At this point, it is common knowledge that added sugars are not ideal for our health. Sugars, found in everything from baked goods to granola bars and marinades, are not only adding pounds to our backsides but stealing our vitality. Sweet treats should most certainly be consumed in moderation and treated as treats, however, that does not mean we must forgo them completely. It is possible to incorporate small amounts of natural sweeteners in our diets from time to time, you just need to know which ones to look for. So here are the best natural sweeteners to reach for when the time comes.
Top 3 Natural Sweeteners
1. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a traditional natural sweetener that has been used for generations both as a food and medicinally. The health properties of honey are well known, although like all food, depends heavily on the quality of the honey. Raw honey specifically is rich in beneficial enzymes, phytonutrients, and is known for its antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Bees store honey at room temperature for a reason, when it is heated above 117 degrees Fahrenheit honey loses many of its healing properties, and although it is still delicious and sweet, it loses much of its nutritional benefit. When choosing honey, opt for a local variety that has not been pasteurised and is raw if possible. Ideally, try to visit a local farmer’s market or speciality shop to ensure you are buying some of the best local produce available.
Use honey as a natural sweetener for coffee or tea, or use it as a substitute for sugar in baking and cooking.
2. Maple Syrup
Real, pure maple syrup is an all-natural sweetener from the sap of maple trees that is rich in trace minerals. The process of making maple syrup is an age-old tradition that Indigenous peoples were making long before European settlers arrived, that was used both as a food and medicine much like raw honey. Canada produces more than 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup, and there are multiple grades and colours of maple syrup available including extra light, light, medium, amber and dark amber; the lighter the colour the more subtle the flavour. Compared to honey maple syrup has fewer calories and a higher concentration of trace minerals including manganese and zinc.
When purchasing maple syrup, ensure that the label read 100% maple syrup, and there is no “maple syrup flavouring”.
3. Fruits (Fresh or Dried)
Fruit is considered nature’s candy; it’s naturally sweet and contains natural sugars. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit and depending on the type of fruit, the content of fructose will vary. Delivered in their whole form, fruits come with a host of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber, so using whole fruits is a great way to add a natural sweetness without forgoing too much nutrition. In addition to fresh fruits, dried fruits can be used as sweeteners in baking and cooking, keeping in mind they are much more concentrated in sugars than fresh fruits, so much less is required to create the desired sweetness. It is important to ensure you purchase dried fruits with no added sugars or oils. Often companies will add extra sugars and refined oils to keep fruits tender, sweet and soft, however, this is not necessary and simply adds unwanted sugars and calories, so be sure to read the label before buying.
Mashed bananas and apple puree are great ways to add sweetness to baking, fresh fruit adds flavour to plain yoghurts and smoothies, while all-natural dried fruits are great for making granola or raw energy bars.
Best Natural Sweeteners: Runners-Up
In addition to my top 3, here are some other natural sweeteners that are great sources of unprocessed natural sugar.
Molasses: Molasses, specifically blackstrap molasses, is the liquid byproduct created by refining sugar cane into table sugar. Unlike table sugar, molasses contains many minerals including iron, manganese, copper, calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium, making it a healthy sweetener.
Coconut Sugar: A newer sweetener on the North American market, coconut sugar is a lower glycemic natural sweetener than can be used in cooking and baking. Coconut sugar is also sometimes referred to as ‘coconut palm sugar’ or ‘coconut crystals’ but any can be used as a substitute for white sugar.
Organic Whole Cane Sugar: Simple white sugar is made from either sugar cane or GMO sugar beets, and although raw organic whole cane sugar also comes from sugar cane it is an unrefined version. This form of cane sugar is the only one that does not separate the sugars from the molasses and therefore it is the least refined format available. This type of sugar is often labelled as Sucanat, Rapadura, or Raw Organic Cane Sugar.
Stevia: Stevia continues to be somewhat controversial in the nutrition world, however in small amounts it can be used as a natural sweetener. Stevia is three times sweetener than sugar, so often a small pinch is all you need. Look for stevia powder or liquid in health food stores, and note that it has a slight aftertaste so it is not for everyone.