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.

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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  1. Is there a chart to show how to do substitutions of the various types of sugar substitutes??? For example how many dates or how many raisins or how many tsp, of stevia are = to a tsp or cup of Sugar???

    • I don’t have one, but I’ll consider creating one! I’m sure there are ones online that you could find with a quick Google search, too :)

      • Leanne,
        I am curious about your use of erythritol as a sweetener for your keto recipes. I usually avoid sugar all together and find that I don’t need/crave the sweetness. However, your recipes are heavy with this sweetener. Since I am uncertain about the claims that there is no harm in the sugar alcohol, would replacing it with a small amount of honey negatively affect my ketosis?

  2. if I want to substitute agave syrup with coconut nectar what is the ratio difference or would it be the same measurement?

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

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  6. Love this! I want to make vegan/gluten-free cupcakes and I have date sugar that I’m hoping will swap nicely instead of white sugar. We’ll see how it goes :)

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