Five natural alternatives to sugar

Story highlights

  • Avoiding artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup? Try these
  • Maple syrup contains some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • Coconut sugar provides small amounts of nutrients and is eco-friendly

Have you noticed just how many foods at your local market are now labeled "natural"?

According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 73% of shoppers seek out labels with this term (despite the fact that there's no FDA standard to define it).
All of this means that artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup are out -- and a whole slew of natural alternatives have popped up in their place.
    Some are old-school favorites, like maple syrup; while others, like coconut sugar, are derived from familiar foods. Here's the lowdown on five such sweeteners -- including what's unique about each one, and the best ways to use them in your kitchen.

    Maple syrup

    Maple syrup is still made the same way it has been for decades: by boiling sap from maple trees. The syrup can then be dried, powdered, and sold as maple sugar.
    fWhile maple syrup does contain some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the amounts in a typical serving are quite small. For example, one tablespoon provides about 1% of your daily needs for calcium, potassium, and iron.
    However, it does pack a solid amount of magnesium -- a mineral that helps produce collagen and promote skin and bone health -- with 25% of your Daily Value.
    When it comes to choosing a syrup, you might want to consider the color. Generally, syrup made earlier in the season tends to be lighter; while syrup produced at the end of the season, when sap flow slows, is darker. (That said, in some years, nearly all of a season's crop may be light.) Dark syrups may have higher mineral and antioxidant levels.
    Plus, darker syrups tend to have the strongest maple taste, which may help you use less. In fact, that's another benefit of swapping white sugar for maple syrup: In recipes, you can use three-fourths as much. For example, if a recipe calls for a quarter cup of sugar (or four tablespoons), you can use three tablespoons of maple syrup instead.
    Another trick I use is diluting syrup. I'll swirl together a teaspoon each of maple syrup and water, add spices, like ginger and cinnamon; then drizzle it over foods like oatmeal, yams, baked fruit, or roasted carrots. You still get the distinct flavor and sweetness, but with just 4 grams of sugar and less than 20 calories.

    Honey

    Honey has been called the nectar of the gods, and used topically for centuries to heal wounds and fight infections. It also offers a number of other health benefits when ingested, as long as you don't overdo it. This natural sweetener has been shown to possess small amounts of nutrients, antioxidants, and antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory compounds.
    A University of Illinois study that analyzed honey samples from 14 different floral sources found that hone