Sugar – we love it, we hate it, we just can’t seem to stay away from it. The thing is, all carbohydrates in nature, from fruits to vegetables to sweeteners, contain sugars. Simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruit, milk, sweets and soda, are very easily broken down by the body and can provide quick spurts of energy. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in whole grains, vegetables, and beans, take longer for the body to break down and therefore provide longer-lasting energy. As you can see, many of these sugars can have a place in a healthy, well-rounded diet. However, we are discovering more and more that quite a lot of people are consuming far too much added sugar. This includes sugar from sweets, sodas and other sugary beverages, and processed food products, among other unhealthy choices. There is strong scientific evidence that suggests a high sugar intake such as this can have negative effects on our health, contributing to a higher risk of conditions and illnesses such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.
So when we’re craving a little sweetness in our lives (and our coffee), what can we do? Although we should always do our best to limit our added sugar intake, there are natural alternatives that we can choose from to reduce our reliance on sugar. For these alternatives to be more beneficial however, the best natural sweeteners will sweeten for less, provide additional nutrients, and improve the palatability of your foods. Here is my list of 7 sweet alternatives to refined white sugar and their potential health benefits!
1. Raw Organic Honey
Honey is one of the most commonly used natural sweeteners on the market. Bees take plant nectar and produce honey, which can be then be extracted directly from beehives. Generally, most honey sold in supermarkets has been pasteurized and processed – distinguishable by its clear amber appearance. Raw honey, however, is honey that has not been heated or filtered. It retains its original appearance and also its original composition, which may include pollen, honeycomb, and other remnants. (It is important to note that raw honey should not be consumed by infants or pregnant women due to the potential presence of Clostridium botulinum spores.)
Because it has not been processed or heated, true raw honey contains all of the naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds. Local honey has been thought to help with seasonal allergies due to the pollen it contains however, there has been no definitive scientific evidence that this is actually true. Still, purchasing local honey, whether raw, organic or otherwise, can help to sustain local bee farmers that are working hard to keep bee populations healthy and happy. Since bees are an integral part of modern agriculture, every little bit of effort towards helping them counts!
Suggested Recipe: Honey Pacifica’s Raw Honey Mustard Dressing
2. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is produced from the sap of maple trees. There is a lot that goes into the process of sap production for the tree itself, as a maple tree will generally not produce the sap required to create maple syrup until spring, when the temperature varies from cold nights to warmer days. During this time the sap will flow, allowing it to be collected, boiled, and filtered to create the thick, sweet syrup we know so well.
Maple syrup, similar to honey, contains vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, and certain B-vitamins, just to name a few. In addition, both honey and maple syrup are lower on the glycemic index (used only as a reference) and are sweeter in taste than simple sucrose, allowing you to use less to achieve the same sweetness.
Suggested Recipe: Detoxinista’s Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes
3. Blackstrap Molasses
When sugar cane is crushed and boiled to extract the sugar crystals, the water begins to evaporate and the leftover by-product in this process is called molasses. Various types of molasses can be created through this production process but the primary difference is that the longer the mixture is left to boil, the darker and more bitter the molasses becomes. Light molasses, dark molasses, and blackstrap molasses are produced after the first, second, and third boils, respectively.
While blackstrap molasses can have a rather unique taste (slightly bitter and earthy), it is packed full of nutrients that a normal refined sugar will simply not have. This molasses contains a high iron content, making it a great liquid sweetener for those with iron deficiency. It also has calcium, magnesium, and potassium and because of the laxative effects of magnesium, it has been considered to be a helpful food ingredient for those with constipation.
Suggested Recipe: Eating Rules’ Hot Molasses
4. Yacon Syrup
Yacon, also known as Smallanthus sonchifolius, is a perennial plant that originates from South America. The yacon root which grows beneath the daisy tops is high in fructooligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate (or sugar) that cannot be digested by the body and thus does not contribute to negative effects on blood sugar. The syrup used as a sweetener is extracted from the roots and tastes similar to other dark syrups such as molasses, but contains far fewer calories and is noticeably less sweet than some of its sugar counterparts. Because of this, yacon has been researched in various studies for its role in weight loss, lipid reduction, and digestive health.
There are plenty of benefits to using yacon syrup as a sweetener. Fructooligosaccharides serve as prebiotics in the gut, helping to maintain the favorable balance and growth of bacteria. The anti-hyperglycemic effects can help diabetics and those with blood sugar imbalances to keep their blood sugar levels under control. It may even have the potential to lower cholesterol and lipids levels, which makes it a great treat for those who suffer from hyperlipidemia.
Suggested Recipe: A Skinny Dish’s Yacon Candied Mixed Nuts
5. Dates & Date Sugar
Dates are an amazingly sweet, delicious fruit, cultivated for centuries because of its many uses as a food ingredient and sweetener. Date palms produce these nutrient-dense gems, which consist of small, wrinkled fruits with a center seed. There are many varieties of dates, with Medjool dates and their sweet, soft moist flavor being perhaps the most popular. Soaking the dates generally allows them to soften, after which they can be used directly in many baking recipes or even as an addition to savory foods. Date sugar is produced from the dehydrated dates and can function as a substitute to traditional white or brown sugar.
Dates are a good source of a variety of important vitamins and minerals. They are also incredibly high in fiber, helping to aid digestion, curb hunger, and possibly lower the risk of bowel and colon cancers. Because dates are high in calories and much higher on the glycemic index, they can have a significant effect on blood sugar, so this should be taken into account when using dates or date sugar as a sweetener. Instead, consider adding small amounts to smoothies, on top of muffins, or even as a dry rub for meats.
Suggested Recipe: Savory Lotus’ Avocado Date Smoothie
6. Lucuma Powder
Lucuma is a fruit, native to the South American region, that is produced by the Lucuma tree (Pouteria lucuma). The thick skin and yellow interior may remind you vaguely of a mango but it has a much more starchy taste than its tropical lookalike. In fact, the taste is said to be much more reminiscent of a sweet potato. Lucuma powder is the most common form of the sweetener, which can be processed from the dehydrated fruit.
With a diverse nutrient profile, the lucuma fruit is not only a feast for your eyes but also for your entire body! Because it is created directly from the whole fruit, lucuma powder boasts the same nutrient profile. It contains various minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, and other trace vitamins. It is considered to be a lower glycemic index sweetener, having an advantage for those who need to monitor their blood sugar levels. This is another great sweetener to consider adding to thicker recipes, such as smoothies or warm cereals.
Suggested Recipe: Trinity’s Conscious Kitchen’s Homemade Artisan Chocolate Raw Cacao & Lucuma
7. Fruit Compote
Despite this not necessarily being a “sweetener” that can be mixed into tea or coffee, a good fruit compote can still be a deliciously sweet addition to many recipes. The health benefits of fruits can not be overstated so adding them to our cereals, smoothies, and even muffins can give us a little health boost we may not think about otherwise. There are many recipes for fruit compotes, ranging from the not-so-healthy to the super simple. Fruit compote recipes created with simple sugar can utilize honey instead, and ripe fruits can easily pair with no-sugar added fruit juices to create a simple, sweet topping. Consider experimenting to create your own fruit compote recipes to add to your morning oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, or even on top of banana nice cream!
Suggested Recipe: Chef Savvy’s Mixed Berry Compote
With a multitude of natural sugar substitutes, you can experiment with the different types to discover which flavors best suit your palate! Regardless of which sweetener we choose, we should do our best to lower our added sugar intake overall. The American Heart Association strongly recommends that we limit our total daily sugar intake – “about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men.”