Sweeteners 101

Ever since we started our 100 Days of Real Food pledge it seems like we have been getting a lot of questions about sugar and other sweeteners. Can’t we have sugar? Isn’t it natural? Yes, I suppose it is technically “natural” since it is made from the sugar cane plant, but it is also a highly processed version of this plant similar to how white flour is made from the wheat plant. If we are going to start classifying things in this manner we could also technically say high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is “natural” since it is made from corn. And despite the mixed research on if HFCS is really worse for you than good ol’ white sugar, according to Michal Pollan, it just happens to be “a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed”.

A sweetener like honey can also be considered natural and somewhat “processed”, although the work is done by bees out in nature as opposed to in a factory. All of these (as well as other sweeteners) are high in energy and low in nutrients, although an alternative like honey or maple syrup might be slightly better in the nutrition department. According to Michael Pollan the moral of this story is that “sugar is sugar” and “organic sugar is sugar too.” In processed food there are “now some forty types of sugar used” including:

barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose, fructo-oligosaccharides, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, invert sugar, polydextrose, sucrose, turbinado sugar

There are also the sweeteners you can find in the grocery store baking aisle such as:

Splenda, Equal, agave syrup, corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup, Sweet-n-Low, brown sugar

No matter what kind of sugar you decide to use we think there are a couple of key takeaways:

  • Consume any and all types of sugar in moderation mainly trying to reserve them for special occasions.
  • When it comes to store-bought foods avoid those “that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients” according to Pollan.
  • Given the choice go with a natural option like honey or even white sugar as opposed to the artificial stuff like aspartame (or Splenda).

As far as our 100 Days of Real Food rules go, we chose honey and 100% maple syrup as acceptable choices because they are made in nature and less often found in highly processed foods. This rule has resulted in us having to make from scratch anything we eat that contains a sweetener. Trust me when I tell you, I have searched high and low for a store-bought product containing 5 or less ingredients and honey or maple syrup as the sweetener. One may exist, but I have not found it. So this rule greatly helps us not only reduce, but also regulate our consumption of “sweets” since we have to make everything ourselves.

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159 thoughts on “Sweeteners 101”

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  1. I’m wondering about other natural sweeteners that are made similarly to honey and maple syrup like coconut palm syrup and sorghum syrup. Are these acceptable for the pledge?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Technically, for the pledge, the only sweeteners approved are honey and maple because they are unprocessed.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Stevia in its pur form is fine but many on the market also contain artificial sweeteners.

  2. We live in the south and are getting questions from skeptical family members who are asking about sweeteners like sorgum and molasses. From my understanding these are boiled just like maple syrup(to thicken). I would appreciate your thoughts on these.

  3. What about organic jaggery? I just heard about it and it (organically produced) sounds like a tropical equivalent of maple syrup (tap the sap, boil it down). I’m quite intrigued since I don’t always like the taste of maple or honey for everything. I love brown sugar so I’m trying to find a good alternative for it in baking. Thanks!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. Honestly, that was anew sugar term for me. :) For pledge purposes, we stick with honey and maple. Outside of the pledge, you have to decide what option works best for you while keeping the sugar to a minimum. It does look like it is one of the lesser processed forms.

  4. I need a sweetener in my coffee. I had switched to stevia, the white refined kind, but read that the high heat and high amount of processing made it not such a great choice, so I switched back to sugar. What is a good, whole food, clean sweetener for coffee?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Kristi. Lisa often uses maple syrup. My coffee sweetener of choice is a small amount of coconut palm sugar.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Netty. For pledge purposes, only honey and maple syrup are approved. Outside of the pledge, we look at any added sugar as sugar. Some may be slightly higher in some nutrients and minerals but we look at sugar as sugar no matter the form. I personally use coconut palm sugar but I use it very sparingly. ;)

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Debbie. Molasses is not something we use as a sweetener. For pledge purposes only maple syrup and honey are permitted. Outside of the pledge, molasses might be considered slightly more processed but it is better than refined sugars and has a slightly better nutrient profile. It it has a pretty strong taste, however, and is not as versatile as honey and maple. ~Amy

  5. I am overwhelmed in the honey section at the grocery store, clover? wildflower? raw? organic? How do I know I’m buying the “right” honey?

