By Adriana Harlan

Sugar plays an important role in baking. Without it, desserts would not only taste bland but also lack volume, tenderness, texture, and color. Perhaps the most amazing (and scary) property of sugar is the fact that it enhances the flavor of bakery goodies. Sugar is addictive, and most sugars consumed today come from genetically modified crops or from sugar beets and corn and are consumed in their refined form. This scenario leads to weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, and numerous other modern chronic diseases.

Many theorize that our Paleolithic ancestors indulged in fruits in season and went out of their ways, climbing tall trees and battling bees, to enjoy a good dose of honey whenever they could find it. Humans clearly have a sweet tooth, and sweet treats have been part of human history. So enjoying sweets on occasion for most people that have a healthy metabolism and weight is okay, and the following sections highlight the best Paleo-approved sweeteners for you to choose from when baking your favorite recipes. Each of the following natural sugar substitutes provides a unique flavor and texture to baked goods and has a distinct nutritional profile.

When you follow the Paleo diet and lifestyle, your taste buds change and become sensitive to sweet foods. A little sweetener added to recipes goes a long way, and you don’t need much to satisfy your natural sugar cravings.

Raw honey

The nutrient profiles of raw honey and regular/pasteurized honey are very different. Raw honey is the pure honey extracted from beehives, complete with beneficial nutrients and enzymes. The honey is strained through a fine sieve to remove bee parts, pollen, and wax and isn’t heated or pasteurized. Pasteurized honey is processed under high heat, which destroys the honey’s beneficial nutrients and enzymes. Pasteurized honey often has added ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Because eating Paleo is all about consuming the most nutritious foods possible, it’s recommended you use raw honey to sweeten your recipes with.

Note: Although the healthful enzymes found in raw honey can withstand heating for short periods of time, heating honey above 150 degrees damages its delicate flora.

Honey is much sweeter than white table sugar. When adapting recipes that call for white sugar, you can determine how much honey to use by halving the amount of sugar called for. So if the recipe calls for 1 cup of regular sugar, replacing it with 1/2 cup of raw honey should be sufficient. You can also start by using just 1/4 cup of honey in place of 1 cup of white sugar, and then add more if you feel the recipe needs to be sweeter.

When purchasing raw honey, look for words on the label such as unheated, unfiltered, unpasteurized, and organic raw honey. Whenever possible, buy local.

Maple syrup

Traditional cultures have consumed maple syrup for centuries; it was first produced by indigenous people living in the northeastern part of the United States. The syrup is extracted by boiling the sap of maple trees, and then it’s divided and packaged based on the grade. Grade A is lighter in color and milder in flavor. Grade B maple syrup is darker in color and has a stronger maple taste. The latter also contains more minerals and is the grade of choice for most Paleo chefs.

When substituting maple sugar for white table sugar in a recipe, use the same principals for replacing raw honey: If a recipe calls for 1 cup of white sugar, replace it with about 1/2 cup of maple syrup. Like honey, maple syrup also adds moisture to baked goods, so when adapting recipes made with wheat flour and refined sugars, either add less liquid to your recipe or increase the amount of nut flour or starch added. When baking with coconut flour, this isn’t necessary because coconut flour absorbs a lot of moisture.

When purchasing maple syrup, buy directly from the farmer or look for organic 100-percent-pure maple syrup.

Coconut palm sugar

Coconut palm sugar is made from the sugary sap extracted from the flower buds of coconut palm trees. Immediately after extraction, the sap is boiled down to prevent fermentation until the water evaporates and a thick, sticky brown sugar is left. The sugar is then ground, sifted, and dried to produce the granulated coconut sugar. The product is sold as coconut palm sugar or sometimes as coconut blossom sugar. Don’t confuse it with palm sugar, which is a different type of sugar extracted from Palmyra palm trees (or sugar palms).

Coconut palm sugar has a soft caramel flavor, similar to brown sugar, and doesn’t leave your recipes tasting like coconut. It dissolves well in liquids and is great for sweetening Paleo cookies, cakes, muffins, and breads. The sugar replaces brown or regular white table sugar cup-for-cup. Like brown sugar, coconut palm sugar gives baked goods a light golden brown tint. The sugar granules are coarser than brown sugar, and pulsing them in a coffee grinder or food processor turns them into fine powder, which is ideal for making chocolates or giving baked goods a lighter texture. When baking with liquids such as water, milk, or juice, you can allow the sugar to dissolve before mixing with the other ingredients. You can use this trick to give baked goods a smoother texture.

Coconut palm sugar is known for being low glycemic, meaning it has a slower effect on your blood sugar. It’s high in B vitamins and minerals such as ­potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

Fruits

Fresh or dried fruits are another great way to naturally sweeten Paleo desserts. Ripe bananas and unsweetened applesauce, for example, are very sweet, and they’re most likely the only sweetener you’ll need to sweeten your recipes after your taste buds adjust to eating low-sugar Paleo foods. These two options also provide structure and can replace binders like eggs. A quarter cup of unsweetened applesauce or mashed banana can replace 1 egg in your recipes.

Dried fruits have concentrated amounts of fruit sugar that can make your recipes very sweet without any other type of sweetener. For example, dried dates, raisins, apricots, plums, mangoes, and figs are all very sweet and add a lovely chewiness to baked goods. You can use one or a combination of dried fruits to sweeten your recipes. You can either chop them into small pieces or blend them in a food processor until creamy and smooth. Then add the creamy paste to any of your favorite recipes to sweeten and bind ingredients.

Stevia

Extracted from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana, stevia is an all-natural sweetener and has been used for more than 1,500 years in South America. It’s low on the glycemic index, contains no calories, and is one of the most desirable sweetener for people with blood sugar, blood pressure, or weight problems.

Pure stevia can be 70 to 400 times sweeter than regular white sugar. So if the recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, replace it with only 1 teaspoon of liquid or powdered stevia. Look for stevia products that have been extracted with only purified water and no other chemicals or alcohols. Be aware of stevia-like products that mix in some kind of sugar base such as dextrose, maltodextrin, xylitol, and erythritol. Some recommended brands of pure stevia extract are SweetLeaf, KAL Pure Stevia Extract, and Stevita Simply-Stevia.