The best sweeteners are the ones that are as close to whole as possible, don’t cause too much of a blood sugar swing and still taste good.
It’s a good idea to try to minimize the use of sweeteners in general, but if you have a sweet tooth like me, choosing good ones lets you give in without throwing off your healthy eating plan.
My favorite sweetener by far is fruit. I slice fresh fruit into my morning porridge, I use applesauce and blended banana in baking, and I use dried fruits like dates and raisins in anything from oatmeal to cookies to coleslaw.
Unrefined Sugar (Sucanat)
There are unrefined versions of cane, palm and other sugars. Be sure to look for the word ‘unrefined’, and at the shape of the sugar. Unrefined sugar looks like grains of sand, not like crystals. The name on the one I buy is sucanat, and Wholesome Sweeteners is a brand to look for at your grocery store.
Any time you see a crystallized sugar, it’s been refined and then formed into a crystal. Brown sugar is just white sugar with a bit of the molasses added back to it. Demerara, turbinado, ‘raw’ sugars – they’ve been refined, crystallized and coated in molasses to make them brown. I remember being blown away the first time I heard that.
Stevia is a leaf, which doesn’t sound very much like a sweetener, but it’s actually even more potent than sugar. The cool thing about stevia is that it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels, so this is really great for diabetics and hypoglycemics. Stevia is one non-sugar, zero-calorie sweetener that’s actually natural and isn’t harmful to you.
You can find it in a few forms. The best is to use the leaf, the powdered leaf or a liquid extract. The white powder is a refined form, and isn’t as good for you. You only need a tiny bit of stevia to sweeten, so be careful with it.
Brown rice syrup is one of the best sweeteners because it’s a fermented form of sugar and doesn’t cause as much of a blood sugar swing as most others. It is processed, but not so much that it loses all of its nutrients. It’s a really mild flavor, and will add a low level of sweetness to whatever you’re making.
When sugar is refined into white crystallized sugar, part of what’s taken away is molasses. All of the nutrients from the sugar are in the molasses, so it’s really high in things like iron, magnesium and B vitamins. It is a processed product, but overall it has a lot going for it. Gingerbread just isn’t the same without that molasses flavor.
Pure Maple Syrup
I love the taste of maple syrup… It’s not the best sweetener because it does give a kick to your blood sugar levels, but it’s also not the worst and isn’t refined too much. Just don’t have too much at once and you’ll be fine. (Note that this does not include the maple-flavored pancake syrups – those ones are terrible, stay away from them.)
There are a couple of sweeteners that I don’t use, and because they sometimes get included in lists of ‘healthy’ sweeteners, I wanted to briefly mention why I don’t choose them.
Agave nectar is a syrup that comes from cactus. Now, cactus is not naturally sweet and the syrup has to be heavily refined to get it there. In my opinion, the sweeteners above that are much closer to their whole food state are the better option.
Splenda and other artificial sweeteners (NutraSweet, Sweet n low, etc) are chemicals, and may not add calories or raise your blood sugar, but will have other negative effects. Some of them have been shown, some of them haven’t, but with so many other good options try to steer clear.
So, I think fruit, sucanat, stevia, brown rice syrup, molasses and maple syrup are the best sweeteners. What’s your favorite sweetener? Let me know by leaving a comment below.