The Healthiest and Most Sustainable Sweeteners

There are far better sweeteners than sugar. Which one is best for you?

Is there anyone who doesn’t love the taste of sweetness? We are born with the ability to detect sweetness, even at a minute level. Meanwhile, bitterness is our most disliked taste. (Of course, we can change our reactions to both tastes.) This innate preference for sweet over bitter helped us to survive over the millennia by avoiding poisonous plants which often have a bitter taste.

Science agrees there are five basic qualities of taste: savory, salty, bitter, sour, and sweet but many combinations of those five qualities are what make foods taste unique. Our tongues receive not only the taste quality but it assesses texture and temperature. This information is transmitted to our brains, along with the smell of what we are tasting, and this combined sensory experience results in what we call flavor.

There’s a lot going on when you bite into a chocolate chip cookie! Goey sweet chocolate, crumbly dough, maybe a crunchy, salty nut or two…

The smell of gooey chocolate baked in a sweet dough can trigger our salvia glands.
The smell of gooey chocolate baked in a sweet dough can trigger our salvia glands. Photo by Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

Sustainability Considerations

For many in wealthier countries, access to a cornucopia of products is both a gift and a danger. For decades we have outsourced our food production, exchanged seasonal eating for on-demand abundance, and created a massive fossil-fueled global agricultural system that grows a crop in one country (often using synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides), flies it to other countries, loads the plastic-wrapped product on semi-trucks which will likely drive hundreds of miles to deliver that product to your local grocery stores.

Despite the millions of food blogs that live on the internet, I seldom see bloggers incorporating sustainability as an important consideration. I think we have no choice at this point: as global citizens, we need to live an ethical lifestyle, caring for the earth, people, and the future. Over the last two decades, I have studied the impacts of our global agricultural system and have created my own set of sustainability standards. I focus on energy use, pollution, and waste.

Five Questions to Consider for Sustainable Purchasing

  1. Is the product organically grown? This, by far, is one of the most important aspects of sustainability. Healthy soil, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and other species are all affected by the misuse and repeated applications of synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemicals. Organic growers support the health of the soil first.
  2. Is the product grown locally? The average food product endures a 1500-mile trip from harvest to the grocery shelf. Not only does it lose some of its nutritive benefits but the transportation contributes to greenhouse emissions. Lastly, locally grown food supports a community, and imported food supports corporations (read my list of benefits of a strong local food economy here).
  3. How is the food packaged? It’s almost impossible to avoid plastic in the grocery store. If I want to purchase a manufactured food like horseradish sauce, I try to buy one in a glass jar instead of a plastic bottle. In this case, I am concerned about the waste of packaging and the one-time use of a plastic container. I reuse glass jars (don’t even ask me how many glass jars I have!) and though I can recycle some plastic, there are questions about how much recycling actually occurs.
  4. How much processing and transportation are used? The more processing, the more energy is used. And often the product is less nutritious (refined sugar and grains are examples of this). Our grocery stores are dependent on a system of food that is transported an average of 1500 miles from source to store.
  5. How much pollution and waste is generated in the production of the product? This is a new consideration for me but I became interested in this after learning about the toxic environmental impact of synthetic dyes used in the textile industry.

Refined Sugar 

Refined cane sugar, both white and brown, is a convenient and affordable option but refined sugar doesn’t contain any of the proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or fiber that exists in the actual plant so it contributes nothing except empty calories to human nutrition. There has been considerable research that shows that refined sugar is simply not a healthy choice for a sweetener. There is also evidence that refined sugar suppresses our immune system, which counters the benefits of taking care of your body.

Sustainability Concerns: Sugarcane is a tropical plant so has limited regions for production, requiring considerable amounts of transportation if you live outside of the tropics. Refined sugar is highly processed: sugarcane is first sent to mills for the first stage and then shipped to refineries. Many large sugarcane growers burn the leaves and tops of the sugarcane plants before harvesting the stalk for sugar refining. This contributes to climate change impacts, water pollution, and damaged soil as well as impacts the health of communities that live near the farms using this practice.

Sugarcane harvest in India.
Sugarcane harvest in India. Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay 

Molasses

Molasses is a by-product of cane sugar, made by extracting juice from crushed sugarcane. The juice is boiled down to reduce water content (called a reduction), producing the lightest and sweetest molasses. A second reduction produces thicker, darker, and less sweet molasses. A third reduction results in thick, sludge-like black molasses that taste bittersweet and is labeled as blackstrap molasses. 

Molasses is a by-product of cane sugar and is reduced multiple times to make several grades of molasses.
Molasses is a by-product of cane sugar and is reduced multiple times to make several grades of molasses. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Molasses does contain more nutrients than refined sugar, as well as more antioxidants than both honey and maple syrup. Because of its concentrated form, blackstrap molasses is the most nutritious and is high in potassium, calcium, and iron.

