNNatural Sweeteners, is the list of sweeteners to avoid, or use with caution. The fourth list is merely a summary of which types of natural sweeteners the author would recommend when substituting in recipes. Hope this helps.

  15. Kelli S. says:

    I’ve been using SweetLeaf Liquid stevia to flavor my son’s water to have as “juice” during the day (he does get some real juice throughout the day but he drinks alot so I make the rest of it flavored water). Since this brand is clear, is it not good to use or are you just saying it’s not the best type of Stevia that I could be using and still good as a sweetener substitute? I don’t even know of any other liquid stevia brands let alone the kind that would be green in color. Do you have brands/suggestions?

    • Yeah, it’s not great because it’s more processed, but it still might be worth it if you don’t feel too worried about it. For me, if I’m going to drink something sweet, I just go for it! Juice, honey in tea, even a Virgil’s root beer with regular sugar in it sometimes.

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