A Guide to Natural Sweeteners

Unrefined, natural sweeteners are a gift for us to treasure. Like any good gift, they can become corrupted and abused, a tendency we must watch out for. But properly used they add depth and sweetness to a myriad of savory dishes and they make heavenly sweet treats.

This guide is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather give you an introduction to the wonderful natural sweeteners I personally am familiar with and use (in other words, the ones that work for me! 

Maple Syrup

Real, pure maple syrup is not just for pancakes! I have used it in a variety of desserts with great results. Grade A is sweeter and less robust than Grade B, which has a stronger maple taste. It sweetens apple pies and ice cream very well, and makes wonderful maple sweetened cakes as well.

(For a very sweet pancake syrup, mix half honey and half maple syrup to stretch it out more, since honey is significantly cheaper. This half and half mixture is also sweeter, which those just going off of sugary fake maple syrup like. )

Maple Sugar

This maple granulated sugar is one of my favorites. It’s not as strong as unrefined cane sugar, and so adds a lighter touch to many desserts. It can be used in place of white sugar (though like all natural sweeteners it will have a stronger taste). The only disadvantage is that maple sugar is one of the most expensive ones to buy, so I use it sparingly.


Molasses is a by product of white sugar. It has a very dark, robust flavor, and contains the minerals and vitamins from the sugar cane. Since it has a fairly high iron content, it has often been recommended for those with low iron. It makes wonderful gingerbread cakes and cookies.


Several years ago a friend gave me a jar of sorghum, and I had no idea what it was! But I soon found out how wonderful it was. It’s similar to molasses in flavor, though not as strong. While molasses is a by product, sorghum is a “whole food” product made from sorghum grain. You should also know that there are different types of sorghum. That first jar I was given was very light in color and flavor, while the second jar I bought recently is so dark it looks like molasses. The dark type works great in place of molasses (I prefer it to molasses because it has a sweeter flavor). The lighter type, however, I find to be much more versatile. I have found it a wonderful substitute for corn syrup in many recipes including caramel popcorn, and even made a traditional pecan pie with it (which I loved, though my family was a little unsure of it).

Rapadura or Sucanat

This unrefined, whole, cane sugar is sweet and dark in flavor and full of all of it’s natural minerals. It can be used in a one to one ratio with white sugar, though it will have a more molasses like taste. We have used it in a myriad of desserts and find it very versatile.


Stevia is a green herb that is very sweet. The Japanese have used it for about thirty years as a no calorie sweetener. The ground herb is very green, so it is usually refined to a white powder, with its sweetness concentrated. If made incorrectly it can have a bitter after taste. Because I prefer to use whole food sweeteners, I try to buy the extract made from the whole leaf (the NOW brand has one I like). It can also have a herby after taste, so it is best used in small amounts. I find a few drops work well to sweeten salad dressing, and of course, I love lemonade sweetened with it. My only caution with stevia is to use it in moderation, especially if you are using a concentrated form. The leaves were traditionally used to chew on, but they weren’t consuming baskets full of it! It is only in more recent years that we have started to use it in mass.

Agave Syrup

I don’t recommend the use of agave syrup as it is both highly processed and high in fructose, which is hard for our body to consume in large amounts. But don’t worry! There are plenty of other natural sweeteners to choose from.

Coconut/Palm Sugar

I wrote more extensively about coconut/palm sugar here. In a nut shell, coconut sugar and palm sugar are used interchangeably, made either from the coconut flower or certain palm flowers. If you get one that is made with the coconut flower it is actually a low glycemic sweetener (33-35 on the glycemic scale)! Depending on how they made it, it can have a more robust, caramel like flavor, or if you are able to find it in it’s moist form (usually found in a jar, looking a bit like raw honey), it will have a lighter taste. Pictured above is the  paste type found at Asian stores. Now there are many granulated forms of organic coconut sugar to be found from many brands! I love using it in in almost all of my baked goods and desserts.


What I can I say about honey that you don’t already know? This sweet substance can have different flavors depending on where the bees were getting their pollen, making honey have so many shades of flavor. It is the first sweetener that many people turn to when taking white sugar out of their diet as it is easy to find and very sweet. I recommend raw honey because it still has many healing properties to it when kept raw. To read more about raw honey’s healing properties, check out this search on Dr. Mercola’s site. Since I have been able to find a good price on raw honey, I even use it in cooking to avoid highly processed honey (which is heated way higher than if you were simply cooking with it). This really is a heavenly sweetener. Do try to avoid generic honey as it unfortunately been found that much of the cheap honey at the store is in fact, not honey at all

Substituting Natural Sweeteners for Refined Sweeteners

I prefer not to think about “substituting” other sweeteners for white sugar because after all, working with honey is really working with a whole different type of sweetener. But still, it is helpful to know how you can substitute certain sweeteners for the usual refined sugar.

White sugar: Equal amounts of rapadura, coconut/palm sugar (in granulated form), maple sugar. Or use 3/4 cup of honey in place of 1 cup of white sugar. With many recipes you can use maple syrup or the wet type of palm sugar as well, you just may need to adjust the wet ingredients.

Brown Sugar: Muscovado sugar, or Rapadura/Sucanat

Corn syrup: Sorghum, Honey, Maple Syrup

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!


  1. sam says

    Refine sugar is nasty. I’ve cut down on white sugar after watching the Youtube link title Bitter Truth, by doctor Robert H. Lustig. It blew my mind the effects of sugar. So ive been trying for the past year to find an alternative..doing lots of reading. Finally ive happy with a brand called Natvia. It’s a stevia based sweetener, and taste the closes to sugar. But i have been using for cooking as well, goes amazingly well with curries!!! and my pancakes.

  2. Jean says

    I discovered xylitol and have been using that in my coffee in the morning. I love it’s clean taste and it actually leaves your teeth feeling like they’ve just been brushed! It is supposed to be good for the bones as well. It is even an ingrediant in some toothpastes. I like it the best out of all the sweeteners hands down! I first tasted it at a natural foods store. The clerk had given me a free sample. I was sold!

  3. Nadine LeBean says

    My kids love date sugar and cinnamon on toast with butter. I make a
    Mix of it so that it’s ready to go. I recall Sally Fallon mentioning that there is something in date sugar that is especially good for kids. Does anyone know what it is?

  4. says

    Wow thank you very much for this post you put together! I would like to change over my diet without a big change in taste. Do you have any recommendations for me, I love eating healthy but it is hard to find the right combination? Something that taste good and is good for you. I love your site, I am so glad I found it keep the good information coming.

  5. Stacy says

    Good review of natural options. How do you feel about turbinado? The only thing that hit me a little wrong is the comment that maple syrup that’s not labeled “organic” is processed with formaldehyde. My family is in the maple syrup business and not only produces thousands of gallons of mapley goodness each year, but they also work with other producers across the area setting up their own operations. Never have I seen or heard of any of them using formaldehyde. Sap, boiled, filtered and packaged. That’s it. Paying for organic certification is very costly and most producers can’t afford to do that. I’m afraid your statement would turn folks away from small producers and farmers who make really good syrup. Hope this doesn’t come off preachy, it’s just something I’m very passionate about.

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