Sustainability Concerns: All of the concerns about sugarcane plus extensive use of energy for reductions.

Tree Syrups

It’s possible that the spring run of tree sap of certain trees in the northern hemisphere may have been the original plant sweetener for early humans and animals. Commercially prepared maple syrup has dressed pancakes and waffles for over a century but there are historical accounts from the 1700s of indigenous people making “maple sugar.” Unfortunately, many modern eaters have not actually tasted real maple syrup; the grocery store aisle of large plastic containers full of brown syrup is actually a cheaper version made using corn syrup and artificial flavors and dyes. 

Maple sap is tapped in early spring and then boiled down to create maple syrup.
Maple sap is tapped in early spring and then boiled down to create maple syrup. Image by diapicard from Pixabay 

True maple syrup is made by tapping the early spring run of sap in sugar maple trees and then boiling it to reduce the water content, leaving a thick brown syrup with a distinctive taste. Pure maple syrup contains minerals and antioxidants like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. But maple syrup contains a high amount of sucrose (the same ingredient that is in refined sugar) and may not be the best choice for someone trying to avoid sugars.

Birch syrup is another tree syrup made in the same way as maple syrup. Production and supply are limited so it is considerably more expensive. Its taste is distinctive: sweet with a bit of a savory and mineral-like taste.

Sustainability Concerns: Tree sap is an annual natural process and so tree syrups are sustainably harvested to ensure future production. As a temperate zone plant that requires cold, winter temps, it has a wider production area than sugarcane. Its reduction process is energy-intensive with 1 gallon of syrup made from 40 gallons of sap. Much of the North American syrups are manufactured in eastern and central Canada so transportation can be significant for some areas.

Date Syrup

Syrup made with dates has been used for thousands of years in the Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. Dates are rich in dietary potassium, fiber, iron, magnesium, and many trace elements. In addition, dates have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any dried fruit. The high amount of fiber in dates slows the release of sugars into our bloodstream, which makes them a healthier sweetener on the glycemic index.  

Often labeled as “date honey” or silan in commercially made brands, date syrups may have added sugar or artificial ingredients. Homemade date syrup is easy to make and likely to be more nutritious. Whole dates (pit removed) are often added to smoothies as a nutritious sweetener.

 Sustainability Concerns: Limited to tropical & subtropical regions for production so shipping is the biggest concern. In the US, dates are commercially grown in CA and AZ.

Date syrup can be purchased or made at home.
Date syrup can be purchased or made at home. Photo: PNG.com

Homemade Date Syrup Recipe

  1. Using kitchen shears with a bit of oil applied to the blades, cut one pound of pitted Medjool dates into uniform small pieces.
  2. Place in a pot with 4 cups of water. Simmer for 30 minutes and then allow to cool for 30 minutes.
  3. Puree in a food processor until smooth. Strain the paste and juice through cheesecloth, twisting and pressing to extract all of the juice.
  4. Return the juice to the pot and simmer until thickened to desired consistency. Store in a bottle in the refrigerator for several weeks. Use it much like you use maple syrup: on pancakes, waffles, and oatmeal.
  5. Don’t throw out the delicious date paste; it can be spread on toast and added to smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, and baked goods.

Apple Butter

Last year, I traveled up the Mount Hood Fruit Loop which is a highway that travels through miles and miles of historical family-owned orchards, along with some new wineries, a lavender farm, and an alpaca ranch. The October drive is gorgeous with fall colors, diffused autumn light, and an incredible view of Mount Hood, its flanks naked of snow, except for the glaciers at the very top. It’s a glorious way to shop for apples and pears!

Returning home with many pounds of many varieties of apples, I made applesauce, apple pie, apple cobbler, etc. Weary of peeling, I filled my slow cooker with apples that I cored and sliced, added 1/2 cup water, and put it on low for the day. Once the apples are mushy, the peels slide off and you can choose to pick them out or put them through a food mill. (To avoid this additional step, peel the apples before cooking.)

Apples and whole spices in the slow cooker for apple butter.
Apples and whole spices in the slow cooker for apple butter.

At this point, the apples will resemble applesauce. Put this sauce back into the slow cooker, add any additions* you would like, turn to the low setting, and leave the cover ajar. The goal is to cook most of the moisture out, developing the consistency of a fruit spread and a dark brown color. Depending on the moisture content of the apples, this process usually takes 12-36 hours, stirring now and then.

Apple butter can be stored in the freezer or can be canned using the water bath process. No slow cooker? You can find recipes online for making on the stovetop and in the oven.

