Posted by: A Part of the Solution | November 1, 2010

Vegan Pantry, Part 4: Sweeteners

Many, though not all, vegans eschew honey. They feel that the bees are just as oppressed having their honey harvested (stolen), as cows are when their lactation is taken and processed. Given that bees have to find a new home every time they fill their hive, harvesting the honey may be regarded as a stabilizing factor in the home life of bees. Be that as it may, there are plenty of other sweeteners you can stock to your pantry shelves with less controversy attached.


Agave nectar: This product is as processed as HFCS, i.e. the liquid goes through repeated cycles of hydrolysis after fractionating it. Therefore, it is not suitable for a raw foods diet, a whole foods diet or the diets of persons conscientious in reducing their carbon footprint (how much energy does it take to convert cactus sap into a corn syrup consistency).

Barley Malt: Made from sprouted barley, this viscous brown sweetener is half as sweet as cane sugar, and releases it’s carbs slowly–which makes it an excellent feeder for yeast breads–as well as people wishing to keep their blood sugar on a more even keel.

Brown Rice Syrup: Suitable for gluten-intolerant persons, half as sweet as cane sugar, and available in an organic iteration, some people object to its subtle, but distinctive flavor.

Cane sugar: This comes in lots of varieties–raw or turbinado, brown, dark brown, granulated, confectioners, evaporated, piloncillo. Be aware that confectioners sugar contains up to 3% cornstarch or tapioca starch to prevent clumping. Brown sugar and dark brown sugar are regularly refined white sugar (granulated) with some of the molasses added back in. You can make your own by substituting 1-1 1/2 TBSP of molasses in every cup of sugar when you’re baking.

Corn Syrup: Less insidious than it’s ubiquitous cousin HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup), this is generally used to create a stable gooey texture in baked goods (pecan pie, fudge, some frostings &tc). A cooked concoction of sugar and water makes a satisfactory substitute.

Honey: If you choose to use, go for organic and/or local. Appreciate the distinct differences in honeys created from specific pollen sources (clover, lavender, pine, what-have-you). Buying from farmers at farmers markets ensures that you’re not getting sugar syrup cut with honey imported from China. Honey is very sweet, and one needs less of it by volume to sweeten a food than one does of any other sweetener. Keep this in mind if you’re using honey in a recipe calling for some other form of sweetening.

Maple syrup: Here’s a uniquely North American sweetener, sugar maples are native here and no where else. Real maple syrup is not pancake syrup and must be labelled 100% real maple syrup. Organic is available from a variety of sources. Maple sugar, about twice as sweet as cane sugar by weight, is also available on the market–though it is largely seen as maple candy.

Molasses: Molasses is a byproduct of the cane sugar refining industry. It is the cooked-off impurities in the cane juice centrifuged away from the crystal before the final round of charcoal filtration takes place. This inexpensive sweetener has a strong flavor, and lots of iron. It helps give character to spice cookies, ginger bread, and is delicious on morning hot cakes of every ilk.

Palm sugar: Made from date, Palmyra or coconut palms this is available as a ‘honey’, a paste and (most commonly) in blocks or cones. If you buy the most solid form, it may have been coated in wax for transport purposes, check before you begin to shave the sugar. This is traditionally used in Asian cooking, and has a light molasses-y character. It is also lower in carbs than some sugars and is less of a drain on the land growing the trees than many other sweetener crops–cane included.

Sweet Sorghum: This annual grain crop provides fodder, staple food for people and even a sweetener. In the 19th century, this was the most common sweetener available to frontier dwellers in America. Sorghum syrup is more nutritionally dense than most sweeteners, containing a handful of trace minerals and usable B vitamins in the form of riboflavin.



  1. Nice list. Thanks for that!

    I would think that “organic” maple syrup is what all maple syrup is anyway (whether is carries the label or not)…since I don’t think there’s pesticides and herbicides are typically used in a forest?

    • As it turns out, non-organic maple syrup forests may be managed with pesticides. And non-organic maple syrup may be processed using formaldehyde. And non-organic maple syrup production doesn’t put tapping limits on trees, or the percentage of trees tapped. So organic makes a difference here too, however counter-intuitive it may seem.

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