Honey and Other Natural Sweeteners

by Catherine Haug, July 2009; revised oct 2011 to add link to related article

We hear so much these days about how sugar is bad for us, and we all know that too much sugar in our diet can cause weight issues. Consequently, many of our foods today are sweetened with so-called zero-calorie sweeteners:  sucralose (Splenda), asartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin, and stevia derivatives (Truvia, PureVia). Many processed foods have the controversial HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, or its new name: corn sugar) as an ingredient. And now there is controversy over agave nectar. What is a health-conscious person to do, and still enjoy a little sweetness?

We look toward natural, minimally-processed sweeteners as a reasonable alternative. The following are discussed in this article: honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, molasses, sorghum, and dried sugar cane juice (Sucanat or Rapadura) are all forms of sugar. Xylitol is a refined, naturally-occurring sugar-alcohol. Stevia is not a sugar, but rather an herb whose leaves contain intensely sweet substances called steviosides.  All of these are discussed in this article.

Oct 2, 2011 update: See also Natural Alternative Sugars for an update on xylitol and agave nectar, and a discussion of a new kid on the block: coconut crystals and nectar.

My apologies for this article being so long! I’ve created printable pdf versions of this discussion, by sweetener type. See:

Agave Syrup (‘Nectar’)

Because of an incredible marketing campaign, this “natural” sweetener is generally accepted as healthful.  But I advise caution with this one.

Oct 2, 2011 update: the Glycemic Research Institute has declared “agave [nectar] as unsafe for people with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and pre-diabetes.” (16)

Most brands of agave syrup are 90% fructose, which explains its low glycemic index; but this also makes it troubling if used to any significant degree.

Promoters of agave nectar say that it comes from the sap of the agave plant; the same sap used by traditional peoples to make tequila. But this is an extreme stretch of the truth! Commercial agave nectar is not made from collected sap, but rather from the shredded root or core of this inulin-rich agave plant.

Agave Sap vs Agave ‘Nectar’

This sap comes from the agave piña, the pineapple-like root stalk of the plant from which the leaves grow. During winter and spring, the plant becomes full of the sap to provide feed for the flower and developing seed. It is at this time that the piña is at its sweetest.

The sweet sap or aguamiel can be collected from the piña for use as a sweetener and medicinal purposes, as well as to make pulque (the national drink of Mexico), or to make fermented tequila. This sap is rich in D-fructose resulting from a natural process used by the plant to break down the inulin fiber into shorter poly-fructose molecules. (3)

However, most makers of agave nectar do not collect the sap. Instead, they collect and shred the whole piña, then treat it with enzymes (differing by producer), to break down the inulin and starches into simple sugars:

  • enzymes from Aspergillis niger mold via a patented process to break down the starch into glucose and inulin into D-fructose (16). This method produces a 50-50 mix of glucose and fructose similar to that of sucrose.
  • genetically engineered (GE) enzymes (the same as those used in making HFCS or “corn sugar”) can also be added to convert the glucose into L-fructose. This method produces a D- and L-fructose mix that can be as high as 92%! (4, 16)

Then the sugary mixture is further refined before bottling for sale as agave nectar.

What’s this about D- and L- Fructose? These are mirror image forms of this simple sugar, but only the D-form is found in nature; the L-form results during chemical synthesis of fructose, or when the GE enzymes mentioned above convert glucose to fructose. The problem with the L-form is that your body doesn’t recognize it and cannot use it for energy. Instead, it is detoxed in the liver by converting it to trigycerides (fat).

This can explain why people who consume HFCS, corn sugar or agave nectar gain weight, and develop diabetes and/or heart disease.


Some producers of agave nectar do not use the process described above, but rather follow the traditional methods of collecting the sap, or aguamiel, then concentrating it. This type of agave nectar is only about 50% fructose and 50% inulin (a fiber), and is potentially better for you. Caution: as with all sugars, it should be consumed in moderation.

However, it is difficult to know whether the Agave Nectar on your grocer’s shelf is the ‘good’ kind or the ‘bad’ kind. And you can’t trust the ‘Organic’ label either, because the product is made in Mexico where we do not have USDA Organic inspectors. It could be made from organically-grown agave, but then processed with GE enzymes, making it definitely un-Organic!


Agave sap and root contain inulin as the major energy storage system (rather than starch). And inulin has definite health benefits for humans, because it is a fiber. While true aguamiel is about 50% inulin, the 90% fructose-type agave nectar has very little inulin, because the GE enzymes converted it to L-fructose.

