Natural Sugars

Sweet alternatives to white sugar

Photograph by Lane Johnson

The grocery store aisles are packed with sweet alternatives to ordinary table sugar. So-called “natural sugars” are comparatively low on the glycemic index, easy to incorporate in cooking, and add complementary flavors to food. Here’s a brief guide to help you navigate your way through the maze of sweet choices.

Coconut sugar is a natural sugar with a subtle, sweet flavor similar to caramel. Derived from the blossoms of the coconut tree, it is low on the glycemic index and doesn’t spike blood sugar. In baking, coconut sugar can be used in a one-to-one ratio as a substitute for white or brown sugar. It contains minerals such as phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and other micronutrients. “You’re not only enjoying the sweetness, you’re also getting some benefits,” says Kelly Cornell, a holistic nutrition coach in San Jose. It’s also available as coconut nectar, a liquid sweetener that is good for uncooked foods such as smoothies and can be used in place of syrup or in tea.

Date sugar is another type of natural sugar that, like coconut sugar, is relatively low on the glycemic index. It is an unprocessed whole food, produced by grinding up dehydrated dates into very fine pieces. It can be substituted for granulated sugar cup for cup, but it doesn’t melt or dissolve like coconut sugar or table sugar. It can be used in cooking or baking, sprinkled on food, or blended into smoothies. Date sugar is high in fiber and contains nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium.

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol that is extracted from corn, birch trees, and other plants, is known for its dental health benefits and is commonly used in chewing gum. Because it doesn’t raise blood sugar, xylitol is often recommended for people with diabetes. It dissolves well and can be used in baking. “Our body processes it as if it’s something natural, like we’re eating some whole food,” Cornell says. But critics note that although xylitol comes from natural sources, it is processed using synthetic chemicals. Also, because xylitol is not completely absorbed by the body, it can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Raw honey is a liquid sweetener that can be used in place of sugar. “Raw honey is power packed with nutrition and it tastes really good,” Cornell says. Choose your honey wisely; processed honey is not the same as the raw variety. When heated to more than 118 degrees, it loses some of its natural enzymes and nutrients, Cornell says. In its raw form, honey can have an alkalizing effect.  “Our bodies tend to be more acidic,” Cornell said. “Raw honey helps to move our bodies into an alkaline state, which is very beneficial.” Raw honey mixed with ginger and lemon can help with indigestion. Ingesting local, raw honey can be helpful to allergy sufferers.

Another alternative to sugar is whole food sweeteners. Joni Sare, a personal chef and food educator, uses dates and other whole foods in cooking. As an example, she will take about eight dates, remove the pits, soak them in hot water, and then blend them to make a slurry. If she needs more liquid in a recipe, she uses tamarind syrup.