Get to Know These Alternative Sweeteners

It’s time to update your sugar glossary.

alternative sweeteners
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Let’s talk alt sweeteners. I’m not talking about zero-calorie sugar substitutes like stevia. I mean the universe of syrups and amber-hued crystals you’ll find on the sugar shelf. Ever wonder what they’re all about—but were reluctant to fork over the $8-10 to investigate? Well, that’s what we’re here for.

You know that scene in The Wiz when Dorothy steps out of her grayscale Kansas world and into the colorful land of Oz? That’s what it’s like to venture away from ordinary cane sugar and taste sweeteners from other plants. Sweetness comes in all different flavors, and they’re all worth tasting. Here’s a small sample with big buzz. 

coconut sugar
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Coconut sugar

Surprisingly, it’s not made from coconuts; it’s made from the nectar of coconut flowers. It’s low glycemic and has a tiny bit of gut-healthy prebiotic fiber. Look for coconut sugar made from sustainably-grown coconuts. 

How does it taste? It has a caramel flavor we love, also a subtle coconut flavor.
How do I use it? You can bake with this, but keep the flavor profile in mind and use it only in foods and drinks you don’t mind having a caramelized coconut taste. Brilliant for brownies, IMHO. Also good on oatmeal and overnight oats.

date syrup
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Date syrup

Literally, it’s made from medjool dates and that’s it. This thick, dark syrup comes with benefits: minerals like potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants. It is also low glycemic.

How does it taste? Jenny, it tastes like dates. Just. Like. Dates.
How do I use it? You could drizzle this over ice cream, yogurt, maybe an almond butter sandwich. It’s brilliant on oatmeal or overnight oats. I could see this going into a salad dressing or a smoothie. If you’re adventurous and love the flavor, you could stir it into your coffee or tea.

Manuka Honey
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Manuka honey

Bees make this honey from the nectar of flowers of the manuka tree, which is from the myrtle family and is related to the tea tree. It’s native to New Zealand, a country that strictly regulates its manuka honey production to ensure that anything labeled as such really does come entirely from manuka trees and isn’t adulterated with honey from other plants. In fact, New Zealand is trying to get proprietary on the name, because other countries that grow similar plants are trying to market their own honey as manuka.

Why does this matter? Because manuka honey is believed to have certain health benefits derived from a compound called methylglyoxal, or MGO. All honey has antibacterial properties, but manuka honey has more (as well as antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties). The higher the concentration of MGO, the more expensive it is. I mean, check out this ultra-concentrated premium honey that comes in a special box and goes for $175. Wowza. You can get perfectly good manuka honey for around $30.

How does it taste? Depending on the concentration of MGO, it has a subtle tea tree oil taste.
How do I use it? You can stir it into herbal tea, but I would taste the honey separately first to make sure you like the flavor. Might as well toss it into a smoothie that already contains a bunch of other superfood ingredients like chaga mushrooms and ashwagandha and tocopherol. I will sometimes have a small spoonful when I feel a tickle in my throat or I have tummy trouble; it’s supposed to help both. 

Monkfruit Sweetener
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Monk fruit sugar

This is sugar made from an extract of dried monk fruit, which is a small melon native to China. Remarkably, it’s several times sweeter than cane sugar but has zero calories and is extra, extra low-glycemic.

How does it taste? It’s fairly neutral, but I would also say it tastes like cartoon sugar, if that makes any sense. The brand we tasted (Lakanto) adds erythritol, a kind of alcohol sugar, and has a faint aftertaste (possibly from that additive). 
How do I use it? This is a good sugar to bake with if it’s mixed with erythritol. This enables it to become a 1-to-1 sugar replacement. You can also mix it into hot drinks; or you could make a simple syrup with it for cold drinks.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Adriana Velez is a contributor for Thrillist.