Natural sweeteners – the lexicon

The sweeteners listed below are more natural alternatives to white sugar. They contain not only calories, but also small amounts of vitamins and minerals. More importantly, however, they are absorbed more slowly than white sugar into the blood stream, provide longer lasting energy to the body and avoid the “sugar rush” with its inevitable energy highs and lows. Natural sweeteners may be better than white sugar, but they should still be enjoyed in moderation – for the sake of your teeth, and your health in general.

You’ll find the biggest selection of natural sweeteners in a health food store.

My advice: try out 1-2 new sweeteners that you like the sound of. Use where you would normally use honey, for example. This way you might discover new flavours that you like, and thus expand your culinary horizon.

Agave syrup (nectar)

Agave syrup is made from the juice of the spiky agave cactus that grows throughout the US southwest and in Mexico. The cactus nectar is like honey and is harvested similar to maple syrup from a maple trees. It is high in fructose and is 1.4 times sweeter than sugar. Agave nectar has a low glycemic index which means it doesn’t stimulate insulin like most sweeteners, or cause a “sugar rush.”


Amasake is a traditional Japanese product made by fermenting sweet brown rice into a thick liquid. It is a creamy, quickly digested beverage used by athletes after a workout or as a sweetener in cooking or baking.

Barley malt

Barley malt is a complex carbohydrate sweetener made from barley that has been soaked, sprouted and cooked until the starches in the grain are broken down and converted into maltose. Barley malt is dark and thick like molasses and has a strong malt-like taste.

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup is made from rice that has been soaked, sprouted and cooked with a cereal enzyme that breaks the starches into maltose. Rice syrup has a light, delicate flavor, looks similar to honey and is about 20% less sweet than sugar. It’s especially good in Asian dishes.

Date sugar

Date sugar consists of dried and ground dates. It contains the same nutrient value as dried dates. The taste and appearance is similar to sugar, but it’s less sweet.

Date syrup

Date syrup (also known as ‘silan’ and ‘dibs’) is made from the juice extracted from fresh dates. It is dark in colour and thick. The quality of the syrup changes considerably depending on the type of date used.

Fruit juice concentrates

Fruit juice concentrates (stroop) are made by cooking down apple, grape, pear and other fruit juices to produce a sweeter and much more concentrated product.


Honey is made from plant nectar (sucrose) by the honeybee. The source of the nectar determines the color, flavor, and texture of honey. Alfalfa and clover honey are the most common types, but blackberry, heather, and acacia honeys are also popular. Honey is sold in liquid or crystallized form, and is available raw or pasteurized. Commercial honey is heated to 150 to 160°F (65.5 to 71°C) to prevent crystallization and yeast formation. “Organic” or “raw” honey has not been heat-treated. About 40% of the sugar in honey is fructose.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is made from the boiled sap of sugar maple trees, primarily in the Northeastern United States and Canada. It takes forty litres of sap (from nine trees) to make one litre of syrup, that’s how concentrated the sap is. The taste and color vary depending on the temperature at which the sap was boiled, and how long the sap was cooked.


Molasses is the by-product of sugar, derived from sugar cane or sugar beet when it is processed into sugar granules. It’s loaded with vitamins, minerals and trace elements, including iron, vitamin B6, potassium, calcium and magnesium. It has a strong flavour, said to be liked by those with iron deficiency.


Stevia is derived from a South American shrub (Stevia rebaudiana). A good quality leaf is estimated to be 300 times sweeter than cane sugar, or sucrose. Also known as “honey leaf”, stevia is not absorbed through the digestive tract, and is therefore non-caloric. You’ll find it in health food and vitamin stores in liquid form. Stevia is pricey and the quality varies from brand to brand, with some brands leaving a slightly bitter after taste.

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