They say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and for many of us it’s true: even though we know that refined sugar is not a health food and should be avoided due to its extreme processing and lack of nutrition, we still desire a little sweetness in our diets from time to time. Hey — they call it a sweet tooth for a reason!
One of the biggest issues with refined sugar is that people tend to consume it more than they intend to. Refined sugar is found in many highly processed foods in supermarkets, such as cookies, candies, sodas, drinks, spreads, sauces, dips, frozen meals, baked desserts, and more. Highly refined sugar is typically listed on food labels as sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, invert sugar, dextrose, icing sugar, or as syrup, just to name some of its most common aliases.
So, what’s a person to do when they need a little sweetness in their diet without consuming refined table sugar? Besides eating fruit or fruit purée, such as apples, apple butter, or applesauce — which are the best natural choices — there are other natural sugar alternatives to refined table sugar that most people can consume in small amounts.
A couple of teaspoons of these natural sugar alternatives can be used in your daily coffee, tea, and/or oatmeal and also can be used in baking and in no-bake snacks or desserts. Check them out and see which ones work the best for you!
Pure organic maple syrup is made by boiling and evaporating the maple sap from maple trees into a thicker syrup. It is not refined and includes the minerals and vitamins naturally found in maple sap, such as includes calcium, magnesium, manganese, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and iron. Pure maple syrup is typically tolerated well in small amounts. However, processed syrup with maple flavoring, such as pancake syrup, is not real maple syrup and is often made with refined sugar, dangerous chemicals, and preservatives.
Purchase real, organic maple syrup at the store and read the label’s ingredient list to be sure you’re getting the real deal. You can also purchase real granulated maple sugar, which is made by evaporating even more of the liquid out of maple syrup before drying it out. Maple syrup and granulated maple sugar contain 1 gram less sugar per teaspoon than regular cane sugar coming in at 3 grams of sugar per teaspoon.
Try maple syrup in Almond Maple Crunch Truffles, Maple Sesame Tofu, Maple Zucchini Donuts With Date Frosting, Pumpkin Waffles With Apple Cider Syrup, or Maple Spice Oatmeal as three unique ways to sweeten your day with real maple syrup.
Coconut palm sugar is another natural sugar alternative that is becoming increasingly popular. It comes from coconut palm trees and is found in two forms: granulated sugar and a liquid form, which is pure coconut palm tree nectar. The nectar is similar to maple sap in the sense that it comes from a tree, while granulated coconut sugar is made by boiling and evaporating all the liquid out of coconut nectar. Granulated coconut sugar contains the same amount of calories as regular sugar (4 calories per gram, 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon) and can be used as a one to one replacement for regular sugar. Coconut nectar is slightly lower in sugar than liquid sugar cane and is said to have a slightly lower glycemic index than cane sugar.
Coconut palm sugar has a similar taste to brown sugar and can be used interchangeably. Just be sure to purchase organic coconut palm sugar without additives or chemicals. Coconut sugar palm sugar is not especially high in vitamins and minerals, but it does retain more nutrition and amino acids than regular cane sugar.
These Cookie Dough Cupcakes, Baked Chocolate Covered Matcha Mini Donuts, and this Bundt Cake With Espresso Glaze are two great examples of how coconut sugar shines in baked desserts due to its caramelization factor and gorgeous browning technique.
Perhaps the best natural sweetening options of all are made from pure dates. Dates can be transformed into granulated date sugar as well as date syrup. Dates are an incredibly nutritious food full of B vitamins, minerals, and fiber, so these natural sweetening options are definitely two to keep your eye out for at the store.
In terms of nutrition, granulated date sugar is not refined, so it still retains much of the same nutrition as whole dates and has a similar look to that of light brown sugar with a caramel-like flavor. Date syrup looks a good bit like molasses and has a fruity, caramel flavor. While date syrup can be used in coffee and tea like honey, granulated date sugar is great to bake with as a one-to-one replacement for regular cane sugar. Granulated date sugar or date syrup can also be used in smoothies in small amounts if desired. Different brands of date sugar and date syrup contain varying degrees of sugar per teaspoon but most all of them fall between 2-3 grams of natural sugar per teaspoon.
