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.
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. )
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.
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.
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