Guide to Alternative Sweeteners

Amber Shea (4)

Sugar is an essential component of most desserts, including raw ones. It’s always controversial and, let’s face it, it’s also delicious! Luckily, we have a wealth of unrefined sweetener options at our fingertips nowadays, and I like to make good use of many of them in my raw food desserts.


Coconut nectar: My #1 liquid sweetener of choice these days is the ambrosial amber syrup known as coconut nectar. Not only is it utterly scrumptious, it’s also low on the glycemic index and chock-full of amino acids, essential minerals, and B vitamins. I consider it the ideal liquid sweetener, but agave nectar is always a suitable substitute.

Agave nectar: It’s no secret that agave nectar has come under fire in recent years for its high fructose content and questionable level of processing. That said, it’s much more widely available (and affordable) than coconut nectar, so do not hesitate to substitute it in my desserts; many of my recipe testers for my book did just that. Though I’ve largely abandoned its use in my own kitchen, I do still keep a bottle of organic, raw agave nectar on hand for when I need a sweetener that’s thinner than coconut nectar but slightly more viscous than maple syrup.

Maple syrup: Since maple syrup is the boiled sap of maple trees, it is not raw, but I use it freely in my raw dessert recipes. It’s minimally processed and actually contains respectable amounts of minerals like manganese and zinc. Plus, its distinct taste is simply irreplaceable. Always buy 100% pure maple syrup (never “pancake syrup”), and stick with Grade B, which has the most robust flavor.


Date syrup: Consists of puréed dates and water. Homemade date syrup contains all the fiber and potassium of whole dates, making it a true whole-food sweetener.


Coconut coconut sugar: Whether you call it coconut sugar, coconut sugar, coconut crystals, or jaggery, this is one fantastic granulated sweetener. Coconut coconut sugar is my very favorite granulated sweetener, with its low glycemic index, high mineral and B-vitamin content, and marvelous flavor (like brown sugar with a caramel edge—divine!). You can always substitute Sucanat or date sugar if you prefer.

Dates: Luscious, potassium-packed dates are an all-purpose staple in raw desserts, and they are my favorite whole-food sweetener. Their sticky texture can bind together brownies, bars, pie crusts, energy balls, and more, or they can be blended into fillings and purées. Semi-dry Deglet Noor dates are the most common and inexpensive variety, and they often come pre-pitted. Medjool dates are the softest, sweetest variety, and they tend to be sold with their pits still in. Always remove the pits from your dates before using them!  Many other delicious dates exist (Barhi, Halawi, Khadrawi, and honey dates are some other well-known varieties)—use whichever one you love best!

Raisins: Dark (also called Thompson or Flame) raisins and golden (including Sultana and Hunza) raisins are not only excellent ingredients in their own right, they can also make an affordable and readily-available substitute for dates. When subbing raisins for pitted dates, make sure your raisins are nice and soft; dried-out ones won’t work nearly as well.


Other unrefined sugars include: local honey, yacon syrup, brown rice syrup, sorghum syrup, molasses, Sucanat, date sugar, maple sugar, lucuma powder, evaporated cane juice, or even sugar-free sweeteners like xylitol or erythritol.


Stevia: The only all-natural, calorie-free sugar substitute currently available is Stevia rebaudiana, or stevia leaf. Up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, stevia leaf extract can be useful for anyone desiring a low-glycemic, carbohydrate-free alternative to natural sugars, as it has no impact on blood sugar levels. Its intense sweetness and bitter aftertaste can be a turn-off for some, but once my taste buds adjusted, I became a huge fan. When sweetening to taste with stevia, always start by adding only the smallest amount possible—literally a few droplets of liquid stevia or a tiny pinch of the powdered form—and tasting for sweetness before adding any more.

Summer Fruit Pizza photo © Amber Shea Crawley

Amber Shea (1) Chef bio:

Amber Shea Crawley is a classically trained chef, linguist, and writer in Kansas City, Missouri.  Specializing in healthful, plant-rich food, she is the author of the vegan cookbooks Practically Raw and Practically Raw Desserts as well as the ebook The REAL FOOD Cleanse.  Amber blogs at

Connect with Amber:

Website: Chef Amber Shea
Facebook: Chef Amber Shea
Twitter: @ChefAmberShea
Pinterest: ChefAmberShea

Tell us, what’s your favorite unrefined sweetener? How do you use it in your recipes?

Was there a sweetener on Amber’s list that you hadn’t tried before but you’d like to?

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Comments | Leave Your Comment

  1. Holy crap, that tart looks absolutely AMAZING!!! WOW! As far as sweeteners go, I don’t use a lot of these on a regular basis because I’m not much of a desserts kinda girl, but when I do, stevia is usually my go-to, followed by honey or agave. Thanks for all of these other suggestions – now I want to do some baking!

  2. Wow! Thank you for this vital information! I was just thinking how can I get off of white sugar and you supplied plenty of suggestions. You Rock!

  3. It’s nice hearing more about what each is and does. I always use stevia for my Starbucks (vs getting it sweetened there) and would love to give coconut nectar a try!!

