The Skinny on Natural Sweeteners

Adapted from an article written by Lissie Lyles

With diabetes and obesity statistics at epidemic proportions, it’s no wonder that most Americans are reassessing their relationship to sugar. Countless studies indicate that our increased consumption of refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup have contributed to a host of health problems, many never experienced by humans until our modern times. “Natural” sugars and sugar alternatives are popping up everywhere these days, but, as with anything else, not all sweeteners are created equal. Some sweeteners are better suited for certain foods and methods of preparation than others. Some “natural” sweeteners are not necessarily as healthy as they claim.

Here is a guide to navigating the aisles of refined sugar alternatives:

Raw Honey: Honey that has not been heated to temperatures greater than 117 degrees is considered raw. Raw honey contains high levels of amylases, enzymes that digest carbohydrates. For this reason it is the perfect sweetener for whole grain cereals, oatmeal, and toast.  (Found at health food stores such as Sue’s and Kate’s.) Regular honey is acceptable for baking. (Best price is at Costco.)
Conversion: 1/2 cup honey = 1 cup sugar. Reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup.
Maple Syrup: The concentrated sap of huge deciduous trees, maple syrup is rich in trace minerals, brought up from the ground by the tree’s roots. It takes 40 gallons of pure sap to make one gallon of pure syrup. There is a huge difference between organic and inorganic maple syrup! Many commercial maple syrups that are not certified organic may have been processed with formaldehyde. YUCK! Make sure to choose certified organic maple syrup. (Sometimes found at Ollie’s for a good price.) Less-refined Grade B is preferable to Grade A. ( NOW brand Organic Grade B 32 oz $24.99; NOW brand 64 oz $39.99.)
Conversion: 1/2 to 2/3 cup maple syrup = 1 cup sugar. Reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup.
Sucanat/Rapadura: The commercial name for dehydrated cane sugar juice processed in such a way that it preserves all the vitamins and minerals. It is very rich in dietary iron and is a great substitute for brown sugar due to its dark brown and course texture. (Best price at Walmart or Sharp Shopper.)
Conversion: 1 cup Sucanat = 1 cup sugar

Stevia: Non-caloric Stevia is a traditional South American medicinal herb, perfectly safe for use and a great alternative to artificial sweeteners (which are quite toxic). It can be found in the form of a powdered leaf from the plant, or a water-extracted liquid. A little stevia goes a long way! Just a pinch is equal in sweetness to a tablespoon of sugar. 1 tsp = 1 cup sugar. It is not well suited for most baking recipes, but can easily used to sweeten herbal teas, plain yogurt, salad dressings, smoothies, and cheesecakes where “bulk” is not needed. Good places to purchase are Sharp Shopper, health food stores, and online. (Note: some people think stevia has a bitter aftertaste. This is NOT true with the NOW  brand “Better Stevia” extract, which I carry in my office.)

Truvia: A patented blend of stevia extract and the harmless sugar alcohol erythritol, this is more processed but still a much safer and calorie-free sweetener. It’s widely available in packets at grocery stores, Walmart, and Costco. Great for sweetening drinks. Use like stevia.

Molasses is the by-product of processing sugar cane into sugar. Choose unsulfured molasses over sulfured molasses, which has sulfur dioxide added as a preservative. Molasses contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals and is a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron.

Blackstrap Molasses: comes from the third boiling of sugar cane, is approximately 65 percent as sweet as sugar, and can be used in both cooking and baking. Blackstrap molasses is an excellent source of manganese and copper, and also contains iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and Vitamin B6. (Found at Sharp Shopper, Red Front, and health food stores.)


Coconut or palm sugar: Coconut sugar, also known as “palm sugar,” looks a lot like brown sugar and has a subtle caramel flavor. Derived from the nectar of the palm blossoms, this palm sugar has a long heritage in East Asian medicine and cuisine. It is mineral rich, containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and sulfur. It can be used in place of sugar in any baking recipe and has a low glycemic index of 35. (Find at Friendly City Food Co-op and health food stores.)

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Not Recommended
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Agave nectar: Despite what the fancy bottle might say, Agave Nectar’s claims of being a “raw” health food are greatly exaggerated. For one thing, agave syrup is highly processed. The liquid of the plant is boiled and reduced for several days at high temperatures in order to manufacture the syrup. This inhibits the enzymatic activity present in living foods, thus agave syrup cannot be considered raw. Agave syrup has a 90 percent concentration of fructose, the remaining 10 percent glucose. High fructose corn syrup only contains 55 percent fructose, to put things in perspective. Research suggests that fructose actually promotes disease more readily than glucose, and is especially taxing on the liver.

“Raw” or “Natural” Sugar: Raw sugar is not really raw; it is just less refined than white sugar. It does have a small amount of nutrients left in it. It is better than white if you are looking for something that is closer to its natural state, but I don’t personally use it; I use sucanat, honey, or molasses for baking instead.            

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Always Avoid
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Sweet-N-Low, NutraSweet, Equal, Splenda:
Any artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame and sucralose, should be considered a poison. These products are called “excito-toxins” because they literally excite nerve cells to death. They were approved by the FDA under very suspicious conditions and have been strongly linked with brain cancer and seizures. What’s more, they cause you to crave carbohydrates and to retain water; they play havoc on your blood sugar metabolism and cause you to gain weight.