* Other excellent sources of inulin are:  onions, dandelion root, unripe bananas, artichokes and other thistles. Inulin is not as sweet as sugar, but is a reasonable sugar substitute.  Unfortunately, commercial sources of inulin are highly processed.

Using Agave Syrup in Recipes

This honey-like liquid is sweeter than honey and sugar, so you use less.  Substitute 1/3 cup agave syrup for 1 cup sugar in recipes.  Also reduce liquids by 1 – 2 tablespoons. (3)

However, I don’t recommend using this product, unless you know it is the healthful aguamiel variety.


Honey is probably one of the world’s oldest foods, mentioned in the earliest books of the Bible, at least 2000 years before Christ. And fermented honey, mead, is perhaps even older, as early humans found this drink of the gods in crooks of trees, where bees had made nests.  The honey had then gotten wet with dew, and fermented in place.

It’s worth noting that of all the forms of natural sugar sweeteners, it is the only one we can ‘grow’ here, by keeping honeybees and a blooming garden.

Honey contains several different sugars, including: fructose, glucose, sucrose, and maltose, which give it a rich flavor that is almost twice as sweet as table sugar.

While honey has a higher glycemic index than table sugar, when used by type-2 diabetics, honey causes a significantly slower rise in blood sugar, giving it a lower effective glycemic index for diabetics. Very interesting! (2)

Keep it Raw

There are many health claims for raw honey, which have more to do with its antioxidant and anti-microbial properties, than its nutritional value.  Indeed, honey is not a significant source of vitamins and minerals.

It is best to use raw honey, for many reasons:

  • It has more vital nutrients;
  • It is typically made locally;
  • Honey gathered from your local area is reported to help build up the body’s immunities to local allergens.

Some of the health benefits include: (1)

  • improve blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity;
  • effective cough suppressant for children;
  • skin moisturizer;
  • dressing wounds to reduce odors, swelling and scarring;
  • honey from bees foraging in your local area can help build immunities to allergies.

What accounts for raw honey’s miracle healing abilities? Perhaps the large amount of friendly bacteria in raw honey.(1) These bacteria produce many antioxidant, antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral compounds. But remember, these are lost if the honey is heated above 113 F. Honey also contains vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B6 (pyridoxine), iron and manganese.

See Gathering Summary: Pollinators and their Habitat for more on honeybees and honey.

Using Honey in Recipes

Honey is more than twice as sweet as table sugar. Replace 1 cup sugar with 3/4 cup honey, and reduce liquids by 2 – 4 tablespoons. Honey is more acidic than sugar, so add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acid. Reduce cooking temperature by 25 degrees. (2)

To liquify honey that has sugared, place the container in a bath of simmering water and allow it to warm gently.

Malted Barley Syrup

This sticky, slightly sweet, dark brown syrup is made from malted (sprouted) barley. The malting process produces many enzymes that break down the starches in barley to maltose, a disaccharide of glucose (2 molecules of glucose bonded together). It also contains complex carbs, enzymes and other proteins.

Using Malted Barley Syrup in Recipes

It is about half as sweet as sugar, with a distinct ‘malty’ flavor, and does not cause blood-sugar spikes. Because doubling the amount does not increase the sweetness of the recipe, it is best used in combination with other sweeteners. (1)

Maple Syrup

This form of sugar was used by Native Americans for centuries before Europeans came to the Americas. See Sugar from Trees for a good description on collecting maple sap, and turning it into syrup, with an emphasis on the Native American methods. (7)

It is made from the sap of maple trees, and then boiled until much of the water has evaporated. This process denatures the enzymes, so it is not as healthful as blackstrap molasses.

Sucrose is the most prevalent sugar in maple syrup, but fructose and glucose are also present. It’s unique and complex flavor is due in part to the presence of organic acids such as malic acid, and a wide variety of volatile organic compounds including vanillin, hydroxybutanone, and propionaldehyde.(8)

In addition to being sweet, maple syrup also provides the minerals potassium, calcium, magnesium and manganese; vitamins A, Biotin, Niacin, Folic Acid, Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Riboflavin (B2); and amino acids.6 However, despite this nutrient profile, maple syrup has a similar glycemic index to table sugar, and should be used in moderation.

Using Maple Syrup in Recipes

It is about twice as sweet as sugar, so you use less. Replace 2 cup sugar with 1/2 – 2/3 cup maple syrup, and reduce liquids by 3 tablespoons per cup of sugar.

