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10 Natural Ways To Sweeten Your Food

Trying to steer clear from sugar? These 10 Natural Sweeteners are perfect to replace white and brown sugar in your favourite recipes.
Aug 15, 2017 | Joy McCarthy

I love a little something sweet on a daily basis. In fact, it's become a bit of an unwritten rule to have dark chocolate in the office at all times (organic and fair-trade, of course!) which is way better than the M&Ms I used to snack on all day during my pre-nutritionist marketing days. To be fair, MARS was my client but that's beside the point, haha! 

The major difference between the sweets that I enjoy now and the sweets I used to enjoy is the type of sugar that is used to sweeten them. Before, almost all of the sweets I consumed contained refined sugar, whereas now, I avoid refined sugar completely and turn to natural sweeteners that leave me feeling nourished, balanced and joyous! Refined sugar, on the other hand, does the complete opposite.

The Problem With Conventional Refined Sugar

Aside from the fact that refined sugar spikes our blood sugar and is a completely nutrient-dead food (as in, it comes with zero health benefits), it is also almost always genetically modified (GMO) since it's derived from sugar beet. Consuming refined sugar on a regular basis also robs our own body of nutrients, such as B vitamins (important for energy) and minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which essentially leaves us bankrupt of these nutrients. 

So while a refined sugar-containing treat may give you a quick burst of pleasure, it will also leave you with fluctuating blood sugar levels which will ultimately lead to an energy crash, or the classic 3:00pm crash.Regular consumption of it is also a great way to fast track aging, wrinkles, poor gut health and potentially even weight gain, candida and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

I'm sure most people know the effects of refined sugar by now, but not as many people know where refined sugar is hiding beyond the obvious sources. Here are just a few of them:

It's no surprise that people have become so conditioned to crave sugar. But in reality, we shouldn't need to rely on a sweet flavour after every meal and snack.

Now I'm not saying all tastes of sweets are all bad. In fact, I actually advise clients to incorporate a hint of a sweet flavour into every meal so that your palette is completely satisfied and you don't go craving sweets after meals. For example, when making a homemade salad dressing, add in about 1/2 tsp raw honey to olive oil, apple cider vinegar and dijon mustard. You may hardly taste it, but your taste buds will definitely pick up on it and will be satisfied as a result! It's so yummy too!

There are lots of sweetener options you can use to sweeten your food naturally that still provide a boat load of nutrition and aren't just void of nutrients like refined sugar is. Take the recipes in my Sweets + Treats section of the blog, for example :) Consuming treats that contain natural sweeteners actually provide nourishment and will leave us feeling more satiated so we aren't left with more cravings after we're finished them.

I'm going to be highlighting 10 of my favourite natural sweetener options today that I use in my cooking and baking, so you can still enjoy your sweet treats and feel joyous too! You can also watch the recap in this video below (although I only mention 8 in the video).

10 Natural Ways To Sweeten Your Food

1. Ripe Bananas

Don't be so quick to toss those brown bananas! They are AMAZING in baking because they are naturally sweet, but contain a wealth of nutrition as well, by being rich in fiber and vitamin B6. It also contains a naturally present enzyme called amylase which helps to digest the starches in the banana. I love throwing them on top of oatmeal or overnight oats, in a smoothie (instead of agave nectar), mashing them up in apple sauce or chia seed pudding, or best yet, using them in my Coconut Flour Banana Pancakes!

2. Organic Coconut Syrup

Mmm, I love the nice mild flavour of Organic Coconut Syrup! And good news – no coconut palms are harmed through the nectar tapping process! Once you tap the Coco Nucifera palm it will continue to produce sap for 20 years or more – woohoo! Since the coconut nectar is naturally sweet right out of the tree, it doesn't require high heat evaporation techniques or chemical processing to make it much sweeter so you can be confident you're getting a very pure product rich in raw living enzymes. If you haven't had Coconut Syrup, it's probably closest to pure maple syrup so if you love that, you're in for a treat! I especially love that Coconut Syrup is lower on the glycemic index than regular sugar to prevent blood sugar spikes and that it can be used easily in any baking. 

3. Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is made from the highest quality flower nectar and is a natural source of B vitamins and amino acids. Much like its sibling, coconut syrup, it is low on the glycemic index coming in at 35, whereas refined sugar banks a whopping 100 on the scale! If you're used to baking with brown sugar, you will love how easy coconut sugar is to swap into recipes since it can be used at a 1:1 ratio with brown sugar. Did I mention it tastes really good? Try it in this Toasted Coconut Vegan Ice Cream or in my Chocolate Protein Squares on pg. 154 of Joyous Health!

4. Coconut Butter

Oh my – where do I start?! I'm obsessed with coconut butter! Since I'm a pancake monster, I use it on top of my pancakes instead of maple syrup all the time (as seen in the picture above). I also make a smoothieevery morning for Walker, Vienna and I and you can bet that coconut butter often finds its way in there! Coconut butter comes from the whole meat of the coconut, meaning it's loaded with protein, fiber and fat. This makes it far more blood sugar balancing than any other sweeteners since protein, fiber and fat help to slow the release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream. I'm not afraid to admit that occasionally I'll eat it straight off the spoon - haha!

5. Cinnamon

Mmm, the warming spice of Cinnamon :) This is a beautiful naturally sweet spice that is loaded with so many health benefits. It's super high in antioxidants, blood sugar balancing (great for diabetics or those who are hyperglycemic) and rich in phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory. I love to sprinkle it on everything from overnight oats, smoothies or use in my baking. You must try myCinnamon Almond Butteror my Cinnamon Roasted Chickpeas on pg. 171 in my book, Joyous Detox! When buying cinnamon, look for Ceylon Cinnamon (Cha's Organics is my go-to brand!) which is actually the more nutrient-dense "real" cinnamon. Conventional cinnamon which most people are familiar with is known as Cassia cinnamon which contains a component called coumarin, a toxic flavouring agent. Be prepared for some bold, spicy flavour in your first Ceylon Cinnamon experience – a little goes a long way :)

6. Apple Sauce

Yup, I'm bringing back applesauce, but not the kind you scoop out of little plastic containers – the homemade kind! You can find my recipe for Homemade Organic Applesauce here. You can keep the apple skin on or take it off, but I prefer to keep it on since that's where all of the fiber is which is going to make this a much more blood sugar balancing snack. Applesauce is great to use in baking or to mix into yogurt and is also a great vegan alternative to eggs (or in the event that you are out of eggs) since you can just use 1/4 cup of apple sauce for 1 egg. For more egg substitutions, you can download my FREE guide here!

7. Dried Cranberries

I love dried fruit (especially dried cranberries!) but there are a few ways to go about sourcing and using it to ensure you're getting all of the health benefits and to prevent spiking your blood sugar. Dried fruit is naturally very high in sugar which is why you don't want to eat it on its own. It's beneficial to eat it with other blood sugar stabilizing foods that contain fats and protein, like nuts and seeds. You'll also want to make sure it's free of sulfites (look for a muted colour, versus a vibrant "fake" colour), artificial flavours and added sugar. When sourced and used correctly, it can provide the perfect burst of sweetness to a salad, oatmeal, quinoa bowl of my Apricot Oat Granola Muffins on pg. 139 in Joyous Health! 

8. Raw Honey

Raw Honey is one of my favourite natural sweeteners (specifically, Beekeeper's Naturals!) It is the complete opposite of refined sugar in that it comes with SO many health benefits and nutritional properties! It's loaded with beneficial enzymes, B vitamins, amino acids and immune-boosting properties. One thing about Raw Honey though is that you can't heat or cook it, or else you're essentially killing all of the beneficial properties. But it is great to use drizzled on top of granola and coconut yogurt, oatmeal or dolloped in my Turmeric Ginger Tea! 

