It’s time to ditch the sweet poison that is refined sugars, as well as the falsely-promoted-as-healthy-but-aren’t sweeteners, and to replace them with actually healthy alternatives. And surprisingly, there are quite a few health-promoting sweeteners to choose from!
We’ve talked a lot about all the bad sugar this week. From the highly refined, highly processed supermarket varieties like white sugar, brown sugar, “raw” sugar, to high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. All the way to the surprisingly unhealthy (but falsely promoted as healthy) sweeteners like xylitol, stevia, brown rice syrup, agave and dextrose/glucose. Then we dove deep into unrefined cane sugars, finding the difference between sucanat, rapadura and turbinado.
With all of this bad sugar in almost all processed and packaged foods (even the organic stuff), there is an upside: it gives us some motivation to get back in the kitchen and start to make things from scratch.
In the natural, healthy arena there are SO many different types of “healthy” sugars we can choose from. It can get a bit overwhelming – especially with all the health claims being made. Really, there are no health claims to be made on sugar, with perhaps the exception of honey.
Let me preface this by saying that these sugars will act similar in the body to the processed types of sugar – it’s still sugar. Although some of these healthier sugars contain vitamins and minerals, it goes without saying that you should never go out of your way to eat sweeteners. But in small quantities, natural and raw sugars are fine in a healthy diet.
How small? That’s up to you – I do no more than a tablespoon a day, usually a lot less.
A good rule of thumb: the least amount of processing steps the sugar goes through, the better!
I don’t rank healthy sweeteners by the amount of calories, their fructose content or their glycemic index. I rank them by how natural and unprocessed they are.
Because the calorie content of a sweetener doesn’t really matter if your body doesn’t recognise it as food, or even worse if it recognises it as a toxin. Aspartame (an artificial sweetener) has zero calories, but it’s a neurotoxin that makes you crave carbs and turns off your body’s ability to recognise when it’s full, making you gain weight – does that seem worth it for zero calories?
It’s fructose content doesn’t tell you whether your body will turn it into fat when digesting it (hello, bread). The thing we really need to look for is how natural it is. Whole food from the earth is the way nature intended it.
These are my favourite healthier sweeteners, in list of preference:
// 1. Honey
Honey has the advantage of being completely natural and has many health benefits IF, like all sugars, it’s used in moderation and used in it’s raw form from a high quality, organic source.
Honey is rich in beneficial digestive enzymes (these are destroyed with heat, so raw honey is important) and in many cultures it’s used as a healing remedy, especially due to it’s antibiotic, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties (honey lemon tea, anyone?). It can also be used topically on cuts to help infection, and used in beauty face masks.
“Made from the nectar that bees sip from flower blossoms, honey is a universal medicine, sweetener, and nutrient resource. The tremendous amount of research conducted on honey in Russia indicates that raw, unprocessed honey is nature’s richest source of live healing enzymes and that it increases reflexes, mental alertness, and even IQ!” — David Wolfe, Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future
Choose your honey wisely, you want it to be raw, high-quality and organic. Regular, mass-produced supermarket honey is highly processed and refined.
My fave: Local honey! Try your local farmers market.
// 2. Medjool Dates
I love fresh medjool dates because there is nothing processed about them! Even all the “healthy” sugars still undergo some processing, but not dates.
Medjool dates are my go-to dessert. I pop them into the freezer. They taste like caramel fudge, and there’s no effort required for a dessert! You could even add some nut butter to the middle.
They are also really great to use in baking and in raw desserts – especially when you want to make caramel. I also use them to make my 4-ingredient chocolate mousse, which is simply dates + coconut cream + cacao + vanilla bean.
Dates are also a great source of minerals like potassium, manganese, magnesium and copper.
// 3. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is made from boiling the sap collected from maple trees, and is rich in trace minerals. I love the flavour of maple syrup, and find it’s a pretty good all-rounder substitute. It also has high zinc levels!
Choose B grade over A grade maple syrup as it has a higher mineral content.
My Fave: Combs Family Farm Organic B Grade
// 4. Molasses
Molasses is the by-product from the processing of sugar. During the process of making sugar, the sugar crystals you see in your pantry get separated from the molasses – which is where most of the nutrition goes. Molasses is high in antioxidants, iron, calcium, zinc, copper and chromium.
