Satisfy that sweet tooth with some of the best natural sweeteners in this Unrefined Sugar Guide. Learn what sets unrefined sugars apart from refined ones and fall in love with nature's best sweeteners from raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura, and much more! I'll also show you how to easily swap regular sugar with these healthy sweeteners.
If you've been here for any length of time, you know my desire has always been to stay to traditional methods, ingredients, and techniques of home cooking. At the heart of Prepare and Nourish, I love to dig deep into culinary roots to draw out and embrace wholesome and traditional foods. And sugar is no different.
While I don't have a lot of dessert recipes, whatever sweet treat I do make, I try to use wholesome and unrefined sweeteners. Why? Well, that answer deserves a little more explanation, so make a cup of your favorite tea and get comfortable. In this post, I do my best to cover the difference between refined and unrefined sugars and how to use them in recipes.
What are unrefined sugars?
In short, unrefined sugars are the most traditional form of sweeteners. They are less processed sweeteners and maintain more of their natural characteristics compared to refined sugars.
Unrefined sugars have a more wholesome profile than their refined counterparts, preserving natural elements like minerals and molasses. This results in a richer flavor and offers potential nutritional benefits like higher antioxidant content, according to this PubMed journal. The bottom line is that choosing unrefined sugars aligns with a holistic and traditional approach to sweeteners.
Some of my favorite unrefined sweeteners I want to share with you are raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura, and turbinado. This isn't an exhaustive list, but these are excellent staples to have available when you're craving something sweet.
Are unrefined sugars better for you?
While I think they are certainly a better-for-you alternative to plain sugar, it's important to remember that sugar is still sugar, no matter the form. Even though these natural sweeteners are noticeably better alternatives to conventional forms, they should still be consumed in moderation.
💭Looking for paleo sweeteners? The good news is that most unrefined sugars are naturally paleo-friendly too! Sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup align with the paleolithic diet philosopy.
How are unrefined sugars different from refined sugars?
When you think about a food that is refined, you generally think of processed, stripped, and altered from its natural state. Similarly, refined sugar undergoes extensive processing to remove anything that isn't pure sugar. This includes iron and other minerals naturally found in soil.
While this process may provide a neutrally sweet taste, it often strips away beneficial nutrients present in unrefined sugars. Some may argue that the micronutrients are very minimal in unrefined sugars, and for the sake of consistency and quality in baked goods, you're better off using refined sugars.
But if you are already using a sweetener, why not use a wholesome option that will provide those micronutrients, even at their minimal quantities?
Because, as with all things, an ancestral diet is a culmination of traditional practices. You can learn more about this ancestral diet philosophy here. This involves using unrefined salt, including fermented foods at each meal, lots of bone broth, and embracing the goodness of ancient grains like millet and buckwheat.
Choosing unrefined sugars over refined is another step in adopting a holistic approach to wellness, prioritizing minimally processed ingredients for a nutrient-dense diet.
So what are these incredible, God-given sweeteners?
Best Unrefined Liquid Sweeteners
Raw honey is pure, unfiltered, and unpasteurized and rich in minerals and nutrition. Unfortunately, most of the honey consumed today has been heavily processed and is stripped of its incredible nutritional value and health benefits. In my opinion, it's one of the best natural sweeteners that is accessible to most people.
I recommend sourcing a local beekeeper and inquiring about how they care for their bees and extract the honey. According to NIH publication, local honey has also been used to help alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. Raw honey is truly raw when it crystallizes and solidifies after prolonged storage.
Darker honey is typically higher in bioactive compounds and has greater antioxidant abilities, per this ScienceDaily release. That's why manuka honey and buckwheat honey are prized for their high antioxidant content. Because of the price and nutrient profile, I would leave the darker honeys to enjoy raw.
How to substitute sugar with honey: When replacing sugar with honey, reduce the amount of other liquids. For every 1 cup of sugar, use ¾ cups of honey and reduce other liquid by 3-4 tablespoons. For cookie recipes, refrigerate the dough so it can set. And because honey browns faster than other sweeteners, you need to reduce the cooking temperature by 25°F to avoid burning.
