The most common natural sweeteners are Honey, Stevia, Maple Syrup, Coconut Palm Sugar, Molasses and Rice Syrup. All of these contain calories with the exception of Stevia. Please note that I do not include Agave Syrup in the list as I do not regard it as a natural or healthy product. (As high fructose corn syrup enzymes are used to convert the Agave starch to fructose. Natural Agave is barely sweet at all!)
When choosing the best natural sweetener one needs to consider calories, effect on blood sugar, effect on dental hygiene, beneficial effects, taste, price and usefulness in cooking.
Zero Calorie Natural Sweeteners
It is only relatively recently that these zero calorie sweeteners have appeared on the market in the western world. Indeed most people are still unaware of these products, and believe that all zero calorie sweeteners are artificial. But, as it so happens, natives in West Africa, China and South America have known about, and been using, these sweeteners for hundreds of years.
Stevia. Stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste, though some forms of the extract taste better in this regard. The most natural form is dried leaves and these can be used in cooking etc. It is zero calorie and zero glycemic and appears very safe. It also has the effect of regulating blood sugar levels. It has only recently been approved in the USA and EU and is now on sale in all supermarkets. Newer and better forms are being developed with less aftertaste, though one could question how natural they are.
Monk Fruit. Monk fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo comes from China where the fruit has been used for hundreds of years. The sweetness comes from a substance called mogroside in the flesh of the fruit. Like Stevia it is zero calorie natural sweetener with a glycemic index of zero. It also tastes better than Stevia and has been approved by the FDA for general use. It will soon be available in supermarkets as Tate and Lyle have big plans for it.
Caloric Natural Sweeteners
In many cases these are the oldest sweeteners known to man. Before modern times the only sweeteners available were honey and dried fruits such as figs and dates.
Coconut Palm Sugar. Coconut Palm Sugar is a popular natural sweetener that is granulated which makes it convenient to use in place of ordinary sugar. It is mostly produced in a very natural and eco friendly way and is a sustainable form of agriculture. It has a somewhat lower glycemic index than sugar and beneficial nutrients. However it is mostly sucrose so like honey moderation is important. Has a lovely flavor and is great for cooking.
Yacon Syrup. Yacon Syrup comes from the juice of the Yacon root that grows in South America. The sweetness mostly comes from a carbohydrate called Fructo-Oligosaccharides (or FOS for short, and not to be confused with fructose). Consequently it is very low calorie, low glycemic and does not cause tooth decay. It is also excellent for the immune system and for intestine health. It is a genuine superfood. The downside? Unfortunately yes there is one… it is very expensive! Great for cooking and for raw chocolate.
Maple Syrup. Maple Syrup has a beautiful and distinct flavor and is high in B vitamins and minerals. It is a totally natural and unrefined product. It is quite expensive, however, and many restaurants provide a flavored form of high fructose corn sweetener. Beware!! Almost all of the sweetness in Maple Syrup come from sucrose (ordinary sugar) so moderation is important. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar but is unsuitable for diabetics.
Blackstrap Molasses. Blackstrap Molasses is made from cane sugar, and is the goodness left over after the refining process. It is very high in nutrients such as Magnesium, Iron, and Potassium. It has a strong flavor and consequently is not suitable for all recipes. Again it is high in sugar so moderation is recommended. Choose the unsulphured variety.