Guide to Natural Sweeteners

Looking for alternatives to refined sugars? You've come to the right place. There's a whole host of sweet delights on our shelves, waiting to liven up your cup of coffee, baked goods, marinades and dressings.

Think refined sugars are your only choice? Think again. Natural sweeteners like unrefined brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, barley malt and rice syrups, honey and agave nectar are common these days and for good reason. Each has a unique flavor and set of uses that'll satisfy any craving for sweetness in everything from your baked goods to salad dressings to your roasted pork loin. Want to know which natural sweetener is the best choice for you? Keep reading.

Sugar on Top

These days, the main sources of commercial sugar are sugar cane and sugar beets, from which a variety of sugar products are made:

Granulated white sugar is common, highly refined all-purpose sugar. Look for organic, unbleached varieties for a tastier, more natural option.

Confectioners' sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) is granulated white sugar that's been crushed to a fine powder. That may sound painful, but it's perfect for icings and decorations.

Unrefined brown sugar (a.k.a. raw sugar) is slightly purified, crystallized evaporated cane juice. This distinctive, caramel-flavored sugar comes in a variety of flavors including demerara, dark muscovado and turbinado.

Unrefined dehydrated cane juice is made by extracting and then dehydrating cane juice with minimal loss of original flavor, color or nutrients.

The Buzz on Honey

It's no small feat to be the world's oldest-known unrefined sweetener. Because honey's flavor and color are derived from the flower nectar collected by bees, honey has lots of pride of place. This accounts for the wide variety of honeys available around the world. Note that dark honeys generally have a stronger flavor than lighter ones.

Since bees can forage up to a mile from their hive and are indiscriminate in their nectar choices, when a particular flower is named on the label of a honey container, it simply means that flower was the predominant one in bloom in the harvest area.

Here are a few of the most buzz-worthy varieties:

  • Clover: mild flavored and readily available in colors ranging from water white to light amber
  • Wildflower: generally dark with a range of flavors and aromas depending on the flowers that provided the nectar
  • Alfalfa: light in color with a delicate flavor
  • Orange Blossom: a distinctive citrus flavor and aroma and light in color
  • Blueberry: slightly dark with a robust, full flavor
  • Tupelo: fragrant, light and mild
  • Chestnut: dark, tangy and slightly bitter with a high mineral content

Storage tip: Keep honey in an airtight container and, if used infrequently, at temperatures below 50°F. Liquid honey will eventually crystallize but can be returned easily to a liquid state by placing the container in warm water for a few minutes.

Health note: Honey should not be fed to children less than one year old because it can contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism.

Tapping into Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is simply the boiled down tree sap of the sugar maple tree. As for maple sugar, it's twice as sweet as white sugar and has a delicious, caramel flavor. Both maple syrup and maple sugar are among the least refined sweeteners. (Try maple orange glazed ham.)

Mighty Molasses

With its strong, fragrant dark caramel flavor, expect great things from molasses. It's about 65% as sweet as sugar, and is actually produced during the refining of sugar. (The syrup remains after the available sucrose has been crystallized from sugar cane juice.)

Light molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, dark molasses is from the second, and blackstrap, the third. Though molasses can be sulfured or unsulfured, we prefer unsulfured molasses, meaning that the fumes used in manufacturing sugar aren't retained as sulfur in the molasses. (Try molasses in these double gingerbread squares.)

Sweet Alternatives

Barley Malt and Rice Syrup

Made from soaked and sprouted barley, which is dried and cooked down to make a thick syrup, barley malt is a sweetener that's slowly digested and gentler on blood sugar levels than other sweeteners.

Rice syrup is made in almost the same way, and is usually a combination of rice and barley. Some of the best Chai teas are sweetened with rice syrup, with deep and earthy results.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a multipurpose sweetener obtained from the core of the Mexican Agave cactus, the same plant whose sap is a source of tequila. Agave nectar may resemble honey — its color ranges from pale to dark amber — but it's slightly less viscous and dissolves easier in liquids.

Keep in mind that agave nectar is about 25% sweeter than sugar and that darker agave nectar has a more robust flavor with a pleasant hint of molasses, too. Agave lime pie anyone?

Swapping Sweeteners

To try your hand at substituting natural sweeteners for refined sugar in recipes, keep this guide close by.

Sweetener Substitution Ratio Reduce Liquid?
Confectioners' sugar 1 3/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar No
Brown sugar 1 cup firmly packed for each 1 cup sugar No
Turbinado sugar 1 cup for each 1 cup sugar No
Maple syrup 3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar Reduce by 3 tablespoons
Honey 3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar Reduce by 1/4 cup
Barley malt or rice syrup 3/4 cup for each 1 cup sugar Reduce by 1/4 cup
Molasses 1 1/4 cups for each 1 cup sugar Reduce by 5 tablespoons for each cup used