- YS Organic Bee Farms (light honey): great for light-colored recipes like honey-sweetened marshmallows
- Manuka Honey and Dark Buckwheat Honey: great to enjoy raw over cottage cheese bowl
- Nate's Pourable Unfiltered Honey: excellent, versatile honey that will work in most sweet treats and drinks like honey citrus mint tea.
💭Looking for GAPS-compliant sweetener? Raw honey and whole leaf stevia are the only sweeteners allowed onthe GAPS diet and only when its past the beginning stages, accordign to GAPS info website.
Pure maple syrup is made from evaporated maple tree sap. It's rich in magnesium, zinc, and other minerals and helps maintain optimal immune system function.
Currently, there are four maple grades that are comprised of two main factors: color and flavor. While their nutritional content is similar across the board, with a high count of calcium, vitamins, and antioxidants, their flavor ranges from mild to robust, according to this University of New Hampshire source.
Check out these maple syrup grades and their characteristics:
- Golden syrup: the lightest in color with a mild, delicate flavor (formerly referred to as Grade A Light syrup)
- Amber maple syrup: slightly darker with fuller flavor and hints of full-bodied maple syrup (formerly referred to as Grade A Medium syrup)
- Dark maple syrup: boasts robust flavor and dark amber color (formerly referred to as Grade A Dark syrup)
- Very dark maple syrup: richer and more complex in flavor and has the darkest color of maple syrup (formerly referred to as Grade B)
In 2015, the USDA changed the grading system, and Grade B was replaced with very dark grade. Original, huh? You may still come across maple syrup labeled by the letter grades A or B, but the most important factors to look for are terms like light, amber, dark, or very dark.
Maple syrup Grade A and Grade B are often interchangeable in recipes and as a topping, and it comes down to personal preference in taste and color. So, next time you pick up a bottle at the your local grocery store, remember that the darker the syrup, the stronger the maple flavor.
How to substitute maple syrup for sugar: Like honey, you must reduce the amount of other liquids. For every 1 cup of sugar, use ¾ cup of maple syrup and reduce other liquid by 3-4 tablespoons. For cookie recipes, refrigerate the dough so it firms up.
Favorite maple syrup:
- Kirkland Maple Syrup - Grade A amber maple syrup; this is the most budget-friendly option and easily accessible at most Costco stores.
- Crown Maple Syrup - I love this brand because it's aged in barrels and gives off those bold flavors. They also have different grades, ranging from amber, dark, and very dark.
Best Natural Sweeteners
Maple syrup is pretty amazing in its own right, but maple sugar takes the cake when it comes to the most delicate sweetener on the market. It's made by condensing maple syrup to a thick consistency by boiling out all the moisture. What's left are these delicate sweet granules known as maple sugar.
With its concentrated sweetness and distinct maple flavor, it serves as a versatile alternative to traditional sweeteners, adding a touch of elegance to a variety of dishes and baked goods.
How to substitute sugar with maple sugar: Because of its distinct flavor, maple sugar rarely can be subbed for white sugar without altering the taste of the end product. I love the flavor, but it heavily depends on what you're hoping to achieve. It's best sprinkled on your morning oats or other hot porridge like Instant Pot buckwheat. But if you're daring, feel free to sub 1:1 with white sugar and reduce the oven temperature slightly to prevent over-browning.
This is also one of the more expensive sweetener options, making it a cost-prohibitive option for many.
Favorite maple sugar:
- Coombs Family Farms Maple Sugar - this is one of my favorite natural sweeteners for coffee, tea, and other beverages. Add a teaspoon to herbal coffee or pumpkin spice latte.
- Nova Maple Sugar - this is an excellent 3-pound size at a decent price that's Grade A maple sugar.
Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut palm tree flower blossoms. It has a subtle caramel flavor and is one of the best organic sweeteners. The sap is collected, boiled, and then dehydrated to produce solid granules resembling brown sugar.
Coconut sugar is a great source of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, vitamins C, B, and even contains amino acids.
