Honey, maple syrup, stevia, date sugar, molasses, yacón syrup, coconut palm sugar — oh my! The natural sweetener section at your grocery store can feel like a sugar rush. By switching out the standard white stuff for an exotic alternative, not only do you get a major flavour upgrade, but you can also complement your active Oxygen lifestyle that demands the best nutrient-rich fuel. Sweet! “These closer-to-nature sweeteners come from bees, trees and fruit, and because they’re less processed than white sugar, most provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants,” says nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield,RDN. It doesn’t mean you can eat yourself into a sugar coma — moderation is still key when it comes to added sweeteners — but swapping in natural sweeteners can punch up everything from homemade protein bars to DIY salad dressings. So put down the nutrient-void processed white sugar and pick up these natural alternatives. Your workout and taste buds will thank you!
Honey [endurance boost!]
64 calories per tablespoon
Nutrient news: The darker the honey, the more flavour and antioxidants.
Raw deal: Raw honey doesn’t necessarily have more nutrients or antioxidants; it just hasn’t been heated or filtered.
Tip: If your honey jar has crystalised, put it in a bowl of hot water.
Good news: Studies show that honey can give endurance athletes a natural boost during intense exercise. “Endurance athletes need carbohydrates during exercise to maintain glycogen stores, and honey’s natural sugars are quickly and easily absorbed,”Scritchfield says. Honey also contains oligosaccharides, complex carbs that feed the good bacteria in the gut for better mineral absorption and boosted immunity. Although it has more calories than sugar, it’s sweeter and denser, so you’re likely to use less.
Coconut palm sugar [nutrients plus!] (aka coconut sugar)
45 calories per tablespoon
Shop smart: Don’t confuse coconut palm sugar with palm sugar, which comes from the sugar palm tree. Look for one ingredient: coconut nectar sugar or coconut palm sugar.
Made from the boiled, dehydrated sap of coconut flowers, this crash-free sweetener has a super-low glycemic index rating — 35 compared to 70 for regular sugar. “Since it’s unrefined, it retains nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with disease-fighting polyphenols,” Scritchfield says. It tastes like brown sugar and even dissolves in hot and cold liquids.
“The most important thing to note is that it doesn’t taste anything like coconut,” says Sever, who loves it in banana
Stir into your coffee or chai latte.
Sprinkle over baked apples or grilled peaches for a caramel coating.
Use it to sweeten Thai soups or curries.
Make your own vegan caramel sauce: bring 1/3 cup coconut sugar + 2 tablespoons coconut oil + ½ cup full-fat
canned coconut milk to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat until thickened.
Stevia [no sugar crash!]
0 calories per tablespoon
Buyer beware: Some brands mix stevia with sugar alcohols to bulk it up, which can cause stomach upset.
If you’re counting calories, meet your new BFF! Stevia is way sweeter than table sugar — like 200 times sweeter — but with zero calories (and no sugar crash!). But it’s not all good news: “it comes from highly purified extract of stevia called rebaudioside A, so it’s more processed than people think,” says registered dietician Sharon Palmer. The bitter, licoricey aftertaste also can be a turnoff, and because you use a lot less, it’s tough to substitute in baked goods.
“Stevia tastes great in things like raw desserts or to sweeten smoothies because you’re just adding a few drops,” says cookbook author Amy Chaplin.
Add a few drops to sweeten oatmeal.
DIY stevia lemonade: mix 2 litres of water + 1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice + ½ teaspoon liquid stevia served over ice.
Sweeten chia pudding: combine 1 cup milk of choice + ¼ cup chia seeds + 2-3 drops of liquid stevia, stir, cover and refrigerate 30 minutes or overnight.
Maple syrup [boost recovery!]
52 calories per tablespoon
Nutrient news: The darker the maple syrup, the more flavour and antioxidants.
Tip: Real maple syrup can boost recovery post-workout. “In addition to carbohydrates that can replenish glycogen stores after exercise, maple syrup contains manganese, zinc and potassium to replace minerals lost during exercise and replenish electrolytes,” Scritchfield says. Plus, it’s packed with polyphenols, plant-based compounds that may prevent disease. Stick to pure maple syrup as the only ingredient.
Add a teaspoon to sweeten iced coffee. (It melts into cold liquids!)
Make maple balsamic vinaigrette: whisk together equal parts pure maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.
Make your own sports drink: add 1 teaspoon maple syrup + 2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice to 1 cup water + ice.
Date sugar [antioxidant rich!]
45 calories per tablespoon
Shop smart: Look for one ingredient: dehydrated dates or dried dates.
This unprocessed sweetener is less sweet than table sugar with a kick of caramel, and it delivers potassium, magnesium, selenium and copper. “Date sugar is also high in antioxidants, anti-agers that have been linked to disease prevention,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Neily. Sticky note: it doesn’t dissolve when added to drinks or “melt” like brown sugar, plus it can be pricey.
Sprinkle date sugar onto Greek yoghurt, oats or cereal for sweetness and texture.
Use it as the sweet binder in homemade protein bars.
Make raw brownie bites: process 1 cup raw walnuts + ½ cup date sugar + ¼ cup raw cocoa powder + 1 tablespoon water until it forms a dough and roll into balls.
Yacón syrup [waist whittler!]
20 calories per tablespoon
Easy off: Oil or spray your measuring cup first to make it easy for yacón syrup, molasses or honey to slide out.
Made from the root of the South American yacón plant, this fruity syrup has half the calories of sugar (woohoo!), and it’s even been linked to weight loss. In a study published in Clinical Nutrition, overweight women taking two doses a day lost 15 kilograms in four months. The secret ingredient is fructooligosaccharides, a non-digestible fibre that can boost feelings of satiety. But don’t take this as a license to overindulge, Neily warns: “it’s only half as sweet as sugar,so you might end up using twice as much.” Downside: expect to pay a pretty price.
“Yacón is dark like molasses but much milder,” says Chaplin, who uses it to sweeten homemade energy bars.
Drizzle over yoghurt, oatmeal and even roasted pumpkin.
Toasty delight: top peanut butter toast with a drizzle of yacón syrup.
DIY yacón Dijon dressing: whisk 2 tablespoons yacón syrup + 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil + 1 tablespoon Dijon
mustard + 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar.
Molasses [iron rich!]
58 calories per tablespoon
Best bet: Blackstrap molasses is the most flavourful and nutrient-dense sweetener. It works best in savoury dishes like baked beans and pulled pork.
Molasses — the dark, sticky syrup left behind after the sugar has been boiled out of cane and beet juices — has almost double the calcium of milk, more iron than flank steak, four times more potassium than a banana and the highest antioxidant levels of the bunch. Yes, it’s thick, messy and bitter, but the intense flavour is perfect in ginger cookies and spice cakes.
Drizzle into baked beans or chilli. Stir a teaspoon into warm milk.
Use blackstrap molasses to sweeten your homemade barbecue sauce and spicy chicken seasonings.