Blackstrap molasses is a very dark, rich molasses made from the third boiling. It is processed, but it contains a lot of good minerals, and is a good source of iron, which is why I drizzle some over my breakfast bowl of fruit! I’ve always had very low iron but replaced my iron supplements with both molasses and bone broth and have had no problems since.
I also use it in making my healthy BBQ sauce! Always buy organic molasses.
Choose: Organic blackstrap molasses
// 5. Date sugar
Date sugar is made from powdered dry dates, and undergoes very little processing. Date sugar is very high in antioxidants. In fact you can make it yourself with a dehydrator and blender! I’m not a fan of dried dates, so would recommend grabbing some medjool dates and making some yourself!
Natural dates have up to 60% sugars, which is increased with drying them, so it tends to be sweeter than regular brown or white sugar. This makes them a date sugar a good natural alternative. Date sugar doesn’t dissolve in water, so is best used in baking.
// 6. Sucanat
Sucanat is my top pick when it comes to cane sugars.
Sucanat stands for sugar cane natural, and is dried/dehydrated sugar cane juice. Sucanat is generally made by crushing sugar cane to squeeze out the juice, heating (usually low heat) and reducing to a thick syrup then dried to create granules.
It is not separated from anything, so nothing is added or taken out. It retains 100% of the sugar cane’s molasses. Both sucanat and rapadura are produced using mechanical extraction processes and are not centrifuged.
You can see just by looking at sucanat that it’s different to white or raw sugar, in that it looks grainy instead of crystalline. You can use it in a 1:1 ratio in recipes (although reducing the amount of sugar in recipes is also a great idea!).
// 7. Palm sugar
Often confused for coconut palm sugar, palm sugar is actually different. Palm sugar is sugar made from the sap collected when the palm tree (not the coconut tree) is tapped. It’s is a traditional sugar that has been used for centuries in India.
What’s the difference between coconut palm sugar and regular palm sugar?
Coconut sugar is derived from the flower buds of the coconut tree, whereas traditional palm sugar is tapped from the tree itself. And unlike coconut sugar, with palm sugar there isn’t the downside of it not being able to produce coconuts anymore.
So, palm sugar is possibly a better choice than coconut sugar. That said, it can be quite hard to find. If you can get you’re hands on it, go for this option.
// 8. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar (aka coconut crystals / coconut palm sugar) is sap from the coconut tree blossoms that has been evaporated to remove the water at a low temperature to allow for crystallisation. It tastes similar to brown sugar (although a little richer), making it a great alternative, and can even be used in baked goods instead. Coconut crystals don’t have a coconut flavor, but a rather deep, earthy, brown sugar flavor.
My Fave: Coconut Secret, Raw Coconut Crystals
// 9. Coconut Nectar/Syrup
Coconut nectar is the sap that comes from the coconut blossoms, which is evaporated at low temps and contains minerals, amino acids and B vitamins.
My fave: Coconut Secret, Raw Coconut Nectar
A word of caution on coconut sugar and coconut nectar
There are a few things to consider when it comes to coconut sugar and nectar. The first is how new it is to the market. It’s doesn’t seem to be a traditional sugar, it’s new to consumers and we don’t want to go making the same mistake we all made with agave nectar, jumping on a health trend without time-tested (or scientific test) information behind it. Also, when a coconut tree is turned into a coconut sugar producing tree, it seems that it loses it’s ability to produce coconuts (and products like coconut oil). Since this is becoming a lucrative industry, many coconut farmers are turning to coconut sugar production. This could threaten the availability and price of coconuts and products like coconut oil. (1)
// 10. Yacon Syrup
Yacon is a South American tuber that looks like potato, but has a sweet taste. Yacon syrup is fresh-pressed from the yacon root, a distant relative of the sunflower. It’s nonglycemic, natural, high in antioxidants and yacon is known to be a prebiotic, making it good for digestion. It has a molasses or maple-like flavour. You can use it in sauces and desserts.
Check out other posts in the series:
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 1: Sugar is Sweet Poison
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 2: 5 Surprising Sweeteners People Think Are Healthy But Aren’t
// Sweet Substitutes, Part 3: What are Sucanat, Rapadura and Turbinado? Unrefined Cane Sugars Explained.