Sadly, refined sugar, as good as it tastes, is terrible for your health-- physically, they increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease while psychologically, they’re linked to a higher likelihood of depression, dementia, and certain types of cancer. Refined sugars have become a staple in the American diet with people consuming an average of 57 pounds of sugar each year.
Not only are many people eating and drinking way too much sugar, but the use of artificial sweeteners is on the rise too. However, in contrast, natural sugars (like honey!) that are found in whole foods are naturally rich in protein or fiber, two nutrients that help your body process these sugars in a healthier way. They’re also typically rich in vitamins, minerals, and beneficial plant compounds making them a much healthier alternative to refined sugars and artificial sweeteners.
Here we share some awesome alternatives to sugar and artificial sweeteners that will satisfy the sweet tooth, and when used appropriately and in moderation, also promote health.
For an extra kick of flavor.
Linden Blossom Honey
Known as “the tree of life” from the Greek myth of Baucis, a peasant woman who aided Zeus and was rewarded by being turned into an immortal linden tree, the linden tree has become the symbol of life and fertility. Linden honey is made from the pollen of the linden blossoms and has a strong and very distinctive aroma: a fresh woodlands smell with hints of menthol, camphor or mint emerge. A light honey that contains mild floral bouquet notes of citrus and zest intertwine in a sweet finish. Tastewise, linden honey is relatively mild but sweeter than you would expect (it is one of the sweetest honeys you can find). Although far sweeter than orange blossom or acacia honey, it doesn’t have an overpowering flavor. The many antioxidants contained in this honey support the immune system and when mixed with tea or lemon, it can act as a gentle treatment for colds, the flu, and sore throats. It’s important to note that the health and nutritional benefits mentioned are only experienced when consuming raw linden honey since pasteurization and ultra-filtration used to produce honey for the grocery store remove the pollen responsible for its benefits.
Made from dandelion flowers and sugar, dandelion honey isn’t made by bees, but rather it is really dandelion syrup made from the flowers and sugar making it a great substitute for vegans or anyone who may have an allergy to traditional bee’s honey. Although similar in appearance and flavor, its consistency is thinner than most honey. If you have a lawn dotted with dandelions and you are sure there haven’t been any chemicals applied, you can forage for the flowers and make the honey at home. It’s recommended to pick the dandelions during daylight while in full bloom and only use the petals to avoid the bitter taste of the stem.
Made in Australia and New Zealand by bees that pollinate the Manuka tree (also known as the tea tree), manuka honey is a dark monofloral honey rich in antibacterial properties. All honey contains antimicrobial properties, but Manuka honey also contains non-hydrogen peroxide, which gives it an even greater antibacterial power. Some studies have found Manuka honey can also help to boost production of growth factors white blood cells need to fight infection and to heal tissue. When buying Manuka honey from the store, look for the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) mark. This means the honey has been produced by one of the 100+ beekeepers, producers, and exporters licensed by the UMF Honey Association. Consumers are advised to choose UMF 10+ and above.
Wildflower honey is a polyfloral honey made when bees pollinate a wide variety of flowers and blossoms by extracting the honey from the beehives and processing it until the texture looks uniform and translucent. Because of the variations, its quality and flavor vary greatly depending on the composition of wildflowers involved in its natural production. This honey, made from the nectar of the full bloom wildflowers, is free from insecticides and pesticides. Rich in antioxidants, consuming wildflower honey on a regular basis aids the immune system and prevents heart disease, strokes, and several other cancers. It can also protect the tissues from aging prematurely and soothe a sore throat or bring relief to an upper respiratory tract infection.
Rock Sugar Crystals
For a sweetener that doesn’t change the flavor of your tea.
Rock sugar is sugar in its purest form and the preferred choice of sweetener for tea drinkers since it sweetens without changing the flavor. Originating during the Tang Dynasty, rock sugar was sugar frost or sugar ice and was made by taking the juice of the sugar and cooking it down- the process is called crystallization and supersaturation. The sugar and water are combined, then the water is slowly evaporated into a gas and what is left behind are the sugar crystals. Most of the process is still done by hand. There are slight variations to rock sugar, some are yellow, white, or amber but all are raw cane sugar that has crystallized to form crystals that vary in size from small to as large as an inch wide. When serving, place the rock sugar crystal at the bottom of the cup and pour tea over the crystal. Don’t stir, instead let the crystal dissolve on its own for an increasingly sweet finish. Continue the process of adding sugar, tea, and drinking until you’ve run out of tea.