It has been the sweetener of choice for centuries in Southeast Asia, prized not only for its nutritional content but also for its lower glycemic index, according to Michigan State University.
Palm sugar vs. coconut sugar?
Palm sugar, on the other hand, is a more general term that refers to a sweetener derived from the sap of various types of palm trees. It can come from the sap of the coconut palm, date palm, or other varieties.
While coconut sugar can be called palm sugar, not all palm sugars are coconut sugar. It's important to check the ingredient labels for clarity of origin and the type of palm tree used.
How to substitute sugar with coconut sugar: Use it with a 1:1 replacement ratio for white table sugar, but take note of the dark color and rich flavor. Because of the robust, caramel flavor, coconut sugar is great in baked goods containing cinnamon, like paleo snickerdoodles. It's also an excellent nutrient-rich alternative to brown sugar and can be swapped using the same amount.
Favorite coconut sugar:
- Madhava Organic Coconut Sugar - has a strong, slightly smoky flavor
- Golden Coconut Sugar - has a subtle caramel taste similar to brown sugar
Rapadura is a traditional unrefined sweetener that originates from Latin America. It is a whole, unrefined cane sugar made by crushing the cane, extracting the juice, and dehydrating it into granules.
It's considerably healthier than conventional cane sugar because it retains the natural molasses and trace nutrients like calcium, potassium, and vitamins and is very similar in taste and texture to brown sugar. While brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added back in, rapadura is brown sugar in its original state.
Rapadura may be known by other names, such as panela in Latin America and jaggery in some Asian countries. Jaggery often comes in a cone-like shape and has an earthy sweet flavor. It's most commonly referred to as sucanat in the United States.
How to substitute sugar with rapadura: Use it with a 1:1 replacement ratio for brown sugar but it's best in recipes such as gingerbread, spice cookies, or rich chocolate desserts like coconut flour brownies. Because of its large granules, you may want to pulse it a few times in a food processor or coffee grinder to achieve a smoother texture.
- Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Sucanat - add to flourless pumpkin bars or healthy chocolate muffins
- Just Panela Unrefined Cane Sugar - unprocessed rapadura ground as jaggery powder; smaller granules are great in lighter desserts like skillet peach cobbler.
Less processed than traditional cane sugar, turbinado is made from the first pressing of sugar cane or sugar beets and retains some natural molasses. It's crushed directly from the harvested sugar cane, and the juice is allowed to evaporate naturally and then crystallize in a way that the vitamins and minerals in the sugar cane are retained to some extent.
This sweetener has large, tan-colored crystals and is slightly moist to the touch. While it retains more of its natural molasses content compared to white sugar, it is less dense in nutrients than some other unrefined sugars like rapadura and coconut sugar.
Because of this, turbinado sugar is a more cost-efficient sweetener when baked in larger quantities. Most commonly, turbinado sugar has been sold as Sugar in the Raw.
How to substitute sugar with turbinado: Use it with a 1:1 replacement ratio for regular white sugar. Turbinado is best in sweet bread or coconut flour banana muffins and cookies and less so in delicate and airy desserts such as mousse, marshmallows, or sweetened condensed milk.
- Wholesome Regenerative Turbinado Sugar - when purchasing sugar cane products, I recommend going with non-GMO and organic; this is an excellent product.
- Florida Crystals Turbinado Cane Sugar - I found this brand at my local Wal-Mart, and it's probably more accessible.
Other Unrefined Sugars
- Molasses: This thick liquid sweetener is rich in minerals and flavor. It adds depth to recipes with spices like cinnamon and cloves. Be sure to buy organic blackstrap molasses that is unsulphured. This Wholesome Sweeteners brand is my favorite.
- Muscovado: This sugar is a wonderful, unrefined alternative to brown sugar. It's rich, dark, moist granules behave just like brown sugar in a recipe. This fair trade certified dark muscovado sugar from the islands of Mauritius is of excellent quality.
- Date syrup and date sugar: Date syrup (or sometimes date paste) is reduced liquid extracted from dates and has a very sweet caramel-like flavor. Date sugar is produced by dehydrating and grinding dates. Both forms are incredibly sweet and should not be used ina 1:1 replacement ratio.
