7 Good Alternatives to Processed Sugar

Anything natural is better than artificial sweeteners, so nix on the Splenda, sweet ‘n low, and aspartame :) but you already knew that.

Even refined sugar is better than all of those nasty things, but then when you get into the research, you can see that sugar does a lot of damage to our bodies by causing tooth decay, insulin resistance, yeast overgrowth, and weight gain among other things. So we start looking for alternatives so we don’t have to feel bad about treating ourselves (and our kids) to treats every so often. I think that anything – even if it was once natural- if it is over processed,  and even though it may be better than fake sugar, is still something you want to avoid. Things that fall into this category are refined sugar, most brown sugar (which is often just white sugar with molasses added back into it), high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and sadly the onetime favorite of many health conscious individuals, agave nectar. I am also very skeptical of Xylitol for this very same reason. Even refined white sugar is still better than HFCS, because the processing that HFCS goes through causes molecular level changes that have turned out to be REALLY bad. (Think cocaine, and then think crack cocaine – This may be an extreme example, but the basic idea is there)

So what sweeteners are ok, or even good for you in small amounts? My take on this is that if God didn’t want us to have sweets, there would not be dates, bananas, honey, maple syrup, or many of the other good sweet things we have that are naturally sweet with no monkeying around. Of course, we need to use sweeteners in moderation, and you can overdo any good thing. So when it comes to sweeteners, the more natural and the less processed the better.  Here are 7 good alternatives to processed sugar:

  1. Raw Honey: My first choice is all natural raw honey, straight from the hive, maybe run through a strainer, but that’s it. (make sure that the bees have not been fed sugar water – that changes the whole composition of the honey and that is a whole ‘nother story!)
  2. Maple Syrup or Maple Sugar: My next choice would be natural maple syrup, or maple sugar, which is dehydrated maple syrup. These are much less likely to cause your blood sugar to fluctuate – that is the major problem with sugar and that is what leads to insulin resistance.
  3. Raw Cane Sugars: Other good sweeteners are made from raw cane sugar, which is basically dehydrated cane juice, like mascavo, rapadura, turbinado, and sucanat. These can be coarse, medium, or even ground finely into a confectioners sugar, but still has the natural brown color to it, with a lot of vitamins and minerals that are typically removed during processing.Make sure that you get organically grown, otherwise any benefits of vitamins and minerals in the sugar will be outweighed by negative factors, such as pesticide residue.
  4. Blackstrap Molasses: Molasses is another better alternative to sugar – it is the stuff removed from the sugar during processing. You would want to get good quality, again, the less processed the better.
  5. Date Sugar: There is also date sugar, which I have never tried, but I have heard that it is very good and easy to use as a substitute for sugar in baking. But it is really expensive – nearly $50 for an 11oz package! Ouch!
  6. Coconut Palm Sugar: Like cane sugars, organic coconut palm sugar is also very easily used in baking, and is comparable in price. It is more expensive compared to honey, but can be substituted 1:1 like cane sugar. It is not nearly as expensive as date sugar though. You can get an 8oz package for between $6 and $10, depending on the brand. Coconut palm sugar is a darker brown sugar and tastes more like brown sugar than cane sugar. There are questions for some people as to the sustainability in the production of coconut palm sugar, for example they say that carelessly harvested palm sugar can damage the coconut trees from which it is harvested – if all the flowers are removed, no coconuts will be produced, and then no new trees can grow, resulting in fewer and fewer coconut trees, and therefore fewer coconut products like coconut oil, etc. Traditional harvesting methods of palm sugar ARE sustainable, and actually improve the yield of coconuts, and is more friendly to the environment than cane sugar production because it requires no artificial irrigation. There are other types of palm sugars other than coconut palm sugar, but I do not know enough about those to comment on them – see comments for more info on other types of palm sugars :)
  7. Stevia Leaf Powder: Then there is stevia. This is also 100% natural and doesn’t cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate, and a little goes a loooooong way. It is up to 30 or more times sweeter than sugar, and can be used in recipes instead of sugar in very small amounts with the same sweetness. However, I don’t like the flavor of it, as it can leave a bitter aftertaste, and darn it, one of the only good reason to eat sweets is for a treat, so don’t use it if you don’t like the taste – it defeats the purpose!


