Do you struggle to get through a day without a piece of candy? Or a cookie? Do you need to finish off every meal with a little dessert? If so, don’t feel too guilty about it – you may be genetically predisposed to wanting sweet things. In fact, your love of sweet things might even mean you have a pretty likable personality. That’s science, not just popular opinion. Life may truly be sweeter when you eat sweet things. But if you can’t enjoy a day…or a meal…or go an hour…without a little sugar, then you might want to find some alternatives to be on the safe side. Unfortunately, research has found a link between increased sugar intake and a higher risk for high blood sugar, fatty liver disease, and heart attack. That is definitely some sour news.
Luckily, there are plenty of natural things you can add to your iced teas and baked goods that will increase their sweetness, and sometimes even offer some health benefits. It’s always fun to explore cooking alternatives, if not for health reasons than even just for those times when you’re missing one ingredient, and need to get creative. When you run out of sugar or just need an option to forcibly switch things up, you can swap in one of these items and still satisfy that demanding sweet tooth.
While agave nectar sounds like some special potion, it’s actually just a syrup. It comes from the fluid inside the blue agave plant, which is also what’s used to make tequila. It tastes similar to honey, but is slightly more liquid in texture, making it easier to stir into food and beverages. Agave nectar is very sweet, so when using it in place of granular sugar, do not do a one-to-one ratio. Instead, add in small amounts slowly, tasting along the way until you’ve achieved the desired sweetness. It’s particularly good in baked goods, as well as beverages like iced tea and smoothies.
This plant-based sweetener is typically unrefined, meaning it hasn’t been stripped of minerals and vitamins. Because it is unrefined, it looks slightly brown in color. Extracted from the sap of the coconut palm, coconut sugar is rich in potassium, zinc, iron, and even some antioxidants. It also contains an insoluble fiber called inulin, which can minimize post-meal blood sugar spikes, making it a good choice for diabetics or anyone trying to manage blood sugar levels. Coconut sugar can usually be used in a one-to-one ratio when replacing regular sugar, so if you don’t want to do much measuring or thinking, this is an easy pick.
Stevia comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which is found in Paraguay and Brazil. It has almost no calories and is often recommended to diabetics. It’s incredibly sweet so a little goes a long way, and typically comes in either a liquid or powder form. Many brands carry their own version, including Truvia and SweetLeaf. It’s worth noting that it can have an aftertaste that some find to be unpleasant. But in its powder form, it is ultra fine and easy to mix into drinks. As a temperature-stable sweetener, it can also be used when baking and cooking.
You may have noticed more health food brands offering monk fruit sweeteners in all sorts of varieties, including liquid droppers. It really picked up steam recently thanks to its zero-calorie profile and the fact that it is tremendously sweeter than sugar. In order to make this sweetener, the skin and seeds of the Monk Fruit are removed and crushed to extract the juice, which is then dried into a powder form. It is important to note that it can be between 100 to 250 times as sweet as regular sugar, so a tiny bit can make a difference. Many companies mix a bit of it in with other products to cut the sweetness.
Honey is high in sugar, so if consuming less sugar overall is the goal, it won’t help with that. However, it’s also loaded with nutrients like antioxidants and may even help increase good cholesterol levels and boost metabolism – particularly in diabetics. Those who are diabetics should, of course, speak to their doctor about how much honey they can safely consume. While it’s of course good in beverages like hot and cold tea, it can also provide a little sweetness to healthy desserts. Consider drizzling just a little honey over orange slices, along with coconut flakes, for a light and satisfying treat.
Manuka honey gets its own mention because it’s a little different than what you’ll find in more traditional honey. It comes from the New Zealand scrub plant and is much more potent than other kinds of honey. In addition to tasting great in drinks and on toast, it’s also used as a topical treatment for wounds because of its antibacterial properties. When ingested, it can soothe a sore throat and potentially boost immunity. Genuine manuka honey has a slightly creamy texture and will be thicker than other honey. It should also bear the MGO label on it – which is methylglyoxal, a compound found in high concentration in manuka honey.
Date paste is traditionally made with medjool dates, which are very sweet, and it’s incredibly easy to make at home. Simply cover a cup of pitted dates with water, soak for 10 minutes, keep a cup or so of the water, drain the dates, and blend them with the reserved water. You’ll get a nice, creamy paste that tastes delicious in recipes for muffins, cookies, oat bars, and more. Because it’s just dates and water, you get the nutrients of the sweet fruit like fiber, potassium, and manganese. Since dates are already dried and preserved, this paste can last about six months in the refrigerator.
It’s important to find real maple syrup, which is made from the sap of the maple tree and cooked down into a super sweet, concentrated syrup. The real stuff is more expensive than the fake stuff – which is basically maple-flavored sugar. Aren’t you trying to avoid sugar? The real stuff is so special there have even been grand heists involving the smuggling of maple syrup. It ranges in color from light gold to dark brown and is rich in minerals and antioxidants. In addition to tasting great on the obvious foods like pancakes and waffles, it is also good in oatmeal, yogurt, and even with some meat marinades.
Molasses actually comes from the process of refining sugar. It’s a thick, dark syrup. The flavor, color, and texture of it varies depending on the type of extraction and age of the plant. It’s very sweet, so you can usually use just a 1/3 cup in place of one cup of sugar. Because it is a syrup, it can add nice moisture to baked goods. It certainly has a distinct flavor and can be overpowering, so it’s not for everyone. Molasses is a good source of iron, copper, and selenium, as well as calcium, which can make it a food good for those working towards the healthiest of bones.
Yacon syrup comes from the yacon plant, which is native to South America. It’s high in fructooligosaccharides, a type of sugar the human body cannot digest. While that may sound like a bad thing, it’s actually what makes this syrup so healthy. In addition to potentially acting as an appetite supprsessant, it may also promote healthy bacteria in your gut. It has about a third of the calories of refined sugar and can be used in smoothies and baking, as well as in coffee and tea. It has a consistency similar to molasses, so it may act as a thickening agent.