- Stevia herb: In leaf form, stevia plant is considered to be 200 times sweeter than sugar so it can't easily be swapped with sugar. While it has a strong aftertaste, stevia products are a great low-carb alternative for those with diabetes as it doesn't raise blood sugar levels like many sugars do. Many modern forms of stevia are highly processed, but I recommend stevia powder and stevia extract if you want to try this out.
What about Organic Sugar and Confectioner's Sugar?
Lastly, there's just plain old sugar.
Cane sugar is the most refined sugar on the market. It's stripped of mineral-rich molasses and is void of nutrients. It's straight up glucose. Having said that, organic non-GMO cane sugar is still a better option than conventional, non-organic sugar and exponentially better than high fructose corn syrup.
Confectioner's sugar is ground cane sugar and great to dust over delicate desserts like crepe rolls or gluten-free crepes. This is commonly called powdered sugar, and you can easily make it at home by pulsing sugar in a coffee grinder until powder form.
💭Skip the starch: Most store-bought confectioner's sugar includes some kind of starch like cornstarch or tapioca starch. That's why it's best to grind it at home. You can do this with any of the natural sweeteners mentioned here.
What sweeteners are the least ancestral?
With all this talk about what is the best type of sugar to curb your sweet tooth, we should briefly mention the bad players that I personally stay away from.
First, the low-carb sugar alternatives. These include sugar alcohols like erythritol and monk fruit sweeteners. These could be a good choice if you are following a ketogenic diet, and I have personally used them in the past. It's especially great in these raspberry fat bombs.
But it's important to know that these artificial sweeteners are just that - artificial sugars that undergo an intense refining process. They are non-nutritive sweeteners that are not a good option in the long term.
Syrups like agave nectar and brown rice syrup should also be avoided. Though they are touted as a healthier alternative, they are far from being traditionally unrefined sugars. The biggest health concerns with both of these is the high sugar.
Agave syrup is high in fructose, which may contribute to health issues like insulin resistance. In addition to a high glycemic index, brown rice syrup may also contain higher levels of arsenic.
💭More reasons to avoid agave: Agave nectar syrup has a higher fructose content than any other sweetener, even more than high-fructose corn syrup or HFCS, according to BioMedCentral journal. It makes regular cane sugar look healthy in comparison.
How to Store Unrefined Sugar
To store: All unrefined sugar must be kept in an airtight container to preserve its moisture and flavor. Make sure the storage container comes with a secure seal to prevent exposure to air, which can lead to moisture loss and hardening of the natural sweeteners.
Store the container in a dark, cool place away from direct sunlight and heat and avoid humidity, as moisture can cause clumping. Consider adding a sugar saver and softener to keep the perfect moisture level in your sugar container.
Storage containers: these air-tight containers are perfect for unrefined sugars storage.
Palm sugar and coconut sugar are sweeteners that come from different types of palm trees. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut palm trees, while palm sugar can come from various palm trees. Though they have a similar taste, coconut sugar tends to have a milder flavor, but it depends on the palm tree type. Both are natural sweeteners used in cooking and baking.
Some of the best natural sweeteners for coffee include coconut sugar, rapadura, or turbinado. For flavored coffee drinks like pumpkin spice latte, maple syrup or maple sugar would be a welcome addition. Lastly, if you need something beyond paleo sweeteners, raw honey is the only unrefined sugar that is GAPS compliant.
If a recipe calls for coconut sugar and you are out, try using other natural sugars like brown sugar, rapadura, or maple sugar. Keep in mind, they have different moisture content and sweetness level, so you may need to adjust the rest of the ingredients to make a recipe work, but these are some of the best sugar alternatives that are unrefined.
Looking for more helpful basics? Here are some ideas:
Disclaimer: These are my personal opinions on these sweeteners. I am not a dietician nor a nutritionist, but I did do basic research and have provided those resources for you. All information shared in this post is with an emphasis on traditional unrefined sugars. If you have any questions, please consult your doctor or do your own research.