  6. Hi! I use sorghum often. If you aren’t familiar, it is made pretty much exactly like maple syrup. What are the thoughts on this? Thanks!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Amy. I’m not all that familiar with sorghum as a sweetener though I do use sorghum flour for gluten free baking. As a sweetener, it certainly stands above sugar nutritionally. :)

  7. Hello!

    I am new to this and have a lot of questions, especially about sugars! Do you think that 100% organic blue agave is an acceptable sweetener to use?

  8. What are your thoughts on molasses? I have access to homegrown sugar cane and molasses (produced right down the road) and wonder how I would substitute it for maple syrup?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Stacy. Lisa pretty much sticks to honey and maple syrup, so that is not a sub that we’ve tried. Molasses has a pretty distinctive flavor so is a little less all purpose as a sweetener but it is the most nutrient dense out of all of them.:)

  9. Just curious. If I grew my own sugar cane and hand cranked the juice out of it. Would that be considered a “real food”? We just saw a video on how to do it. when I was little my gpa would cut chunks of sugar cane and let us chew on it as a natural candy. Any thoughts?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. Certainly that is a step up from table sugar! :) It is important to keep in mind that sugar is sugar and we need to limit our consumption of it. ~Amy

  10. How do you substitute brown sugar in recipes? I have a favorite recipe that calls for 1/4 cup honey and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Any suggestions how to change the brown sugar to healthier version in my baked goods?

  11. Hi there! Love your blog and all the wonderful advice and ideas. Question about honey. What type, specifically, do you use? I’m assuming raw honey but I want to make certain before I attempt the sandwich bread recipe. Farmer’s market tomorrow and I’m pretty sure they have a honey stand. Thanks!

  12. out of curiosity, has anyone tried dehydrating maple syrup for use when you need a dry sugar? I haven’t tried it, but while I was making oatmeal this morning, I noticed that there was some dried syrup at the top of the bottle, and began wondering whether or not that would work. it just seems that all the unprocessed sugars are liquid, and most baking recipes call for a dry sugar….

  13. I started out with one question and now, after reading the comment above me, I have two! Both of these may be really dumb questions, but here goes:
    -I didn’t know there was a difference between raw honey and processed honey?? If I get it from a farmer does that mean it’s raw and from the store processed?
    -Does Lisa use any kind of granulated sugar/brown cane sugar, etc at all or does she still only stick to honey and maple syrup?
    On another note, I am attempting to recommit to real foods after reading 1/3 of the way through the book Salt, Sugar, Fat. It’s quite an interesting read!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Laura. There are no dumb questions here. :) Raw honey will specify that it is raw honey. If you have doubts, ask the farmer. Lisa, on occasion, will use organic granulated sugar but it doesn’t happen often. :) And yes, that is a great book! ~Amy

      1. So if I were going to occasionally use sugar, organic granulated would be the best option instead of raw, etc? Also, what is the difference between raw honey and just regular honey (that I get from a farmer)?

      2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Hi again. Because Lisa uses it so infrequently, she doesn’t worry about the form so much. But, there is nothing preventing you from buying raw sugar if that is what you prefer. Raw honey is not heated and this ensures that the vitamins, living enzymes and other nutritional elements stay in tact.

  14. What is your opinion on raw honey versus processed honey? Is one preferable or better than the other? Is it assumed that one or the other is being used in the recipes provided on the website?

      1. Just to double-clarify, please Amy….so raw local honey is ok (even preferred) in the real recipes here on your website? Wanted to make sure I didn’t need to take an extra step before adding it to the recipe. Thank you so much!

  15. We only use “Sweetleaf Stevia liquid” only two ingredients: purified water & organic stevia leaf. Very healthy according to various reputable sources not like the powdered versions at all. We
    purchase at local health food store in Charlotte or online at Amazon.com.

  16. Did anyone have a chance to look into that “Monk fruit” alternative? I’m curious about both the “In the Raw” or “Nectresse” form and the “luo han guo”/liquid form. As my niece is diabetic, I’m wondering if this is a better option than some of the sweeteners that we currently use.


