Okay, so I’ve talked about both regular sugar and artificial sweeteners. Now it’s time to talk about natural sweeteners. Ah, it’s like music to my ears. “Natural.” These must be better for us than “refined” sugar and “artificial” sweeteners…right?
Pure Coconut Palm Sugar
This unique sugar is similar to white sugar with its granular texture and tastes similar to brown sugar but is slightly richer. It derived by extracting the sap of palm trees. Coconut sugar has a naturally low glycemic index, which makes it a viable sweetener for diabetics. The number of calories in coconut sugar is almost identical to those in white sugar. However, coconut sugar is notably higher in various micronutrients, including amino acids, potassium, magnesium and iron.
Coconut sugar is an extremely popular sugar substitute because of 1:1 ratio for white sugar. Unlike other sweeteners where you might have to add more of this and less of that, you can substitute coconut sugar for the exact amount of white sugar a recipe calls for.
Again, it is very similar to regular white sugar, but the manufacturing process is more natural, which is why it is called a “natural” sweetener.
Stevia is actually an herb, native to South America and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Although it is so much sweeter than sugar, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels like white sugar does.
Some say it tastes like licorice while others say it has an unpleasant bitter taste. The Japanese have used it widely for over a hundred years and promote it as a very healthful option. However, like just about everything, the jury is still out as to whether stevia really is a safe natural sweetener or not.
Molasses is actually a byproduct of white sugar production. Because of the way traditional tabletop sugar is produced (heating the top layer which from the crystals you have in your bowl), many of the nutritional benefits are left in the molasses. Blackstrap molasses is the most beneficial and is a good source of iron and calcium. It is also full of copper, manganese, potassium and magnesium. Molasses is quite thick and is best used in baking. It is also sweeter than sugar, which means you’ll need less.
100% Pure Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a viscous amber liquid that has a sweet earthy taste. It is made from the sap of the sugar, black or red maple tree. The sap is clear and almost tasteless and very low in sugar content when it is first tapped. It is then boiled to evaporate the water producing syrup with the characteristic flavor and color of maple syrup and sugar content of about 60%. Maple syrup may be a popular sweetener choice for many due to its lower calories and higher concentration of minerals compared to honey, agave syrup and white sugar.
If maple syrup is your natural sweetener of choice, it is important you get 100% PURE maple syrup. The “pure” means it is free of chemically modified and artificial ingredients and truly is all natural. Pure maple syrup contains nothing but maple syrup!
The liquid honey sold in stores has been heavily processed and is really not much different than white sugar. This processing eliminates most, if not all, of the health benefits of honey. Looking at cultures that have been using honey for centuries as healing purposes, it has been found that they use RAW honey. Studies on raw honey have proven it to have antibiotic, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. Many people also use raw honey topically on cuts and scrapes to help fight infection. With antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates and phytonutrients, raw honey is considered a “superfood” by many.
Agave syrup (pronounced AH-GAH-VAY) is similar in color and taste to honey, and is much sweeter than table sugar. Agave is a large, spikey plant that can be found in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. These plants are best known as the plant that tequila comes from! The leaves of the plant are harvested to reveal the core of the plant, where sap is extracted. Because it is heated at such a low temperature, it is said to be less processed and more natural. It is also a naturally occurring food, like honey and maple syrup.
There is some controversy over agave syrup because of its high fructose (bad sugar) content, similar to that in high-fructose corn syrup. If you do use agave, it is recommended that you only buy certified organic and raw agave syrup for maximum purity and health benefits.
Source: All About Agave
So which one is the best?
The straight truth is that NO sugar, regardless of where it comes from, will ever be optimal for regular human consumption. From the above natural sweeteners, blackstrap molasses and pure maple syrup are the most nutritious. But whatever sweetener you choose, make sure that you get the most organic, least processed, pure version of it!
Alternatively, simply forgo the sugar/sweetener altogether. You might be surprised as to how good things can still be without all the sugar, especially in a lot of baking! A lot of the fresh juices I make call for two apples to sweeten them, when they taste just as good and sweet with only one!
Read part one of this “sweet trilogy” – Sugar & Sugar Addiction
Read part two of this “sweet trilogy” – Artificial Sweeteners