A guide to natural sweeteners

Sugar and health

All sugars (even the most wholesome) can cause cavities, weight gain, diabetes and heart disease when consumed in excess. Compelling evidence from population studies and clinical trials now implicate added sugars, and particularly fructose, as likely to have a greater role than salt in high blood pressure and heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 5 percent of total calories. This translates to 6 teaspoons/day if you are on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup, molasses, and rice and barley malt syrups contain traces of essential nutrients but not to any significant amount.

Coconut sugar and agave are recommended sometimes because they have a lower glycemic index, meaning they’re absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than white table sugar and are less likely to cause sugar “highs” or “lows.” Agave, however, is high in fructose, which is harmful to the liver when consumed in excess.

Brown rice syrup and fruit juice concentrates (apple, grape, pear)are likely to contain traces of arsenic, making them not ideal as an everyday sweetener for children or pregnant and nursing women.

PCC does not sell artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, Saccharin, Equal or Splenda. Research suggests they may not help control weight gain and may promote diabetes.


Choices in sweeteners

In recipes calling for white sugar, try substituting some applesauce or mashed ripe banana, pureed dates, raisins or prunes — adjusting the amount of liquid. They’ll add fiber and create a delicious, moist texture. Or, try some of these other great options for sweeteners.

Agave is a liquid sweetener produced from the sap of the agave cactus plant. The sap is treated with enzymes and heat to become a palatable syrup higher in fructose (80 percent) than any other sweetener.

Barley malt syrup comes from sprouted barley that’s roasted and cooked down to a syrup. Its malt-like flavor is good for baking in bagels or with squash, or making barbecue and sweet and sour sauces. Brands sold at other stores may contain corn syrup or refined sugar.

Brown rice syrup is made with brown rice and a culture that’s cooked to a syrup. Half as sweet as white sugar, its mild flavor is similar to butterscotch. It’s very good for cooking, baking, and in drinks or marinades. Be sure to read labels because some brands include barley malt and corn syrup.

Cane sugar is made from sugar cane that’s crushed mechanically to extract its juice. Several unrefined or unbleached forms are available and excellent in any recipe.

  • Muscovado sugar is made from unrefined, evaporated cane juice. Unlike processing for white sugar, the molasses is not separated from the sugar stream when the cane is crushed. The juice is not spun but rather dried slowly to retain more plant material in the crystals and results in a pronounced flavor with a slightly sticky texture. It is unbleached and crystalline, retaining its natural molasses and trace vitamins and minerals. 
  • Organic, whole cane sugars sold under the Rapunzel and Wholesome Sweeteners brands also are unrefined and unbleached and retain natural trace vitamins and minerals. The molasses is not separated from the sugar stream. Raw cane juice is filtered and heated to syrup, then dried. Rapunzel grinds its dried juice for a very fine granular texture (formerly called Rapadura sugar). Wholesome Sweeteners stirs its syrup to produce larger grains (called Sucanat).
  • Turbinado sugar is made by heating sugar cane juice, then spinning it in a centrifuge or turbine to extract moisture and molasses for large, golden crystals. It’s closer to refined sugar than raw sugar.
  • Demerara sugar is similar to turbinado. The cane juice is heated, filtered and spun in a centrifuge to separate the molasses from the large, crunchy crystals.

Coconut sugar is available in both liquid and crystal (granulated) forms, often labeled as coconut palm sugar. It is produced from the sap of coconut flower buds and cooked down to reduce the water content to produce a liquid or crystalized sweetener. Can be used cup for cup in place of other granulated sugars.

Date sugar is made from dried, pulverized dates. Some brands add oat flour to make it free-flowing, others add oil for softness. Date sugar does not dissolve, but is delicious in baking and crumb toppings.

Fruit juice concentrates are fruit juices cooked down and sold as either a syrup or frozen juice concentrate. Their fruit flavors are a plus or minus depending on your preference. Although juice concentrates come from fruit, they still are a sugar, no healthier than other sweeteners.

Honey is made by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. Unheated and unfiltered raw honey is cloudy, very thick and contains healthful antioxidants, pollen and bee propolis, a compound produced by bees with anti-bacterial properties. Honey contains less sugar per teaspoon than highly refined sweeteners, is versatile, and very good in baking. Honey should not be given to infants to protect against botulism.

