Taste Test: Healthy Sugar Alternatives

Bon Appetit

Kick your sugar habit without relying on the artificial stuff. A nutritionist and chef picks her top natural sweeteners.

Coconut Secret Coconut Crystals

(Photo by Matt Duckor)

I used to be a sweets freak. I carried licorice like cigarettes, rewarded workouts with chocolate. Not anymore.

Since becoming a holistic nutritionist and vegetarian chef, I've cut out processed foods and refined sugars. It's prompted positive changes in my energy, mood, and sleep. I even shed a few pounds. And because sugar contributes to depressed immune function, bone loss, and more, I know reducing my consumption has improved my health.

But I managed to keep my sweet tooth--without turning to artificial sweeteners. Instead, I cook with natural, less-refined alternatives like these favorites. They're not an excuse to eat unlimited sweets, but by choosing ingredients that retain nutrients, I make desserts that actually nourish me. Here's what I use.

Coconut Palm Sugar

A no-brainer sugar replacement that's rich in potassium and iron. Similar in taste and appearance to brown sugar, it can be substituted 1:1 for white or brown sugar without making other changes. Find it at natural foods stores and some supermarkets.

Recommended brand: Coconut Secret

Whole Foods Pitted Dates

(Photo by Matt Duckor)


A sweetener and a whole food. The caramel-like Medjool variety is my go-to for raw desserts (like these Cocoa-Date Truffles). Dates add a complex sweetness and bind ingredients well. I also slice this quality carb onto my oatmeal in place of brown sugar.

Pick organic unsulfured Medjool dates

Madhava Agave Nectar

(Photo by Matt Duckor)

Agave syrup

Agave dissolves easily, so it's my first choice for cold beverages (good-bye, simple syrup!). And it's sweeter than white sugar, so I can use less of it.

Try using agave syrup in our Strawberry Tarts with Ginger-Nut Crust.

Recommended brand: Madhava

Blis B Maple Syrup

(Photo by Matt Duckor)

Maple Syrup

Another favorite, and not just because I'm Canadian. It adds depth--plus manganese and calcium--to marinades and homemade granola. And it's great in baked goods:

For basic cakes, replace 1 cup sugar with 1 cup syrup, and reduce other liquids by 1/3 to 1/2 cup to compensate for the extra liquid (you'll get the hang of it). I prefer grade B for its robust taste.

Recommended brand: Buy local. We like Blis B Grade Michigan Maple Syrup

Mesquite Powder

(Photo by Matt Duckor)


The mesquite tree, common to the American southwest, produces a beanlike pod that can be dried and pulverized for use as a sweetener or flour. It's gluten-free, with a low glycemic index, and high in fiber and protein.

Sprinkle mesquite powder onto oatmeal, add it to smoothies, or replace a percentage of regular flour in baking recipes. Mesquite adds a warm, mellow caramel flavor to almost any food that needs a touch of sweetness.

Recommended brand: Navitas Naturals

Organic Molasses

(Photo by Matt Duckor)

Blackstrap Molasses

This robust, mineral-rich by-product of refined white sugar is viscous and nearly black in color. It adds a wonderful depth to stews and chilis and tastes great in smoothies and hot beverages. Unsulphured and organic is best.

Recommended brand: Wholesome Sweeteners

Organic Brown Rice Syrup

(Photo by Matt Duckor)

Brown Rice Syrup

Thick and honey-colored, and only about half as sweet as sugar, brown rice syrup is derived by culturing cooked rice with enzymes to break down the starches, then straining off the liquid and reducing it to the desired consistency. It's great over pancakes, in coffee or tea, or substituted for other sweeteners in baking. High-quality rice syrup should only contain brown rice and filtered water.

Recommended brand: Lundberg

More from Bon Appetit:

25 One-Bite Appetizers

Junk Food Makeover: Healthier Chicken Nuggets

Top 20 Best-Tasting Burger Recipes

Healthy French Fry Alternatives

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