  17. Today at a local Kroger I found “unprocessed, organic brown cane sugar. Is this acceptable on the pledge?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Melissa. The only sweeteners allowed during the pledge are honey and maple syrup. Outside of the pledge, we encourage you to limit your consumption of sugar (regardless of type) as much as possible but it is not prohibited. :) Good luck. ~Amy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi. No, we’ve have not tried these. The ingredient list is a winner. And, no organic is recommended with many items but not required. ~Amy

  18. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Noelle. Sucanat is minimally refined and would not be appropriate during the pledge. Sucanat, coconut palm sugar, and muscovado while better sugar choices should otherwise be used in moderation. ~Amy

  19. I recently learned about a sweetener on Dr. Oz called Monk Fruit in the Raw. The box reads the ingredients as dextrose and monk fruit extract. Would this be an acceptable alternative sweetener according to the pledge?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Lauren. I’ve no real knowledge of this product. I will look into it out of curiosity. However, on the pledge honey and maple syrup are the only sweeteners that should be used. Best of luck. ~Amy

  20. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Tracey. Xylitol is extracted from corn husks and hardwood and is certainly processed/refined. It boasts some health benefits but the jury is still out. It can also be uncomfortable to digest. There are many real food alternatives if you need a dry ingredient. Have you tried coconut palm sugar: http://foodbabe.com/2011/12/19/ditch-refined-sugar/? Best of luck. ~Amy

  21. I am trying to find a dry substitute for sugar for homemade premade mixes. I have tried sucanat, but my daughter is not a fan. My sister-in-law mentioned xylitol but I’m finding mixed reviews in my research? Is it considered refined? Can it be used as a substitute?

  22. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Tonya. Cane sugar is refined. We try to avoid refined sugars whenever possible. ~Amy

      1. I really don’t understand why maple syrup is okay but maple sugar is “refined” when maple sugar is made simply from boiling it a few more minutes than maple syrup.

        I was also wondering why you consider molasses not to be a “real food” since it is made from a very similar process as maple syrup.

      2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Hi Crystal. Outside of the rules, other forms of sugar are okay as long as sugar, in general, is used in great moderation. I use coconut palm sugar to sweeten my morning coffee as well as molasses and sucanat from time to time. The pledge rules are meant to encompass whole foods and only the least processed forms of ingredients. Lisa sticks with honey and maple syrup except for rare occasion. ~Amy

      3. I understand that. It seems to be the “canned” answer for when anyone asks anything about sweeteners. I was just hoping that a more direct question might yield a more specific answer but apparently not. I was just trying to figure out why sorghum/molasses is considered processed while maple syrup is considered whole food when they both go through a very similar process of boiling off water to get the sugary syrup leftover. Wondering if it is a random/arbitrary selection or if there was reasoning behind it, but I understand that you aren’t necessarily privy to that information yourself. I just like to fully research things and not take one person’s opinion, when there is no documentation or research to back it up. I thought Lisa may have reasons for her selections.

      4. Crystal – Thanks for your inquiry. Part of the reason we were satisfied with only those 2 sweetener options is because sweeteners in general should be limited so we were okay with limiting the options as much as possible. Yes, in the end “added sugar is sugar” and if you start comparing similar options under a microscope it becomes hard to decide where to draw the line – but we just had to draw that line somewhere. I didn’t do a deep dive research project on all the different options because that wasn’t really the point. I hope that helps.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Mandy. I am really not that familiar with liquid stevia. I do know the white powder form in which it is sold in the stores is pretty processed, so, I’m not sure how the liquid version differs. Jill

  23. Do you have a standard replacement ratio? For example, I have a banana bread recipe that calls for 1/2 cup of sugar. Do you replace that with a half cup of honey/maple syrup? Quarter cup?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Jessica. I don’t have a standard replacement. You may want to try and do an internet search to see if you can come up with what an appropriate substitution ratio might be. Jill

    2. Hi!
      While reading How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman I came across this conversion for sugar to honey in baking:
      1. Reduce liquid by 1/4 cup for every cup of honey.
      2. For every cup of honey, add1/2 teaspoon of baking powder to balance the honey’s acidity.
      3. When substituting in quick breads, cookies, and cakes, reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees to prevent over browning.

      Also keep in mind that honey is 25 percent sweeter than sugar, so you can use it more sparingly.

      Hope this helps!