Since I wrote about the dangers of artificial sweeteners last week, I thought I'd follow up with a list of what is okay to use. Keep in mind that "natural" doesn't necessarily mean "healthy". Natural means that they are taken from nature and ideally are minimally refined. Remember that at the end of the day, every sweetener should be used in moderation.
1. Raw Honey Raw honey is probably the least processed of all sweeteners. Raw honey is made by bees and is full of nutrients. Honey that is not raw has been pasteurized, and most of the nutrients are removed. Try to find local, raw honey for the greatest benefit and defense against seasonal allergies!
2. Maple Syrup Make sure to find 100% pure maple syrup. It contains some minerals and can be used in baking.
3. Coconut Sugar This is my favorite to use in baking, because sometimes the consistency is just not right when honey is substituted. Coconut Sugar (also called Coconut Palm Sugar) has a low glycemic index, which means you're less likely to have the sugar crash you have with other sugars. In addition, it actually contains B vitamins, vitamin C, and other minerals.
4. Sucanat Sucanat is simply evaporated cane juice. It is dark brown in color because the natural molasses has not been stripped from it. It is a good substitute for white sugar and brown sugar! Too much sucanat will, however, cause that sugar crash, so once again use in moderation - no more than 3 tablespoons a day is recommended, which is still rather generous!
A Few More Notes
Several people have asked me about Stevia. Stevia the plant is natural. If you want to make your own extract using Stevia leaves and alcohol, that would be okay. The white powdered Stevia from the store is very highly processed and I do not recommend it.
Others have also said that using coconut sugar is irresponsible, because the harvesting of coconut sugar means that the actual nuts cannot be produced. This is false. A responsible farmer will be able to harvest both with careful management. Coconut trees in general are among the most environmentally responsible crops on earth! They produce at least 50% more per acre than cane sugar and require fewer pesticides. For more information, I recommend this website: http://coconutsugar.org/makingofcocosugar.php.
Finally, you may be wondering about powdered sugar. Powdered sugar is what makes buttercreams and other desserts so light and fluffy! Powdered sugar is just sugar that has been blended to make the grains very fine and soft. The stuff from the store is usually made from processed cane sugar. If you want powdered sugar, I suggest making it at home using sucanat or even coconut sugar. Just put some in a blender or food processor and blend it until it breaks up and becomes very fine.