Have you noticed just how many foods at your local market are now labeled “natural”? According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 73% of shoppers seek out labels with this term (despite the fact that there’s no FDA standard to define it). All of this means that artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup are out—and a whole slew of natural alternatives have popped up in their place. Some are old-school favorites, like maple syrup; while others, like coconut sugar, are derived from familiar foods. Here’s the lowdown on five such sweeteners—including what’s unique about each one, and the best ways to use them in your kitchen.
Maple syrup is still made the same way it has been for decades: by boiling sap from maple trees. The syrup can then be dried, powdered, and sold as maple sugar.
While maple syrup does contain some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the amounts in a typical serving are quite small. For example, one tablespoon provides about 1% of your daily needs for calcium, potassium, and iron. However, it does pack a solid amount of magnesium—a mineral that helps produce collagen and promote skin and bone health—with 25% of your Daily Value.
When it comes to choosing a syrup, you might want to consider the color. Generally, syrup made earlier in the season tends to be lighter; while syrup produced at the end of the season, when sap flow slows, is darker. (That said, in some years, nearly all of a season's crop may be light.) Dark syrups may have higher mineral and antioxidant levels.
Plus, darker syrups tend to have the strongest maple taste, which may help you use less. In fact, that’s another benefit of swapping maple syrup for white sugar: In recipes, you can use three-fourths as much. For example, if a recipe calls for a quarter cup of sugar (or four tablespoons), you can use three tablespoons of maple syrup instead.
Another trick I use is diluting syrup. I’ll swirl together a teaspoon each of maple syrup and water, add spices, like ginger and cinnamon; then drizzle it over foods like oatmeal, yams, baked fruit, or roasted carrots. You still get the distinct flavor and sweetness, but with just 4 grams of sugar and less than 20 calories.
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Honey has been called the nectar of the gods, and used topically for centuries to heal wounds and fight infections. It also offers a number of other health benefits when ingested, as long as you don’t overdo it. This natural sweetener has been shown to possess small amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory compounds.
A University of Illinois study that analyzed honey samples from 14 different floral sources found that honey from buckwheat flowers packed 20 times the antioxidant punch as the kind produced from sage. While clover honey (which is probably the most commonly available type) scored in the middle of the antioxidant rankings.
Other research, from the University of California, Davis, found that daily consumption of buckwheat honey raised blood antioxidants levels. And a study from the University of Memphis found that athletes who ate honey had steadier blood sugar and insulin levels for a longer period of time, compared to consuming other carb sources.
I recommend buying raw, USDA Certified Organic honey whenever possible, to get the highest quality honey with minimal processing. It can also be sold in dried, powdered form.
As with maple syrup, you can use less liquid honey in recipes than sugar: Generally you can replace every tablespoon of sugar with a teaspoon of honey. (You may also need to adjust the amount of the other liquids, as well as the baking or cooking temperature.)
Just don’t adopt a "honey is good for me, so I can drizzle it on everything" mentality. One teaspoon provides about 20 calories and 5 to 6 grams of sugar.
I think honey is ideal for adding just a touch of sweetness to plain versions of foods, like yogurt and nut butter. It's also great for jazzing up homemade dressings or marinades. For a simple stir-fry sauce, I like to whisk together a tablespoon each of brown rice vinegar and low sodium vegetable broth, a teaspoon of honey, a half teaspoon each of fresh grated ginger and minced garlic, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
If you’ve ever eaten a date, you know they’re incredibly sweet and a bit sticky—which is why they’re used as a main ingredient in so many energy bars. Whole dates are a good source of several key nutrients, including potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper, calcium, iron, B vitamins, vitamin K, and antioxidants. However, the nutrient amounts in a teaspoon of date sugar (made from dried, ground dates) are minimal. And that one teaspoon contains 15 calories and about 3 grams of sugar.
Date sugar can replace white sugar in equal amounts, but using two-thirds also works well in most recipes, especially if you add cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. These “sweet” spices help enhance existing sweetness. It's also important to note that date sugar doesn’t dissolve well, so it’s not the best choice for smoothies or coffee. And like brown sugar, it tends to clump. To soften it before use, try placing some date sugar in a glass or ceramic bowl with a moist paper towel and cover it with a lid or plate overnight.
Coconut sugar is made from sap extracted from the buds of coconut palms. Like table sugar, it has about 15 calories and four grams of sugar per teaspoon.
Coconut sugar does provide small amounts of nutrients, including thiamin, iron, copper, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, and antioxidants. This sweetener also contains inulin, a naturally-occurring, indigestible carbohydrate that acts as a prebiotic, or “food” for beneficial gut bacteria.
Coconut palm sugar is also considered eco-friendly. Growing coconut trees requires minimal amounts of water and fuel (especially compared to sugar cane production); and the trees produce sap for two to four decades. Coconut sugar’s consistency and flavor is similar to brown sugar, so many people use it as an equal replacement in recipes that call for brown sugar (like baked beans and cookies).
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This thick, dark syrup is the byproduct of processing sugar cane. In other words, it’s the liquid left over after the sugar has crystallized. The sweetener retains some of the nutrients naturally found in sugar cane, including potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, copper, selenium, and manganese. One teaspoon provides about 15 calories and 4 grams of sugar. It also contains a notable 6% of the Daily Value for iron and calcium. Plus, it has been shown to have higher antioxidant levels than any other sweetener, according to research from Virginia Tech.
However, the rich, intense flavor and aroma of blackstrap molasses can narrow its use. I’ve used it in coffee and tea recipes, gingerbread cookies, energy balls, overnight oats, pumpkin pie and pumpkin smoothies, baked beans, and yam dishes.
One final note
While all of the sweeteners above are natural, and less processed and more nutritious than white table sugar, it's important to note they still count as added sugar. So you should consume them within the recommended limits for added sugar. That's no more than six teaspoons (or about 25 grams) per day for women, and nine teaspoons (or about 37.5 grams) for men.
Some of my clients don’t even come close to these limits. But I’ve seen others overindulge in treats, smoothie bowls, and drinks made with these sweeteners, thinking it was fine because they’re natural.
So, yes, stir maple syrup in your coffee instead of sugar or an artificial sweetener. And opt for one of the sweeteners above when cooking or baking. But be sure to moderate your total sugar intake from every source, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that better-for-you means it's okay to eat an unlimited amount.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.