Want a little less white refined sugar in your bowl? Some people sprinkle artificial low- or no-calorie sweeteners because they're counting calories, or because they're trying to avoid the sugar rush-and-crash cycle that can wreak havoc on the blood sugar. Others simply seek a less refined (i.e., processed) source of sweetness but want to consume natural sweeteners rather than artificial ones. Here is the sweet and lowdown on 10 alternatives to white refined sugar that you may be able to find on shelves of supermarkets or health food stores.

Agave nectar: This sweet, syrupy nectar is extracted from the agave, the same succulent desert plant used to make tequila. Agave is a bit like honey, though sweeter and thinner, and with fewer calories per tablespoon. Since its flavour is so potently sweet, you'll also use less of it, trimming the calorie count considerably. Another perk of agave nectar is that it is low on the glycemic index, meaning it releases slowly into blood, gradually raising blood sugar levels and avoiding that rush you get from white refined sugar.

Brown rice syrup: You get brown rice syrup when cooked rice is fermented and strained and the liquid is simmered to a syrupy consistency. The process yields a mildly sweet flavour. Brown rice syrup is mostly maltose (white sugar is mostly sucrose). Use it in the same ways you would use honey, stirring it into hot beverages or spreading it on bread.

Brown sugars: Brown sugar is just sugar with molasses in it. But not all brown sugars are created equal. That's because the sugar-making process can go off in all sorts of directions, creating many different types of brown sugar. Brown sugars are comparable in calories to white sugar, but with more vitamins and minerals since the molasses is still in the mix. Depending on the coarseness of the grain, unrefined brown sugars go by many names, including turbinado and the trademarked names Sucanat, Rapadura, and Sugar in the Raw.

Chicory root: The roots of the chicory plant have long been cultivated and added as a flavour to coffee-like beverages. Chicory root also contains inulin and oligofructose, complex carbohydrates, which lend chicory a mildly sweet flavour. They are extracted from the root through a specific process. Inulin and oligofructose add fibre to food products and are used as a sweetener. Chicory can be found on its own or sometimes as an additive to high-intensity artificial sweeteners, including aspartame.

Date sugar: You probably wouldn't want to stir date sugar into your coffee - unless you take your coffee crunchy. That's because date sugar is not a smooth syrup or sugar-like crystals; it's actually just dried dates that have been very finely chopped. Since dates are a high-fibre food, that's a bonus for a white sugar substitute. While it may not mix well with liquid, this coarse, brown powder can add a pleasing and quite sweet flavour to baked goods.

Honey: Bees feast on flower nectar and share the sweet results with us as honey. Because it is nearly as sweet as sucrose, honey can be substituted anywhere you'd usually use white table sugar. At 64 calories per tablespoon, honey may not be a dieter's first option, but since it so sweet, you may not need to use very much. It also contains trace amounts of minerals that the body needs. For those monitoring blood sugar, honey acts in much the same way as table sugar; that is, if you eat too much it could cause a spike in blood sugar. On a sweet side note, honey can soothe a sore throat and quell a cough.

Maple sugar: Boil the sap from a maple tree for long enough and you will get maple syrup. Keep boiling it for longer, and you'll eventually be left with a solid maple sugar. Mostly made up of sucrose, maple sugar has fewer calories per tablespoon than white table sugar. Its super-concentrated sweetness may allow you to use less of it. Sub it in baked goods for a flavourful and powerful sweetness.

Maple syrup: If you've ever slathered a pancake in maple syrup, you know just how sweet it can be. Well, why save all that sweetness for weekend brunch? Maple syrup has comparable calories to honey, but fewer than white sugar. It also contains the mineral nutrients calcium, iron, zinc, and manganese.

Molasses: Molasses is the syrupy-thick leftover of the process that turns sugar cane into the white table sugar we know and love. But not all molasses tastes the same or has the same nutritional value. To make molasses, sugar cane is crushed to get to its juice, which is then boiled until it crystallizes into sugar. One boil will get you first molasses, quite sweet and full of sucrose, and a second boil gets you second molasses, a little less sweet. A third boil yields blackstrap molasses, more bitter and definitely an acquired taste. Blackstrap molasses is a favourite supplement in health food circles because it contains hefty amounts of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Whichever molasses you choose, use it like honey or other syrups: Stir into beverages or add to recipes in place of other sugar. It's a popular addition to gingerbread, pumpkin pies, and baked beans.

Stevia: This natural sweetener is created by squeezing and purifying the liquid from the leaves of the stevia plant. Powerfully sweet, a tiny bit of stevia goes a long way, a fact well known in Japan and other countries where it has been used as a sweetener for decades. In Canada, stevia is approved as a sweetening agent in natural health products. The US Food and Drug Administration announced in December 2008 that a certain highly purified extract of stevia was safe to consume, and many companies leapt at the chance to add the zero-calorie sweetener to their products.

No matter which you choose, sugars and sweeteners should always be used minimally. Sweet is only one of the many flavours you can savour, and it's rarely the healthiest! If you have diabetes or are monitoring your blood sugar levels, talk to your doctor or dietitian about choosing the sweetener that is best for your body.

Amy Toffelmire