Like honey, apple butter is a great substitute for sugar in recipes for cookies, quick breads, cakes, pies, French toast, pancakes, cooked breakfast grains, and dips. But it can also serve as a sauce for glazing chicken, pork, and ham. The All-Recipes website offers 15 recipes featuring apple butter as an ingredient.

*Additions to the apple butter include sugar, molasses, vinegar, and spices. Taste the butter and start off with small amounts. Most apples are sweet and apple butter carmelizes their natural sugars. Traditionally, a splash of vinegar was added to cut some of the sweetness. Brown sugar is better than white sugar but I don’t add sugar to my apple butter. I add a tablespoon of molasses to one batch of my apple butter which I use for baking gingerbread.

Sustainability Concerns: This one is a bit complicated: if you grow or have a local source of apples, then it’s likely the most sustainable and healthiest sweetener on this list. But if buying apples from the grocery store, especially out of season, there’s a good chance the apples were flown in from South America or New Zealand. Also, consider pesticide use: large corporate orchards regularly spray with pesticides (apples consistently appear on the annual Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of pesticide-laden produce). Smaller orchards and home orchards use less toxic means of reducing the impacts of pests.

Honey

Fossilized bee remains from 50 million years ago suggest that honey has been on Earth longer than we have. Before the first sugar cane plantations arrived in the Caribbean, honey was the prevalent sweetener for most of the world’s cultures. Unpasteurized or raw honey brings an abundance of its own healing actions: moistening, antiseptic, soothing, nutritious, a mild laxative, and an emollient. 

Raw honey has a small number of nutrients and minerals but it offers an array of beneficial plant compounds like antioxidants. Studies show that honey may benefit the cardiovascular system including reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol while raising HDL (the good) cholesterol. Honey can soothe irritated tissue internally and is effective at healing burns and wounds when applied topically. Several studies show that honey is more effective and safer than over-the-counter products for suppressing coughs in children and adults. The FDA recommends that honey not be given to children aged one year and younger.

If purchased locally, honey is the most sustainably produced sweetener since beekeepers throughout North America sell raw honey. Avoid buying pasteurized honey, which is usually what is available in grocery stores. In 2011, an investigation revealed that pasteurized honey had been processed to remove pollen grains and to make the honey “clean” looking. This ultra-filter processing reduces the nutrient benefits of honey.

Sustainability Concerns: There are beekeepers throughout the world and likely in your community. In my small rural community, I can find locally produced honey at the farmer’s market, and at a farm store. I recently asked my community FB group if anyone had honey for sale and found three quarts just down the road. Local honey is often packaged in reusable glass jars, has a much smaller environmental footprint, supports the ancient craft of beekeeping, and has limited processing.

Check farmer's markets and friends to find your local beekeeper.
Check farmer’s markets and friends to find your local beekeeper. Image by PollyDot from Pixabay 

Stevia

Stevia is a plant-based sweetener, native to South America. It grows in hot, humid climates and thrives as a perennial in USDA Zones 9 and above but can be grown as an annual in colder zones. The leaves offer a powerful dose of sweetness, as much as 40 times more than refined sugar. Fresh or dried leaves can be infused in liquids to sweeten but it may leave an aftertaste that some say is similar to licorice. Dried leaves can be powdered and added to beverages (especially herbal teas), yogurt, creamy desserts, and on top of hot and cold cereals. (1/8 tsp = 1 tsp sugar)

It is an ideal sweetener because of its low-glycemic ranking, meaning it has a minimal effect on blood sugar. People with diabetes or insulin resistance are able to use small amounts of stevia. Unlike refined sugar and syrups, stevia will not thicken or contribute to preservation.

Stevia is now available as a processed sweetener that can be used in baking and cooking. However, this easier-to-use form is made using industrial methods of extraction including various chemicals.

Sustainability Concerns: Easy to grow including in a container, anyone can grow a plant or two. The potency of the leaves means that a little goes a long way. Likely the most sustainable sweetener

Known as the sugar plant, stevia is super sweet - a little goes a long way!
Known as the sugar plant, stevia is super sweet – a little goes a long way! Image by 13082 from Pixabay 

What’s the healthiest sweetener on this list?

Homemade date syrup contains much higher levels of potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus and is a good source of fiber but can only grow in warm environments so must be shipped for many of us. Raw honey offers similar nutrient and medicinal applications and can be found locally. Real maple syrup third has limited use because of its distinctive flavor and is the least sustainable given its limited growing regions and high energy production. Stevia is the healthier choice for people who are diabetic or on strict sugar reduction diets and can be grown in a variety of gardens but unprocessed stevia has limited uses. I keep all of these sweeteners in my pantry but tend to use local honey as much as I can.

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