Natural Sugar Swaps

I read an article yesterday that listed the 4 ingredients you shouldn’t be eating. I could think of way more than 4 right off the bat, but it came as no surprise that among the 4 selected were MSG, trans fats and refined sugar.

We all know sugar is ‘bad.’ Empty calories, spikes in our blood sugar, diabetes, nutrient-poor, the list goes on.

And yet, despite all the bad associations it has with it, it still lives on the grocery shelves in many, many products. Sometimes even in products you wouldn’t suspect (all those fat-free items you think you’re doing your body good by buying? They usually replace that fat with sugar…which then becomes fat in our body!)

Here’s my take.

The right kind of sugar (see below), at the right times, is OK and sometimes even necessary. When its primary purpose is function, for sport for example, or when it’s coming from natural real-food sources, like fruit, sugar isn’t the enemy. In fact, it’s necessary. It’s what gives our bodies energy and the ability to perform.

There are also social factors in our society in which sugar comes into play. Birthday cake, wedding cake, the first ice cream cone of the summer, fresh baked muffins for Sunday brunch. I’m sure you can think of more. And while no one’s arguing these foods are going to give you a nutritional boost, they are OK to indulge in on occasion.

The word occasion is what i want to focus on here.  Sugar has become a nutritional no-no in America, and taking the blame for the aforementioned diseases, etc due to the amount we eat and the sources we get it from.

So that bag of domino refined white sugar isn’t what I want you reaching for daily. And the corn syrup solids you’re you’re getting from your reduced fat peanut butter and HFCS living in your processed whole wheat sandwich bread, jarred tomato sauce, salad dressings, try and stay away from that too.

I’m not saying you can never make your old favorite cupcake and cookie recipe. I’m just saying try thinking outside the box. Your best choice are those coming from natural and least refined sources.

Making muffins? Substitute some or all of the sugar for seasonal fruit, applesauce, ripe banana, or honey.

Baking cookies? As a rule, you can typically reduce all sugar in a recipe by 1/3 cup without even noticing a difference.

And if you’re looking for some alternate, more natural sugar substitutes look no further.

Here are 5 natural sweeteners I’m using these days


Comes from the agave plant. While slightly more caloric than table sugar (per tablespoon) it’s also sweeter so you actually get more bang for your calorie buck. And despite its extra sweetness it sits lower on the glycemic index, which means it doesn’t spike our blood sugar as high as the white stuff. Extra bonus: agave is considered a prebiotic, which means it nourishes the bacteria in our gut.  Favorite way to use: to lightly sweeten tea, coffee or a fun cocktail!

Maple Syrup

Given that we’re a blog written by 4 girls who are all Mainers at heart, how could I not include maple syrup?  “Tapped” right from the maple tree, this stuff is the best. It’s not only natural but also seriously high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatories (those compounds that fight off  chronic disease). It also contains vitamins and minerals including manganese (muscle recovery), zinc, calcium, iron and potassium.

Try to think past your pancakes here. I love this stuff drizzled over yogurt, my oats, and to lightly sweeten homemade sauces like red curry or salad dressings. You can bake with this stuff too, just reduce any other liquid in baking by ½ cup. Honey can be swapped just the same!


The stevia plant is native to South America. The extract we get from this plant is calorie free! And 100 % natural. Win, win. Warning that Stevia is 200+ times sweeter than sugar, i.e.: a little goes a long way. I’ve dabbled with baking with this stuff but it can definitely be tricky. While technically you can replace more I find it’s best to replace ½ of the called for sugar with Stevia and really no more.  ½ cup of sugar = 3 ½ tsp Stevia.

Coconut Palm Sugar

This sugar is similar to maple syrup in that we get it from tree sap. Specifically, coconut palm tree buds. Rich in B vitamins, potassium and other vitamins and minerals this sweetener is also super low on the glycemic index. Low GI index means the energy obtained from it is slow release and doesn’t cause those common roller coasted energy levels typical sugar gives you. Another perk, it’s very similar in texture to table sugar and really can be swapped equally (or reduce by ¼ cup). I LOVE using this to bake. It’s dark, and has caramel, molasses, butterscotch tones. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of the taste alone but when mixed into a recipe I find it to be an amazing substitute.


Ok so i know this isn’t really sugar at all but the sweetness that comes from a mashed ripe banana makes for a very moist and delicious cinnamon bun, muffin, or quick bread. Plus, you’re getting a high dose of potassium, prebiotics (encourages probiotics in gut), among other vitamins and minerals. I let my bananas turn almost black, peel, cut in half and then stash in the freezer for when I’m looking to bake. Martha also has a pretty amazing chocolate chip banana walnut cookie that should not be missed (swap cup of sugar with ¾ c of coconut palm sugar)!