It comes in two grades:  Grade A is used for pancake syrup; grade B is used for baking, and has a higher nutritive value and flavor.


A thick, syrupy liquid, molasses (treacle in old English) is a biproduct of sugar production from sugarcane or sugar beets. Beet molasses is unpalatable (highly bitter, due to the presence of oxalates), but used in animal feed.

Sucrose is the predominant sugar in molasses, the same sugar in table sugar. Small amounts of free glucose and fructose are also present.

Blackstrap molasses (third grade, from sugarcane) is the richest in non-sugar nutrients; it provides significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, and smaller amounts of copper, selenium and pyroxidine (vitamin B6).  If the processing of the cane juices does not include high heat, molasses can also contain trace active enzymes and proteins.

Most commercial molasses is treated with sulfur dioxide as a preserving agent (sulfur dioxide is also used to preserve many dried fruits). Unsulfured molasses is available in most Natural Foods stores.

Using Molasses in Recipes

Regular molasses (not blackstrap) has similar sweetness to table sugar; replace 1 cup sugar with 1 cup regular molasses; reduce liquids by 1 -2 tablespoon.

Blackstrap molasses is not as sweet as sugar; replace 1 cup sugar with 1 1/3 cup blackstrap, and reduce liquids by 1 -2 tablespoon.

Sweet Sorghum

Sorghum is often confused with molasses; it is similar product, but made from the sorghum plant, a cereal grass, and is more golden in color.  It was introduced to the Americas by African slaves, and is a common ingredient in many soul-food recipes. Blackstrap molasses is a good substitute.

As a grain, sorghum is favored by gluuten-intolerant people as a porridge.

The farthest north that sorghum is grown commercially, is Iowa. If you are interested in growing sorghum, check out this post on eHow: How to Grow Sorghum.

Up here in Montana, we are very familiar with a species of sorghum:  Johnson grass, and consider it a noxious weed.  It is not used to make sweet sorghum.

Using Sorghum in Recipes

Sorghum has similar sweetness to table sugar; replace 1 cup sugar with 1 cup regular molasses; reduce liquids by 1 -2 tablespoon.

Sugar Cane Juice, Dried

This is a general category that includes:  Rapadura, Sucanat, Sugar-in-the-Raw, and Turbinado. Unfortunately, not all of these are subjected to the same minimal processing, so buyer beware.

  • Many brands of sucanat use processing that separates the sugar from the molasses, then some of the molasses is added back to give it a light golden color.  Such brands have lost many of the minerals and vitamins from the original cane juice
  • Sugar-in the -Raw and Turbinado are similar to sucanat, in that the molasses has been removed, but the sugar is subjected to more processing than sucanat.  It is basically the same as table sugar, except that it has not been bleached.
  • Rapadura has never had the molasses removed, explaining why it is darker in color than Sucanat.  It is reliably the best of the types of dried sugar cane juice.

I can find no data on the glycemic index for these forms of sugar, but I suspect they are the same as table sugar.  The benefit offered by Rapadura is that it is unprocessed and contains most of the original supportive nutrients as raw sugar juice, which could help the body digest and assimilate the sugar in a more balanced way.

Using Dried Sugar Cane Juice in Recipes

These all have the same sweetness as table sugar; substitute cup for cup in recipes. No changes to liquids is needed.


Unlike all of the sweeteners described above, stevia is not a sugar. It is the Stevia rebaudiana herb that contains sweet substances (collectively 200-300 times sweeter than sucrose) known as steviosides. And because it is not a sugar, its metabolism is totally different. Note that it cannot be used like sugar for food preservation.

This is now my favorite sugar substitute in most recipes, because it has significantly lower calories, provides additional health benefits, and is not a form of sugar. But it takes some experimenting to learn how to use it in recipes, because you use so little of it. Refer to my earlier post:  Cooking with Stevia.

Using the leaves

The sweetness is in the leaves. They can be used fresh to sweeten beverages like coffee, tea and lemonade (about 1 leaf per cup of beverage). They can also be dried, which increases the sweetness, then stored in an air-tight container such as a glass canning jar. Crushing the dried leaves to a powder increases the sweetness even more.

A tincture can also be made from the leaves for use in recipes where the green color of the dried leaves would be undesirable.

See The EssentiaList: Growing Stevia for details on drying the leaves and making the tincture.

