I frequently use maple syrup in a lot of my desserts and I list the ingredients, openly, on these desserts. While I’m always open and honest about my raw stance–being that I’m not, nor ever claim to be, 100% raw–I still want to clarify that maple syrup is not raw.
The process of making maple syrup involves a very long process of cooking down the sap collected from maple trees. It is actually a really inspiring and delicate process that takes a lot of attention and patience.
My cousins from Canada visited a few years ago and explained how they harvest maple syrup from their own maple trees. It was one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had and now I feel like I am eternally grateful for the pure maple syrup that I am able to consume–imported directly from the Canadian trees, of course!
First, let me answer your likely question: what’s the big deal??
Well, in raw circles, it is a Big. Deal. to be “raw” versus “not raw”. Typically, this is the dogma I try to avoid because I find it makes life more constricting than fun. I get it, of course, boiling something down until it’s a concentrated form of sugar is not exactly pure. At the same time, I also understand that substitutions are easy and available if I choose to change the recipe at all.
So let me break it down for you why I choose maple syrup over agave, every single time.
First, maple syrup is extracted directly from a plant source. Maple trees are “tapped” so that the sap within the bark can simply leak out and be collected by those harvesting the syrup. Then it is boiled down until a syrup is formed. As my cousin explained to me, this is actually a very tedious process that needs to be continually monitored. If the temperature, the duration, or even the air exposure is off then the entire batch can be ruined.
Already, my gratitude for both the maple and the harvester is immense.
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Next, I love maple syrup because it contains thiamine, manganese, and zinc. These are incredible powerhouses for nutrition and actually help control blood sugar levels and fight off cancerous cells. True story.
Maple syrup contains polyphenols that are anti-inflammatory which means that it can help aid the fight against general inflammation symptoms to arthritis to cancer. Altogether, maple syrup has 54 antioxidants that help fight free radicals and give your immune system a major boost. The benefits rival that of fresh, raw berries, tomatoes, flax seeds and tea.
Okay. We get it. Maple syrup rocks.
Now, in order to answer the questions of strict raw foodies, let me break down agave a bit, as well, though I know I’m certainly not the first to do so.
What is most shocking is that agave is actually less healthful–and even more harmful–than traditional High Fructose Corn Syrup. Agave has an unbelievably high amount of fructose and is not natural or raw in any form … even the bottles that claim to be raw!
Agave is mostly made up of fructose, which of course is actually a natural source of sugar. However, fructose that exists naturally is found in minimal amounts in fruits and some vegetables and also balanced out with fiber (not to mention you’re consuming everything else along with the entire fruit!). So in its natural state, fructose is great.
However, agave is actually anywhere from 70-90% fructose. That is way more than nature intended and way more than our bodies can handle. It is very difficult for the body to regulate this amount of fructose at once and can have damaging effects on your metabolism, memory and concentration, and of course your weight.
As you can guess, maple syrup has a more natural and balanced relationship of glucose and fructose making the absorption and assimilation of the sugar content much healthier and manageable.
Healthy Vegan Sweetener Substitutions
If this post still hasn’t convinced you to opt for maple syrup then you could use agave if you so choose. I’ve also used coconut nectar. Both have the same consistency though are much sweeter, in my opinion, so use according to your taste. Some prefer Stevia but I’m not a fan. No matter how “healthy” it is I just do not like the taste.
And lastly, one of my all-time favorite options for a natural sweetener are dates. They are 100% natural, not processed, except that they are dried, and provide a lot of natural fiber and vitamins and minerals on top of the sugar factor.
The body has a much easier time breaking down the sugar in dates (compared to the previously mentioned sweeteners) because the sugar exists in its whole and natural form.
If you soak them in warm water for 20-30 minutes and then whirl them in a processor with a couple tablespoons of water then you get a nice date paste. It is delicious to use in your desserts, but also as a sauce for overnight oats, chia bowls, fruit, or even as a spread on sprouted toast. The possibilities are endless!
How do you feel about this debate? I stand firmly behind this opinion and I’m SO glad that others in the community have asked me to clarify! I love a soap box any chance I get 😉
Frequently Asked Questions About Vegan Sweeteners
What sweetener do vegans use?
There are so many different types of vegan sweeteners. I’ve found that most vegans will opt for a natural sweetener, like with dates, beet sugar, blackstrap molasses, or brown rice sugar. Some do prefer an artificial sweetener, like Stevia or Splenda, though that doesn’t necessarily make it the healthier choice. The best sugar substitute for vegans, in my opinion, would be basically any type of fruit sugar.
The reason that vegans become pedantic about their sugar options is because traditional refined sugar is commonly made with bone char. Bones are carbon-rich and by mixing bone char with sugar during the processing, it strips the sugar of its color, giving it the marketable white sugar color.
Raw cane sugar does not go through this same process. Though it is somewhat refined sugar, bone char is not used to create white sugar. Instead, it is left raw and slightly brown, making it totally vegan.
Which is the best natural sweetener?
The best natural sweetener mostly depends on what you define as ‘best’. To me, maple syrup is the best natural sweetener, along with date paste and blackstrap molasses. That being said, I do use raw cane sugar and brown sugar in my baked goods because I find the consistency works better for baking with these types of sugar.
I also really like raw honey as an all-natural sweetener, though many would argue that’s not vegan friendly. Since I’m not totally vegan (sometimes I eat eggs, cheese, and even fish, depending on which country I’m in), I do consume honey. I love what it offers the immune system and as someone who has pretty bad allergies, I find it helpful to have on hand.
Is Stevia vegan?
Stevia is technically a vegan sweetener, though that doesn’t make it the healthiest. It’s basically an artificial sweetener that tricks your brain into thinking it’s consuming sugar, though it’s not. Because the brain thinks you’re eating sugar, it responds in the same way it normally would with any other natural vegan sweetener. In some cases, that can still cause the same negative impacts that refined sugar would cause. So though Stevia extract is a vegan-friendly sugar alternative, I wouldn’t recommend using it.
Can Vegans have Splenda?
No, I wouldn’t recommend that vegans consume Splenda. Because it’s an artificial sweetener, no animal products are in the ingredient list. However, animals are used in testing and apparently many of them have been harmed. There are many reasons to be vegan and not all people are vegan because of animal rights. So perhaps some vegans are okay with consuming Splenda. No matter where you stand, this is probably important to know before you reach for a little packet of Splenda.
Is maple syrup or agave nectar better?
Maple syrup, hands down, is the better option between agave syrup and maple syrup. Though agave nectar is a plant-based source of sugar, it is extremely high in fructose and is bad for those watching their Glycemic Index. As far as natural sugar goes, agave nectar is not the healthiest choice.
Which is healthier honey, maple syrup, or agave?
Maple syrup is more nutrient-dense than honey or agave. Honey still offers a lot of nutritional value and has been shown to support the immune system. Many would argue that honey isn’t vegan, so maple syrup would be the obvious choice for a healthy vegan sugar option.
Can you substitute agave for maple syrup?
Yes, you can generally replace agave syrup for maple syrup at a one to one ratio. Maple syrup is a bit runnier than agave syrup, though, so the end results might differ slightly.
Why is agave syrup bad for you?
Like I mentioned earlier, agave syrup is just an intense amount of fructose with hardly any noteworthy nutrients. It can be quite hard on the body when consumed in massive quantities like we do with baking and raw desserts. As with every type of regular sugar, this vegan sugar can have a negative impact on your health with long-term use. That’s why I opt to use maple syrup and dates as my sweetener most of the time.