From Scratch: A Glossary of Natural Sweeteners

March 1, 2012

Maple Syrup
Photo by Sarah Shatz

We're not short-listing sugar as a health food, but there's no denying natural sweeteners contain nutrients lost in the making of their highly processed brethren. In their less refined states, natural sweeteners like honey, molasses, and palm sugar have a lot more to offer in the flavor department (with floral, woodsy, and herbal notes) than denuded table sugar.

Glycemic Index ratings help determine the impact of a food’s carbohydrates (relative to glucose) on blood sugar levels and are part of the buzz surrounding natural sugars. 

  • The highest point on the index is 100, attributed to glucose.
  • Foods lower on the GI scale will offer a more sustained release of energy, rather than a spike.
  • Low GI sweeteners include: brown rice syrup (25), raw honey (30), and agave syrup (15).

Types of Natural Sweeteners by Origin

Sugar Cane


  • The juice from the sugar cane is squeezed out then boiled down to a syrup from which sugar crystals are extracted. The remaining syrup is molasses, which gets darker and more nutrient-dense as the boiling continues. 
  • Three types of molasses are available: light, dark, and blackstrap.
  • Blackstrap molasses is practically considered a health food and contains potassium, calcium, iron, and many other vitamins and minerals.
  • Molasses is also labeled as sulphured or unsulfuredSulphured molasses is made from young sugar cane and requires sulphur dioxide to be added during extraction, which acts as a preservative. Unsulphured molasses is made from mature sugar cane and does not require a preservative treatment.

Evaporated cane juice (unrefined sugar) and turbinado (raw) sugar

  • These sugars go through the same extraction process as table sugar, but are less refined and contain trace nutrients, including calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.
  • Turbinado sugar is coarser than evaporated cane juice and can be added on top of baked goods for lasting crunch.

Grains and Plants

Brown rice syrup

  • This sweetener is made from cooked brown rice mixed with enzymes to break down the starches in the grain. The liquid strained off the fermented rice is cooked down to a thick syrup.
  • Brown rice syrup is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a light caramel flavor.

Barley malt syrup and powder

  • Barley syrup is created by cooking sprouted and fermented barley until a thick, rich syrup forms. 
  • Barley malt powder (or flour) can also be purchased and is used as a sugar subsititute.
  • Barley malt sweeteners have a subtle, toasted-cereal flavor.

Agave nectar

  • Agave nectar is extracted from the core of the agave cactus to create a mild syrup sweeter than white sugar.
  • Though agave nectar is often compared in flavor to honey, it is less viscous and more easily incorporates into cold beverages.

Trees and Bees

Maple syrup and sugar

  • These sweeteners come from the boiled sap of maple trees and have a sweeter effect than granulated sugar. 
  • The color and flavor of maple syrup depends upon the time of year the sap was harvested (generally, the earlier in the season, the lighter the syrup), and the weather and growing conditions. 
  • Maple syrup classified as Grade A Light Amber has the most delicate maple flavor. Look for Grade B maple syrup if you prefer a sweetener with deeper flavor. 

Coconut palm sugar

  • Coconut sugar is made from the reduced sap of the coconut palm tree and is loaded with minerals, including potassium, zinc, and iron.
  • This low GI sugar (35) is sold in crystalline, pressed cake, or paste form, and has a taste reminiscent of brown sugar.
  • Look specifically for pure coconut palm sugar. The sweetener is sometimes mixed with white sugar, so read the ingredient list carefully.


  • Honey isn't just a sweetener, it's also an antioxidant, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial. It has also been shown to soothe small burns when applied topically.
  • Raw, local honey is also sought after by allergy sufferers, as the sweetener provides tiny doses of pollen that can help develop a resistance to offending plants.

Substituting with Natural Sweeteners

  • Granulated natural sugars (evaporated cane juice and turbinado sugar) can replace white sugar 1:1.
  • Use 3/4 cup of maple syrup or honey for every 1 cup of granulated sugar.
  • Use 1 1/3 cups brown rice syrup or molasses for every 1 cup of granulated sugar.

Rum Apple Cake Baked Maple Chicken with Wild Rice and Bartlett Pear Pilaf
Photos by Sarah Shatz (left) and Joseph De Leo (right)


Crispy Cashew Rice Treats
Baked Maple Chicken with Wild Rice and Bartlett Pear Pilaf 
(pictured above, right)
Roasted Garlic and Balsamic Onion Jam
Coconut Winter Vegetables
Miso and Agave Glazed Salmon [FOOD52]
Maple Syrup and Dijon Vinaigrette [FOOD52]
Rum Apple Cake [FOOD52] 
(pictured above, left) 

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Winter Smoothies.

5 Comments Add a Comment
  • Missing_avatar

    jonne says: I think you got it wrong about maple syrup, the darker (someone say more robust flavor) of grade B syrup comes not from longer boiling times (as all sap turns into syrup at 219 degrees) but has more to do with the timing of when the sap is drawn off the trees. Lighter sap is typical of the earliest sap, later in the season the, as different chemicals become present in the soil and the tree trunk, the color of the syrup produced is darker. Although grading system differ between sugar maple regions, Grade C syrup in this country is not considered palatable for table use.

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
  • Maddy-macau-robuchon

    Maddy is the senior editor of Whole Foods Market Cooking.

    Maddy, Editor says: Thanks so much for the insight, jonne! I've updated the post accordingly.

    over 2 years ago
  • Arik_work

    Arik Markus is a team member at Whole Foods Market Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.

    chefarik says: Whole Foods Market is now also carrying "raw coconut nectar" as another option low on the glycemic index. It too is derived from coconut palm sap and is hydrolyzed at a low temperature to keep plenty of nutrients. Try it out!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
  • Missing_avatar

    laurenmatrale says: I read a few articles recently where they were saying brown rice syrup (even organic) contains high levels of arsenic. Should we reconsider buying products made with it - lots of organic granola and energy bars use it to sweeten?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
  • Maddy-macau-robuchon

    Maddy is the senior editor of Whole Foods Market Cooking.

    Maddy, Editor says: Hi Lauren, according to their website (here:, the FDA is conducting a study on arsenic levels in rice and rice products. Please refer to the link above for details. Basically, it seems like more information is needed on this subject before any recommendations can be made. Thank you for bringing this discussion to the table.

    over 2 years ago

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