Growing stevia in Montana

A perennial native to central and south America, stevia can be grown as far north as  southern Canada, but in colder climes such as ours, it will likely not survive the winter outdoors. Instead, after harvesting, move the scaled-back plant indoors for the winter (9).

See  The EssentiaList: Growing Stevia for details.

Stevia Metabolism

Research on stevia metabolism is quite young. A 1986 study of dietary steviosides indicate that steviosides are not absorbed into the blood, but are metabolized in the gut by probiotic bacteria, to steviol and glucose. The steviol is excreted in the feces; the glucose is absorbed and metabolized normally. (10)

There is evidence that moderate consumption of stevia improves insulin sensitivity, but the mechanism is not known. Other studies indicate that stevia can increase insulin production in type-2 diabetic rats. (11)

I’ve not been able to find any studies on the effects of long-term use of stevia.

Several studies have reported negative findings regarding stevia use, but their conclusions are open to dispute. Bear in mind that such studies and conclusions may be biased by conflicts of interest in favor of commercial sweeteners such as aspartame or HFCS (corn sugar).

Rebiana (Truvia and Pure Via): A efined stevia derivative

Note that there are several new products derived from stevia that are available in processed foods, and even as sugar substitutes in the baking aisle.  To date, these include Truvia (TM), which was developed for the Coca Cola company; and PureVia (TM) developed for Pepsi Co. (12)

These stevia derivatives are likely safer than other artificial sweeteners, so if you must buy commercial sweet products, look for these on the label.  But if you are cooking and baking at home, use the real stevia herb or stevia extract powder.


Xylitol is a sugar alcohol; a 5-carbon sugar-like molecule, with molecular formula (CHOH)3(CH2OH)2. Its advocates are quick to point out that we even make xylitol in our own bodies as part of normal energy pathways. (13)

Of all the sugar alcohols, xylitol has the fewest side effects, and even has some exciting health benefits (14, 15):

  • Improves oral health by preventing dental cavities and gum disease by creating an unfriendly environment for bad bacteria;
  • Inhibits growth of bacteria that cause ear infections, especially in children;
  • Inhibits growth of Candida albicans, the organixm responsible for ‘yeast infections;’
  • Plays a role in reversing bone loss. in part by increasing calcium absorption from the gut;
  • Will not raise insulin levels, and improves insulin sensitivity, by being very slowly metabolized and thus stabilizing blood sugar; and
  • Helps reduce estrogen production in estrogen dominant people, and excessive male hormone production in women.

The makers of xylitol say it comes from the birch tree. And of course it can be obtained form birch, as the Scandinavians did during the lean years in the late 1800s (and perhaps even earlier); but most common commercial source is corn, and especially GMO corn.  It can also be found in many other fruits and veggies, including berries, plums, oats and mushrooms. (13)

Xylitol is about the same sweetness as table sugar and can be used as a direct substitute, except it cannot be used to make caramel. In my experience, it helps baked goods retain moisture. However, I don’t use it as an all-purpose sweetener, preferring stevia for most uses. I use it only in baked goods such as cookies, where sugar is an essential contributor to the structural texture of the food.


  1. Better Nutrition, February 2009
  2. www.wellness-interactive.com/foodlife/alternativesweeteners.htm
  3. Better Nutrition, December 2009
  4. articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/07/02/Agave-A-Triumph-of-Marketing-over-Truth.aspx
  5. www.wellness-interactive.com/foodlife/alternativesweeteners.htm
  6. curezone.com/foods/maple_syrup.htm
  7. Sugar from Trees (www.dnr.state.mn.us/young_naturalists/syrup/index.html)
  8. Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maple_syrup
  9. Stevia.net: Growing Stevia (www.stevia.net/growingstevia.htm)
  10. Stevioside: Toxicological Aspects (www.cookingwithstevia.com/toxic.html)
  11. Livestrong.com: Stevia and Insulin Reactions (www.livestrong.com/article/83499-stevia-insulin-reactions)
  12. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stevia
  13. xylitol.org (www.xylitol.org) and www.xylitol.org/drmakinen.asp#meta
  14. Xylitol: Our Sweet Salvation, by Sherill Sellman (www.laleva.cc/food/xylitol.html)
  15. Dietary Xylitol: herkules.oulu.fi/isbn951425158X/html/c135.html and subsequent pages
  16. Glycemic Research Institute: www.glycemic.com/AgaveReport.htm

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