  4. Thanks for the info, I was actually wondering about this the other day. I used to use stevia but just couldn’t stand the flavour that it gave my baking. Dates are okay, I have yet to try the syrup. My favs are maple syrup but I do use a lot of white sugar. I’ll have to try coconut palm sugar

  5. Great post! I still haven’t managed to get my hands on coconut nectar but dates are my preferred choice these days whenever possible….coconut sugar is number 2!

  6. Great info. Already use coconut oil and butter. Would love to have the recipe for the tart!!!

  7. Great list! I use agave nectar to sweeten Thai curries, which I make almost weekly for dinner. Thinking about switching it to coconut nectar now, it seems like an ideal match for a coconut milk based curry.

  8. GREAT info…as usual :) For several years I would start coughing and have mild to severe breathing issues. At age 50 my body rebelled severely and I didn’t know what exactly was causing the health issues. After trips to the doctor with NO help from him I eliminated many things from my diet, went on a 30 day juice fast then started putting back foods one at a time. I discovered I was having a reaction to most sweeteners. I can handle a little agave, jaggery and honey. Anything else brings on an asthma attack. Needless to say eating natural fruits, dates, raisins etc was my only option for this raging sweet tooth of mine…make that teeth, they all seem crave something sweet.

    I found your newsletter and have saved/tried many of your recipes. My husband while not vegetarian is learning to eat healthy. He has no choice really, he won’t cook so he’s stuck eating what I prepare :) Funny how family members look at you like you’ve lost your marbles when you mention vegetarian and eating whole healthy foods but at family gatherings I put a healthy dish on the table beside their standard unhealthy favorites and they ALWAYS choose my healthy fare….ALWAYS.

    Anyway, I LOVE your newsletter and find encouragement from your humor and personality which shines through each one. THANK YOU!!!!

  9. While very informative and a great reference for sweetener options, calling all of those listed “unrefined” is a misnomer. Stevia, molasses, xylitol, erythritol, crystallized anything – it’s all been through some sort of processing and refinement to reach the state it’s in. Not to say it makes them ‘bad’ – I use a number of them – but they’re definitely not a whole-food in their natural state.

    • Hi Jackie – you bring up a very, very good point. Thank you for that. I’ve renamed the post to ‘alternative’ sweeteners. Thanks again :)

  10. Thanks for the list! I have been curious about the coconut sugar and didn’t really know much about it. Maple syrup is soooooooooooo good ;)

  11. I’ve been hooked on liquid vanilla cream stevia lately. A teaspoon of matcha green tea powder, that fabulous sweetener and a couple tablespoonfuls of chia and I’m soon ready for the day! I’ve learned to keep shaking my VitaMix bottle until the tea and chia are thoroughly mixed, as the chia helps the tea get mixed in (like using a whisk!) and the chia doesn’t become a solid lump =D

  12. I have always been a bit leery about dates, but I have never thought to make them into a syrup! Definitely going to try that. I often use apple sauce when I want something subtly sweet. I like to mix it with chia seeds and vanilla for a yummy sort of “pudding”. Great post!

  13. This is great! Just shared it on FB! I absolutely LOVE coconut sugar for baking and often use raw/unpasteurized honey or maple syrup for goods not going into a hot oven. Dates are great too! Your tart is inspiring me for when the fruit season hits here in BC – yum!

  14. Just wondering, on the topic of sweeteners, any suggestions on what type of sweetener would work best in a pudding. I found a wonderful recipie with tapioca coconut and pineapple but it call for a 1/2 cup sugar and was wondering what the best type of replacement would be for the sugar in this type of recipe. Thanks

    • If a recipe calls for granulated sugar, I suggest simply swapping in any other granulated sweetener (like coconut palm sugar, date sugar, or xylitol) in its place. Conversely, always swap liquid for liquid. You CAN convert granulated –> liquid and vice versa, but it can get complicated, so I usually stick to simple 1-for-1 swaps. :)

  15. I use pureed figs (or dates) after soaking them in water for a while or overnight, mix it with raw cacao and a bit of water to thin it down a bit, (use a teaspoonof this sweetener and 1 heaped TBsp of this liquidized cacao – about 1 heaped TB), cut up a pear and add about 3-4 oz of blueberries and that’s my nightly snack. For baking I might use honey, agave syrup, maple syrup or rice bran syrup (for liquid requirements) or date “sugar” or palm crystals for (powdered sweetener requirements). By reading all the labels, the coconut crystals have the least amount of “sugar” in them for the same quantity.

  16. This is great!! I do a lot of baking and cooking & I’m always on the lookout for a way to make things as healthy as possible but still keep it sweet enough that people will want to eat it. I can’t wait to give some of these sweeteners a try. I think I might try using dates more, too, since I usually have them around. Thanks so much for this!!

    • Wow, awesome. Thanks for sharing! The video is AWESOME! The website is great, too :)

  17. I will right away grab your rss feed as I can’t find your email
    subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you
    have any? Please allow me know so that I may subscribe.

  18. I’ve made raw desserts. I’ve learned that medjool dates are the cornerstone in raw dessert recipes; however, I’ve had trouble in obtaining htem so I substituted deglet dates. I learned that medjool dates ( when I could get them) are sweeter than deglet dates. In addition, I substituted dark raisins in carob confections and they were good.

  19. How much agave nectar or palm sugar would you need to replace a date? Buying dates is too expensive for me, plus I’m really not a fan of the taste. Any ideas would be appreciated. Thanks!

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