Natural sweeteners have undergone minimal processing. Unlike refined sweeteners, they retain much of the minerals and vitamins needed to properly metabolize the sugars they contain. These vitamins and minerals are the very nutrients that help to metabolize the sugar you consume, therefore preventing the "sugar blues". -The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook
I am going to start with our three favorite sweeteners we like to use most frequently when baking in our kitchen; honey, maple syrup and Medjool dates. I like to keep the "whole foods" way of thinking even when it comes to sweeteners! Honey, maple syrup and Medjool dates are whole foods that happen to be monosaccharides (simple sugars).
Honey: Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners. It is composed of glucose and fructose. Yes, it is bee spit, but non the less it is a whole food. It is packed full of nutrients including some minerals and B vitamins. Honey is sweeter then white sugar (3/4 cup of honey = 1 cup of white sugar). We love, love baking with honey to sweeten our cookies, muffins and other treats.
Maple Syrup: Maple syrup is the spring sap that starts flowing from Maple tree roots to its branches, bringing nourishment for budding leaves. Can you imagine the minerals and vitamins that concentrate this wonderful sweetener! If you are interested in the "grades" of maple syrup available you can check out this website for some great information: http://www.massmaple.org/grading.html. Like honey we love using maple syrup as a sweetener. The one negative is that maple syrup tends to be a bit spendy so I make sure when we use it I know the recipe is going to be worth it.
Whole Medjool dates: Medjool dates are one of my favorite things to use as a sweetener! They are typically placed into a food processor and blended until smooth. It is best to get a fresh as possible. My favorite brand of Medjool dates is, Bard Valley Natural Delights (organic). I will place in refrigerator after opening them. Yes, each Medjool date has about 66 calories (29 grams of sugar!). However, it is a raw whole food and I am going to stand behind the beauty of a whole food whether it is a high sugar food or not, because a whole food is meant to be enjoyed!!
Check out all my yummy cookie, muffin, bread and various other recipes all using honey, maple syrup or Medjool dates as the main sweetener! I don't call them "sugar-free", but they are free of white processed sugar and corn syrup.
Note: We tend to use brown sugar in low amounts in some recipes. Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses mixed back into. (Molasses is taken out of sugar cane to create "white" sugar) Brown sugar is still very processed, but used in minimal moderation it is a treat and when baking a good old fashion batch of chocolate chip cookies splurging is a necessity.
We rarely use white sugar (ok maybe when baking a birthday cake and buttercream frosting we make sure we have white sugar on hand!). When you get use to baking/cooking without it you rarely miss it. When you want to use "white sugar" try using Sucanate or date sugar as whole food alternatives instead. I don't use these sugars very often, because I favor honey and maple syrup, but experiment and see what you like best!:
Sucanate: Sucanate is dried cane juice (whole cane sugar). How is Sucanate different from white sugar? Sucnanate still has all the molasses left in it. It is a whole food with minimal processing done to it. You'll need to get use to a slightly different taste and texture, but it is a huge difference nutritionally compared to white sugar that has been stripped of all nutrients. Just replace 1 cup white sugar with 1 cup Sucanate in any recipe. It does change the taste and texture of your recipe slightly, but for the better!
Two last sugars to mention are Brown Rice Syrup and Agave Nectar. These two are refined and I don't use very often if at all: (both these definitions I took out of The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook.)
Brown Rice Syrup: Brown Rice Syrup is made from brown rice that has been soaked, sprouted and cooked with an enzyme that breaks the starches into maltose.
Agave Nectar: Agave Nectar is a liquid sweetener naturally extracted from the Americana Agave, a cactus-like plant native to Mexico. It has an amber color and a very natural, light taste which is milder than honey or maple syrup. It dissolves easily and can replace honey, maple syrup or other liquid sweeteners cup for cup. Agave Nectar has a very high fructose content, and therefore a low glycemic index, so it absorbs slowly into the bloodstream. This is very popular at the moment, but I still prefer honey.