  1. Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Coconut sugar is not equal to palm sugar.

    Coconuts are scientifically known as cocos nucifera. In the Philippines, only coconuts are exclusively tapped for any commercial coco palm sugar production.

    Coconut palm sugar is only one of the many kinds of palm sugar, but it is the only with clinical studies to prove its low glycemic index properties (i.e. slow release of glucose in the blood stream which doesn’t cause sugar spikes for diabetics)

    “Palm sugar” from Cambodia are usually from the toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer). In Indonesia, it’s the popular Aren/Arennga Palm (Arenga saccharifera syn. A. Saccharifera, Arenga Pinnata). While in Thailand, the traditional practice is to mix their palm sugar with cane sugar or beet sugar to hasten crystallization.

    In these countries they make no distintion between “palm sugar” and “coconut sugar.”

    This “unsustainable harvesting” talk is nonsense when applied to coconuts. There are different methods of harvesting sap from palm trees, depending on the palm type.

    It’s true that sap is harvested from spadix that produces the flowers, and eventually the nuts. But a coco tree can have multiple spadices at the same time. A tree can be be productive for 50-60 years. So, in theory, there is no immediate need for those nuts until then.

    A coco tree stock planted 50 years ago, may not necessarily be the same kind of cultivar you would want to plant again. I certainly would rather check for new and improved cultivars from national research agencies, which can replace my grove. That’s the only prudent thing to do.

    Harvesting sap from cocos doesn’t kill the tree.

    Another type of palm is the Aren which takes 12-15 years to grow, and will only have a productive life of 3 years when tapped for sap.

    There are other palm types that require felling the tree (therefore killing it) and burning the tree just to harvest the sap. An example is African palmyra palm (Borassus aethiopium) where the sap is harvested until the tree is dead – a torturous 3 month process.

    A hectare of coconuts (approximately 100 trees) can produce 3.3 tonnes of sugar every year for fifty years. A hectare of sugarcane will produce 10 tons of sugar.

    A one hectare coconut stand will absorb 4.78 tonnes of CO² every year, but for the same period a hectare of sugar cane during preharvest burning will release approximately 480,000 tonnes of CO².

    To produce one kilo of cane sugar, 1,500 liters of water is needed for irrigation while a coconut tree can subsist without artificial irrigation.

    Coconut farmers in the Philippines engaged in sap production practice rotation cycles, which gives the trees a 3 months resting period every year. Tapping a coconut tree for sap has been found beneficial since been found to actually improve the coconut yields.

    I sincerely hope that this information dispel this wrong notion about coconuts and coco palm sugars.

    Feel free to contact me if you have further questions.

  2. Posted June 17, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge about coconut palm sugar. I do realize that coconut sugar is not equal to palm sugar, I guess that wasn’t clear in my article. I didn’t mention coconut sugar that is made from the coconut, because I don’t even know where I would buy it – all the coconut sugar I have seen is from the sap – so I was only talking about the palm sugar that is tapped from coconut blossoms. I know that it doesn’t kill the tree to tap the sugar, and there are ways to harvest that does not create a sustainability issue. I only mentioned the sustainability issue because some people see it as a problem. I do not really see this as a problem, since people have been harvesting coconut palm sugar this way for a long time and there are still trees. I do, however think that commercial operations may disregard traditional sap collection methods, and cause problems like those you mentioned with other types of palm sugar, but the article was not just about palm sugar, so I didn’t really go into that in detail.

  3. Dawn
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I thought agave nectar was a low glycemic sweetener! Do you have any additional information on why that isn’t a good one to use?

  4. Posted June 17, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Sucanat! What about sucanat! I love it. I don’t know if Julia is covering that at the conference in her class, but sucanat is a staple in our house.

  5. Posted June 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Amy, I have listed Sucanat as one of the natural cane sugars in #3 :)

  6. Posted June 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Dawn, agave nectar is processed in much the same way as high fructose corn syrup! I know, I was disappointed to, and I have a bottle of it in my cupboard that my MIL just gave me to try right before they came out with the story. You can read more about it here – The Truth about Agave Syrup: Not as Healthy as You May Think by John Kohler http://rawgourmet.com/articles/truth-agave