Dried fruits: Medjool Dates
For an extra kick of sweetness.
Originating from the Middle East, dates are harvested from date palms. The sweet fruit is a great sugar substitute and has proven to decrease cholesterol and boost bone health. They are loaded with essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium and contain lots of vitamins such as niacin, vitamin K, and vitamin A. A low glycemic food, dates do not cause significant glucose spikes in the blood, and therefore may be beneficial for diabetics. The easiest way to replace sugar with dates is by simply chopping and adding them straight into your tea. Another option is blending the dates into a paste or liquid. You can also turn dates into syrup by boiling the dates and reducing the liquid until it’s the consistency of honey. Add 1-2 dates to your favorite tea like you would a cube of sugar or steep using a tea bag or clamp.
Pair it with: Royal Chrysanthemum
For a herbal kick and thirst quencher.
Licorice root is one of the oldest sweetening products, a sticky black extract derived from the root of the plant Glycyrrhiza, one of the sweetest natural substances (about 50 times sweeter than sugar). Loaded with antioxidants, medicinal use of licorice dates back to ancient Egypt, where the root was made into a sweet drink for pharaohs. It is also low in calories and has a characteristic herbal aftertaste. Licorice has traditionally been used for many health problems- from stomach issues, to soothing throat, and managing stress and anxiety. Although a healthier alternative to sugar, chronic use and large doses of licorice root can cause severe fluid and electrolyte imbalances. Children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those with kidney disease, heart disease, or high blood pressure should avoid licorice products.
Pair it with: Blue Lotus
For a no-calorie option.
Monk fruit (also known as the “Buddha fruit”) is a small, round melon native to Southern China and Northern Thailand. The sweetener is created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit and crushing it to collect the juice, which is then dried into a concentrated powder. Monk fruit extract is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar and many manufacturers add other natural products like inulin to reduce the intensity of the sweetness. It has a clean flavor profile with no lingering aftertaste. In the Chinese herbal healing tradition, monk fruit is believed to be a longevity aid and to soothe coughs and sore throats. Monk fruit as a sweetener has been around for decades but has recently grown in popularity since it’s become more readily available. The most interesting thing about monk fruit sweetener is that its natural sugars aren’t responsible for its sweetness, it gets its intense sweetness from unique antioxidants called mogrosides. During processing, mogrosides are separated from the fresh-pressed juice. Therefore, monk fruit sweetener does not contain fructose or glucose. Use the extract as you would sugar when adding to tea.
For those looking for a vegan alternative.
Coconut sugar is a natural sugar made from coconut palm sap, which is the sugary fluid of the coconut plant. It is often confused with palm sugar, which is similar but made from a different type of palm tree. Harvesters tap coconut palm sap by cutting into the tree’s flower-bud stem to access its nectar. Producers then mix the sap with water, boil it into a syrup, and allow it to dry and crystallize. Afterward, they break the dried sap apart to create sugar granules that resemble regular table or cane sugar. Although high in calories, it is a healthier alternative to table sugar since it retains quite a bit of nutrients found in the coconut palm. Coconut sugar has become popular amongst vegans, as it is plant-based and minimally processed. It is also a healthy choice for people with diabetes because of its small amount of inulin, a type of soluble fiber that can make post-meal blood sugar spikes less likely.
Pair it with: Shangri-La Rose
For those looking for an extra dose of antioxidants.
Maple syrup is made from the circulating fluid, or sap, of sugar maple trees. Most maple syrup is produced in Eastern Canada. In the US, maple syrup is classified as either Grade A or B. The darker syrups (Grade B syrups) are made from sap extracted later in the harvest season and have a stronger maple flavor, usually used for baking. The lighter ones (Grade A syrups) are perfect as sugar substitutes for plant-based diets. When buying maple syrup, make sure to read food labels for real maple syrup and not just maple-flavored syrup which can be loaded with refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Although high in calories, a study found that maple syrup contains at least 24 antioxidants with darker syrups like Grade B supply more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter ones.