Maple syrup is the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Grade A is light and from early sap runs. Grade B is from later runs and has a stronger flavor. Buy organic to avoid residues of formaldehyde and other chemicals used to keep tap holes open longer. Refrigerate to inhibit mold. Crystallized maple syrup granules are available as a sprinkle.

Molasses is a byproduct of refining sugar cane. Blackstrap is slightly sweet, comes from the final press of sugar cane and is a source of potassium and iron. “Unsulphured molasses” indicates no sulphur dioxide was used in extraction or as a preservative. Sweet Barbados molasses is from the first boiling of the cane, lending a more subtle, sweeter flavor than blackstrap, and also contains some iron and calcium. Refrigerate to inhibit mold.

Monk fruit extract (lo han guo) is from an Asian fruit used in China for food and medicine. This zero-calorie sweetener contains compounds from the fruit that produce a sweet taste but no calories.

Stevia is derived from a perennial shrub with leaves 30 times sweeter than sugar. It has no calories and may be useful for people with diabetes, candida, or anyone trying to give up sugar. Available in powdered or liquid form. Best in beverages.

Xylitol today typically comes from corncobs and if not organic, may be genetically modified. It tastes similar to cane sugar, is low in calories, and reportedly does not cause cavities. It may be suitable for diabetics. *XYLITOL IS EXTREMELY TOXIC TO DOGS.

Zero is a brand name for a certified organic erythritol, a type of sugar alcohol (see below) derived from organic sugar cane juice that is fermented, filtered and crystallized.

Quick Tip

If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add 4 to 6 tablespoons of flour for each cup of liquid sweetener substituted for sugar.


Did you know? 

  • Most white sugar is made from sugar beets, most of which are genetically engineered. Look for cane sugar to avoid GMOs. 
  • Powdered sugar usually contains genetically engineered cornstarch. PCC only sells organic and Non-GMO Project Verified powdered sugar.
  • When vegan sugar is desired, choose a less refined cane sugar, such as muscovado, demerara or turbinado, or a sweetener labeled vegan. Refined cane sugar may be filtered through animal bone char to remove impurities.
  • Erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol are sugar alcohols, which are metabolized as a dietary fiber. Sugar alcohols often are produced through bacterial fermentation of wood, corncobs or seaweed. Sugar alcohols may upset digestion and PCC does not recommend for children and pregnant or nursing women until more research is done.
  • Rice syrups at PCC are from brands that test and monitor levels of arsenic, a natural but toxic element taken up by rice plants from soil and water. Experts advise children should limit consumption of rice based foods.


To replace white sugar in a recipe, try these substitutions

Sweetener Amount to replace 1 cup sugar Adjustments to recipe
* If you use barley malt or brown rice syrups in baked goods, be aware that a natural enzyme in these sweeteners may liquefy the consistency of the batter. This is more likely when eggs are not used. To prevent liquefying eggless recipes, first boil the barley malt or brown rice syrup for 2 to 3 minutes, cool, then measure and use.

** For each 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, reduce salt by 1/4 teaspoon.

*** Do not substitute more than half the sugar in a recipe with molasses; blackstrap molasses is not sweet.

Tip: If the recipe doesn’t call for any liquid, add 4 to 6 tablespoons of flour for each cup of liquid sweetener substituted for sugar.

Agave 3/4 cup Reduce liquid in recipe by one-third to one-half. Reduce baking temperature 25 degrees.
Barley malt syrup* 1 1/3 cups Reduce liquids by one-fourth. Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**
Brown rice syrup* 1 1/4 cups Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda for each cup syrup to help baked goods rise.**
Coconut sugar 1 cup None
Date sugar 1 cup Burns easily, so bake with care.
Frozen juice concentrate 2/3 cup Reduce liquids by one-third and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of concentrate.**
Honey 1/2 cup Reduce liquids by one-eighth. Reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees and cook a bit longer.
Maple syrup 1/2 to 2/3 cup Reduce liquid by one-fourth and add 1 teaspoon baking soda per cup of syrup.**
Molasses 1 1/3 cup sweet molasses Reduce liquid by 6 tablespoons and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda per cup of molasses.***
Sugar cane juice
(Rapadura, Sucanat, muscovado, turbinado, demerara)
1 cup None
Xylitol or Zero, granulated 1 cup None