Here are 20 awesome things you can do with dates if you’re curious how to use them in recipes! For starters, try slicing a few in your morning oatmeal, toss a couple of pitted dates in a smoothie, or try making them in natural energy balls or No Bake Date Brownies. You also have the option to make your own date sugar at home.
Barley malt is similar to molasses in color and lower in calories per serving than cane sugar, coming in at just under 3 grams of sugar per teaspoon. Barley malt is made by fermenting barley grains, which produce a malt-flavored sweetener. It is typically used for brewing beer but can also be used as a sweetener just like molasses. Barley malt does contain small amounts of gluten, but it is still a great option for those that do not have celiac disease.
If you’re looking for true cane sugar, and are really trying to avoid the refined stuff, molasses is a great option. The byproduct of refining sugar, molasses is basically the concentrated form of all the natural vitamins and minerals found in sugar cane that gets removed in order to make refined white sugar.
Blackstrap molasses contains less sugar per teaspoon than regular cane sugar and is extremely high in iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Be sure to purchase organic blackstrap molasses at the store as the best option since it is un-sulfured and unadulterated. Blackstrap molasses is an especially great natural sugar alternative for coffee, tea, oatmeal, and can be used in baked goods of many kinds. Learn more about Blackstrap Molasses here!
Give molasses a try in more than just gingerbread; try it in Bananas Foster Oatmeal, Molasses Spelt Cake, Classic Chocolate Chips Cookies, and Pumpkin Molasses Freezer Tart. Want gingerbread? Try this Sweet Potato Gingerbread!
Other natural sweetening options that are not artificial include pure stevia leaf, sugar alcohols such as xylitol or erythritol, raw agave nectar, pure raw honey (although honey is not vegan), and pure, unrefined sugar cane.
Real stevia leaf contains no calories and is made from pure stevia leaf native to South America; it is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. However, stevia should only be purchased in a pure form without any chemicals or bleaching agents, so do your homework before buying one at the store. Major brands like Truvia are not real stevia, and are processed with a host of chemicals, fillers, and additives. Stevia can have a natural herbal flavor that some people find off-putting while other people enjoy it. Pure stevia is a great option for those who don’t tolerate natural sweeteners aside from fruit and one that is deemed safe in a non-toxic, natural form.
Sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and erythritol, are made by a fermentation process and are considered natural by FDA regulations. However, they can also lead to serious digestive upsets such as gas and bloat. Sugar alcohols are also often made from the fermentation of GMO corn, so purchase non-GMO verified brands if you decide to try them.
Agave nectar is another option that many people enjoy, but some people avoid it because it contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, and because it’s still pure sugar without any vitamins or minerals. Still, raw blue agave has a pleasantly sweet flavor, and it is lower on the glycemic index than other natural sweeteners, making it a viable option for some individuals.
Honey is technically a food designed for bees and not humans, and therefore is not considered vegan. Still, some vegetarians and people eating plant-based diets choose to use honey. Keep in mind that honey is slightly higher in calories per teaspoon than regular cane sugar and has the same glycemic index as cane sugar. Learn why bees are important to our planet here!
Lastly, unrefined cane sugar, which has the same calories and grams of sugar as regular sugar, is a more natural option since it isn’t stripped of all the nutrients that sugar cane has. Unrefined cane sugar is made from freshly squeezed juice from real sugar cane and is marketed as organic cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, evaporated cane sugar, sucanat, turbinado, and demerara sugar on food labels.
As you can see, all natural sugar alternatives have their own benefits and drawbacks; only you can decide which alternative is best for you! We should all be eating more whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds before we start relying on natural sweeteners for nutrition.
In fact, many delicious recipes don’t need any added sugar at all, such as this Peanut Butter Strawberry Ice Cream, for example. Nourish yourself with a plant-based diet and then try a few of these natural sugar alternatives out to see how your body responds to them. Remember: at the end of the day, nothing is better for you than pure fruit, which is truly nature’s candy, and the best natural sweetener of all!
For more information on alternatives to sugar, read the following:
- 7 Sweeteners That are Perfect Replacements for Honey
- 5 Lesser-Known Natural Sweeteners You Should Try in Baked Goods
- How to Sweeten Your Recipes the Natural Way (No Sugar Needed!)
If you’re interested in articles like this, then we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Pumpkin Waffles With Apple Cider Syrup