“I get it. I really do. But I still want to know which natural sweeteners you use. What do you think about maple syrup? Or raw honey? How about stevia?” I get variations on this question in my inbox at least once a week, often times more. So, for those of you dying to know how I sweeten my foods, here it goes.
What is A Natural Sweetener?
This may seem obvious, but as more and more dubious products hit the market claiming to be “natural” sweeteners, I think it’s time to set the record straight. A natural sweetener is one that a person could reasonably expect to grow, harvest, and process themselves without the use of added chemicals, enzymes, or expensive machinery. So, let’s do a quick exercise.
Agave Nectar? — NOT NATURAL
Maple Syrup? — NATURAL
Miel de Agave (traditionally made agave nectar)? — NATURAL
Honey? — NATURAL
Truvia? — NOT NATURAL
Sorghum Syrup? — NATURAL
Turbinado Sugar? — NOT NATURAL
Sucanat? — NATURAL
Sugar Alcohols (like xylitol and erythritol) — NOT NATURAL
Are you starting to get the idea? While I don’t actually grow or process any of these natural sweeteners myself, I know *how* it’s done and know that I could do it myself. I don’t live in Vermont or the Carribean, and while I could raise honey bees, I don’t want to. The point here isn’t that I actually make all my own natural sweeteners, just that I could (given the right circumstances).
Stevia is an herb that tastes sweet on the tongue without any actual sugar molecules to send your metabolism into a tailspin. As such, it’s awfully nice to use when you’re trying to reduce sugar intake or go low-carb. The white, powdered versions of Stevia out there are highly refined mysteries and therefore suspect. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a white, powdered version of Stevia in my own kitchen, but I just don’t know how I’d do it. And unfortunately for most of the companies selling the stuff, they’re not willing to disclose how they do it either. So, for now, I’ll assume it’s some kind of weird, chemically-enhanced refining process and stay away from the stuff.
That said, the green-leaf stevia is a plant that I have actually grown on my own patio. I’ve used it for the following:
1) Adding fresh or dried leaves to tea leaves or other herbal teas before brewing in order to add a natural sweetness without the use of sugar.
2) Making a liquid stevia extract using vodka, which I then use to do things like make homemade chocolate milk for my kids or sweeten already brewed or cold beverages. I also use it in my better barbeque sauce recipe.
Coconut Sugar and/or Sucanat/Muscovado
I use these in baked goods or other recipes that call for granulated sugar. I can even substitute coconut sugar fairly well for sugar without it dramatically altering the final consistency or flavor of the recipe. Although these are still sugar and still bad for you, at least they’re unrefined and have the naturally-occurring trace minerals present.
I stir this into hot beverages, use it to sweeten dips or dressings, and use it to make my favorite ice cream. I very rarely substitute honey for granulated sugar in recipes as it has a strong (and different!) flavor as well as a different consistency. As a rule, though, if you do try to substitute it, you’ll want to follow the tips in this how-to.
This occasionally gets used to top our grain-free pancakes. I’m sure there are other uses for it, but that’s all this sweetener does in our house.
This, too, occasionally gets used to top our pancakes. Sorghum syrup is a traditional natural sweetener used in the South, but originally hails from Africa. I use it over these almond flour biscuits and in my pecan pie (instead of corn syrup).
How about you, how do you sweeten your foods?