9. Pure Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is definitely one of the more common natural sweeteners I use (and no, maple syrup doesn't equal Aunt Jemima!). Aunt Jemima isn't actually maple syrup at all, hence why they call it "original syrup" which contains ZERO maple syrup and a whole lot of high fructose corn syrup, caramel colour and artificial flavours. Yuck! There's nothing better than pure maple syrup. Not only does it taste like liquid gold, it's also packed with antioxidants, zinc for the immune system and it supports skin health due to its anti-inflammatory effect. You will love it in my Chewy Chocolate Chip Tahini Cookies and these Sweet Potato Brownies.

10. Brown Rice Syrup

I don't use Brown Rice Syrup as much as other natural sweeteners however it is pure glucose and contains NO fructose whatsoever which makes it an excellent choice. Plus it has a sticky texture making it idea for recipes like Granola Bars since the sticky consistency helps to hold them together and prevent them from crumbling apart.

Other natural sweeteners I love that aren't mentioned here, but that you could definitely use in your cooking or baking is yacon syrup, stevia (in its purest green powder form) and Medjool dates. These are the only sweeteners I use in my recipes that you'll find on the blog or in my books, Joyous Health and Joyous Detox, so you can indulge 100% guilt-free!

What is your favourite natural sweetener and your favourite recipe to use it in?

Angie   •   August 24, 2017

Joy, I was so happy to find this particular e-mail this morning in my Inbox! I have been using a number of those you mentioned as sweeteners for my baking. The latest addition to my pantry is coconut nut sugar, nice to read that it can be used at a 1:1 ratio for brown sugar, yay!!!! Have a great day 😊

Rachel Molenda   •   August 24, 2017

Robin   •   August 24, 2017

So glad you didn't include Stevia as one of your favourites. A little known fact about Stevia is it is derived from the same plant as ragweed which a lot of people are allergic to. I had something sweetened with stevia once and ended up at the hospital. Not fun. Have to be very careful to read labels as it is in a lot of products, even some wine!

Rachel Molenda   •   August 24, 2017

Nicole   •   August 24, 2017

Thank you for the tip to add a hint of sweetening to salad dressings and something a little sweet to each meal. I find I frequently crave sweets after a meal, so if these tips can help with thise cravings it will help me achieve my health goals :) On a different note, the link for 3 tips to help with IBS symptoms in the newsletter isn't working but I am very interested in reading the article.

Rachel Molenda   •   August 25, 2017

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Riya   •   September 12, 2017

Very nice and interesting blog thabks for posting such valuable blog


Sandy J.   •   October 31, 2017

Hi! You mention sugar beets above being genetically modified? I just watched your video on what’s in my pantry and have been enjoying dandy blend for a week now and love it! Put it in a jar and tossed the bag but I remember reading it’s comprised of sugar beets? I thought it was a healthy coffee alternative. Please advice.


Nicole   •   April 10, 2018

Hi Joy! Wondering why honey is listed on many sites as a healthy sweetener alternative even though it is 100% fructose, which I thought had many negative effects? I am trying to limit my intake of pro-inflammatory foods and fructose keeps coming up as a big one! Any insight or help you can provide here? Thanks! :)

Rachel Molenda   •   April 10, 2018

Jessica   •   April 10, 2018

Hello :) I had not realized until reading this blog that you couldn't heat raw honey (makes sense when you think about it though!). Was curious then if/why it's ok to use it in a tea, as the above-mentioned Ginger Turmeric Tea does? Does the heat not ruin all the beneficial properties? Thanks, Jessica

Rachel Molenda   •   April 11, 2018

Charlene C.   •   December 11, 2018

What are your thoughts on Organic Cane sugar?

Joy McCarthy   •   December 11, 2018

Julie Petch   •   June 11, 2019

Hi Joy, what about Stevia and Mink fruit? At one point my naturopath said I can only have stevia, no other sweetener at all as I purged off of sugar

Joy McCarthy   •   June 11, 2019

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