Sweeter Swaps: How to Choose Sustainable Sweeteners

With so many sweeteners vying for the “healthy and sustainable” label, it can be tricky to know which claims to trust and which to traipse right by in the supermarket. We’re doing a deep dive into the environmental impact of two key clean sweeteners — honey and maple syrup — to help you to shop more sustainably.
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Let me get this out at the start: I am an unabashed lover of holiday sweets and treats.

I adore the smell of baked goods wafting through the house. I relish punching down pillows of dough, then creating something sublime with it. Nothing feels more nostalgic than pulling out my mom’s crinkly, butter-smudged index cards. And that once-a-year cookie-making binge? Pure heaven… and priceless to me.

Yet, over the years, I’ve made some swaps when it comes to the sweet stuff, tinkering with the types (somewhat healthier) and total amount (less is more) of the sweeteners we use. So if you’re like me, on the hunt for CE-approved holiday ingredients that don’t scrimp on sweet flavor and are still matched to meet the task at hand (sugar helps provide structure, color and flavor to baked goods and also acts as a preservative), it’s becoming easier than ever to find more sustainable versions, thanks to a booming interest. Here are two to try this season.

Local Honey

Honey, especially small-batch and locally produced, is the bees knees: A UC Davis study found that honey from “backyard” beekeepers, producers with fewer than 10 colonies and an output of 100 kilograms of honey annually, has the smallest carbon footprint. Larger commercial producers have a higher emission due to the transport as well as the processing. Reduce your footprint further by choosing raw and unprocessed local honey. 

CHOOSE: We love 100% Raw Buckwheat Honey by Beekeeper’s Naturals, a certified B Corp producer of raw organic honey ($20, beekeepersnaturals.com). Another bonus? Buying from local beekeepers ensures you’re getting the real thing: A study in the Journal of Food Science found honey(along with milk and olive oil) to be one of the top three adulterated foods in the marketplace. Choose glass over plastic for an eco-friendly container and buy in larger quantities to cut down on packaging.

Maple Syrup

Well-managed sugarbushes (the traditional term for a stand of sugar maples) provide the added ecological benefit of acting like a carbon sink, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. But a flurry of research suggests a warming climate puts the future of this pantry fave in doubt.

The problem? Warmer, drier weather means sap flows are starting earlier and producing smaller amounts. Ideal conditions for production require instead cold nights and warm days.

Producers are finding innovative ways to adapt, shifting from the traditional and simple method of hammering a single tap into each tree and collecting sap with buckets to high-tech innovations like installing vacuum tubing to pull the sap from the trees. While this bolsters sap collection, it may also increase the carbon footprint.

But even these gains may ultimately be offset by declines occurring as a result of climate change. A study in Ecology looked at the current impact of our changing climate on over 1,000 maple trees and found that higher temperatures and shorter seasons resulted in significantly smaller growth (growth is linked to sap levels). And a 2017 study reported that to counter future declines in growth predicted by climate change, an additional 5 million taps are needed to maintain current levels of production. 

CHOOSE: We’re fans of Certified Organic Crown Maple’s Amber Color 50 ml ($4, crownmaple.com). One of the ways this sustainably run stand works to ensure the lowest impact on its trees is by placing only one tap in each, which ensures speedy healing after harvest.

So which sweetener is “best” to use? Many factors determine a product’s overall environmental impact, such as agricultural practices, harvesting, processing, transportation, packaging and waste management. Not only are these specifics often impossible to suss out at the supermarket, it also explains why two versions of the same sweetener can have very different impacts on the planet.

However, broadly speaking, a few rules of thumb can help point you toward more sustainable choices. See “5 Quick Tips to Choose More Sustainable Sweeteners,” below.  

5 Quick Tips to Choose More Sustainable Sweeteners

Choose organic. This reduces the impact of fossil fuel required to produce conventional fertilizers.

Source local and regional when you can. Limit the number of food miles your sweetener traveled – especially for heavier sweeteners such as honey and pure maple syrup.

Search out third- party certifications. These are proof-points indicating companies’ concern for environmental and social issues, such as Rainforest Alliance Certified or The
Carbon Trust.

Look for sustainable packaging. Or bring your own containers whenever possible (such as at farmers’ markets or zero-waste grocery stores).

Choose the physically lighter choice. When purchasing a product that is traveling a longer distance, opt for the lighter version. For example, choose yacon root powder over yacon root syrup. This reduces fossil fuels used in shipping.