Nutrition Articles

The Truth about ''Natural'' Sweeteners

Does Sugar by Any Other Name Still Taste as Sweet?

Non-Sugarcane Sweeteners
Natural sweeteners are flooding the market these days. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ones that are not made from sugarcane.
  • Agave nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. Far from a whole food, agave juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into agave syrup. Vegans often use agave as a honey substitute, although it’s even sweeter and a little thinner than honey. It contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Agave nectar syrup is available in the baking aisle at most natural foods stores. The fructose content of agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup, which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. High fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose while agave nectar syrup contains 90%. Despite this, it has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup of sugar, use 2/3 cup of agave nectar, reduce the quantity of liquids slightly, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It also makes a good sweetener in cold liquids, such as iced tea.
  • Brown rice syrup is made when cooked rice is cultured with enzymes, which break down the starch in the rice. The resulting liquid is cooked down to a thick syrup, which is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild butterscotch flavor. It is composed of about 50% complex carbohydrates, which break down more slowly in the bloodstream than simple carbohydrates, resulting in a less dramatic spike in blood glucose levels. It’s worth noting that the name “brown rice syrup” describes the color of the syrup, not the rice it’s made from, which is white. Cooking notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-1/3 cups brown rice syrup, and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup has the tendency to make food harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies. You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet breads.
  • Honey, made by bees from the nectar of flowers, is a ready-made sweetener that contains traces of nutrients. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baked goods, use about 3/4 cup of honey and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce liquids by about 2 Tablespoons for each cup of honey.
  • Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, which is collected, filtered, and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup with a distinctive flavor. It contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. You can find it in bulk in some natural foods stores, but don’t be fooled by fake maple syrups, which are cheaper and more readily available at the grocery store. "Maple-flavored syrups" are imitations of real maple syrup. To easily tell the difference, read the ingredients list on the nutrition label. True maple syrup contains nothing but “maple syrup.” Imitation syrups are primarily made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and/or artificial sweeteners, and contain 3 percent maple syrup (or less). Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baking, use about 3/4 cup of maple syrup and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit. For each cup of maple syrup, reduce liquids by about 2 tablespoons. Continued ›
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • Interesting - 6/20/2014 1:03:25 AM
  • I use only local raw unfiltered honey for my sweetener needs. It was recommended for my allergies and it helps. - 12/1/2013 7:33:10 PM
  • I didn't notice Stevia listed. I get it at the pharmacy vitamin section which seems to be cheaper than the "sugar" isle. - 11/13/2013 7:52:45 PM
  • Anyway, this article was better than the one about artificial sweeteners, where short term studies were cited....We have all seen that long term affects are not generally noted in these types of studies. I think that health news is changing rapidly right now, and it's hard to know what to believe, and although this article doesn't give an opinion about the sweeteners, I'm ok with that, since we really don't know for sure yet. Seems like the more 'natural' or 'whole, the better. For now, I'm sticking with raw, unfiltered honey, and other less refined/processed sugar options, if I need sugar. Maybe best to try to limit sugar- the less sugar and processed food I eat, the less I crave it anyway... But, as we all know, that can be undone in one meal and the cravings are back- that's when I try to use honey, dark chocolate, etc to help.... - 9/24/2013 1:46:52 PM
  • TIFFER32
    Great information. wish i had the conversion chart a couple of days ago when I baked. - 8/26/2013 5:04:47 PM
  • I don't like stevia either. - 8/9/2013 12:59:59 PM
  • Stevia is not mentioned, It is a favorite of mine that I use to sweeten tea or my real lemonade. I do not use much. I also use agave syrup but only use a tablespoon in my buckwheat pancakes, not on them. - 7/14/2013 7:25:37 PM
  • Stevia tastes bitter to me, not at all sweet. I love cooking with maple syrup, it adds a subtle flavor to food... yum. - 7/14/2013 12:28:45 PM
  • rapadura or coconut sugar which is least processed
    ? - 7/9/2013 1:28:34 PM
  • DORI411
    Am I the only one that can't stand the taste of stevia ? And no I'm not putting too much in.. I bought an expensive little bottle from the health foods store and only put one drop in my coffee... Yuck

    Or shouldi I try again with powder? - 4/19/2013 10:57:26 AM
  • Glad to read that blackstrap molasse is the only one that actually has nutrients : I love using it as spread on bread (yummy) and in herbal tea sometimes. - 12/14/2012 3:24:41 PM
  • 50SLADY
    I was also expecting the article to contain information about stevia, luo han guo, and erythritol. - 11/27/2012 8:05:45 PM
    I was disappointed with this article. I think it was titled incorrectly because it really did not tell me anymore about natural sweeteners than I can get by reading the labels at my grocery store. I also believe Stevia to be a natural sweetener and agree that it should have been included in the article, regardless of the excuses for it's exclusion.
    Really expected more. - 10/27/2012 12:19:06 PM
    I agree that not all natural sugars are healthy. In fact some natural sugars are so highly processed I wonder how it can be classified as natural. My view, if it states that it is all-natural or 100% natural, then it should be organic- no chemicals, no-additives, unrefined and unbleached. Try getting hold of suchero, i was pleasantly surprised. - 9/10/2012 1:18:15 PM
  • Folks, the reason stevia isn't mentioned here is because this article is focused on less processed or "unprocessed" sweeteners. You know, the ones that can best be called "natural". Stevia is an extremely refined product that has very little in common with the actual extract from the plant. I'm not saying that it's bad, just that it doesn't really fit with the "unrefined" foods. (In fact, I use stevia, just in moderation like any other sweetener.) If you look at the related articles, you should see one titled "The Science Behind Stevia". It might open your eyes to some interesting facts.

    I too want to know why in the article you state that maple syrup has fewer calories when your chart shows it having 2 calories more per serving! This doesn't really make sense... - 8/17/2012 11:29:32 AM

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