Ditch the Sugar for These 12 Better-for-You, Natural Sweeteners
There are a ton of all-natural foods you can use to sweeten up your oatmeal, baked goods, and coffee in place of sugar that pack added nutritional and health benefits.
In their natural state, grapes are only three calories each, and are rich in the type of fiber that keep you regular, says Julia Levine-Axelbaum, RD. The obvious use may be to throw grapes into a smoothie, but you can also process them in a blender and use them in place of sugar in batter for food like muffins, or instead of raisins in a salad or rice dish (Craisins, for example, are very high in sugar). “Grapes are packed with health-protecting antioxidants that have been shown to protect the body against damage that can put you at higher risk for things like heart disease and cancers,” says Levine-Axelbaum. “Many people falsely believe that they should stay away from all fruit because of its high sugar content, but while fruits do contain sugar, the sugar in fruit is not processed by the body in the same way as table sugar.”
Cinnamon has zero calories, for starters. Plus, it actually has the opposite effect table sugar on a person’s blood sugar levels, says Levine-Axelbaum. Studies have shown that cinnamon may help lower blood glucose levels helping to better control diabetics’ blood sugars. “Try sprinkling cinnamon on top of a sliced green apple, it tastes like apple pie,” she says. “You can also sprinkle cinnamon into your morning coffee for a ‘cinnamon latte’ experience without any added calories, or add cinnamon to a plain Greek yogurt to cut some of the tartness.” Cinnamon, she continued, has the unique ability to act as insulin in the body, helping to regulate blood sugars, and even promote weight loss when combined with a healthy diet and exercise routine. “Because we’re so used to pairing cinnamon with sweet desserts, our brains tend to associate the flavor of cinnamon with sweetness,” Levine-Axelbaum says.
While vanilla is only ten calories less per tablespoon than regular white sugar, the real health benefits come from how the body reacts to digesting and storing it. For instance, regular white sugar rapidly spikes your blood sugar levels. In comparison, vanilla won’t spike blood sugar levels, because there isn’t any sugar in it, says Rebecca Lewis, in-house dietitian at HelloFresh. Additionally, vanilla is a whole food that is harvested from the seed-containing pods of the tropical orchid and, unlike regular white sugar, vanilla is not heavily processed or chemically refined. “Vanilla has a sweet fragrance and is often used in sweet treats, even though vanilla itself is not sweet,” says Lewis. “If you are looking to reduce the overall amount of sugar in a baked good, vanilla will add a burst of flavor without compromising the taste. Vanilla can be also be used to sweeten and flavor smoothies, coffee, oatmeal, and plain yogurt.” The main compound in ‘vanillin’ a compound in the vanilla bean, has also been researched for its potential healing properties in fighting cancer. “Instead of buying sugary-sweet yogurts or oatmeal packets, I buy plain unflavored varieties and add a splash of vanilla extract (plus some fresh berries) as the sweetener instead,’ says Lewis. “The aroma of the vanilla instantly relaxes me and makes me excited to eat my breakfast.”
Barley malt syrup
Lewis offered us another sugary alternative that, while not drastically lower in calories, doesn’t lead to blood-sugar spikes and subsequent crashes. Barley malt syrup is made from whole-grains, which give it the added health benefits of retaining trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. “While Barley malt syrup is about the same in terms of calories as sugar, the health differences come from how the specific form of the sugars in each are harvested, refined, and how our body processes it,” she says. “Barley malt syrup has a mellow sweetness, and a distinct malty flavor that works well in baked goods.” Don’t substitute all regular sugar for barley malt sugar in a recipe, though; swap about fifty to seventy-five percent of it for sugar used in baked goods.
Wild blueberries have less sugar than many other fruits such as bananas, and including them in a recipe is a great way to add sweetness without adding additional sugar such as table sugar, honey, or agave, according to Amy Gorin, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, Plus, she says, each bite of wild blueberry delivers health benefits, like a burst of antioxidants. “My clients love making breakfast smoothies using wild blueberries. I tend to prefer the wild variety because they contain a little less sugar than traditional blueberries. A cup of wild blueberries has about 10 grams of sugar, while the same amount of traditional blueberries has about 15 grams,” Gorin says. The easiest way to use them is to buy the frozen version, since the fresh version is only available for a short time each year, and add them straight to the blender. “I’ve also used them in fruit-based ice cream, and I’ve defrosted them in the microwave to use them as a topping for plain Greek yogurt, pancakes, and French toast,” she says. “When they’re defrosted, you get a nice liquid from them that’s a good replacement for maple syrup.” These are amazing health benefits of adding blueberries to your cereal.
Packed with fiber, iron, and magnesium, cacao powder can actually help lower your blood sugar, instead of giving it a spike the way regular sugar does. In comparison, one cup of standard granulated sugar has 773 calories for its 200 grams of sugar, and one cup of cacao powder has 196 calories and just 1.5 grams of natural sugar. “You can use this anywhere you need a chocolate flavor, like instead of chocolate chips,” says Monica Auslander, founder of Essence Nutrition. “You can also add it to yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, or baking to harvest its chocolatey essence.” For anyone who craves chocolate all day, she says, it’s a great way to manage that craving without derailing your diet.
Using bananas in the place of refined sugar can boost the nutritional value of any recipe, and is at its sweetest when it’s just a bit “overripe,” says Samina Kalloo, RD, and founder of the blog Cooking for Tots. The dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals such as potassium can help to control high blood pressure, she says. A half-cup of mashed ripe bananas has only about 25 percent of the calories as a half a cup of white sugar. “From bread to pancakes, oatmeal, smoothies, and even as a natural sweet frozen treat, overripe bananas are the perfect food to add natural sweetness to almost everything you make—the darker and uglier they are, the more flavor they have,” says Kalloo. “Skip the sugar in banana bread and just use extra ripe bananas. Substitute ½ the oil in a recipe for pureed banana and leave out the sugar or minimize it.” She also suggests using them in pancakes, oatmeal, or yogurt to add sweetness without the guilt. Here are eight more genius uses for overripe bananas.
Pure maple syrup
Hear us out on this one: pure maple syrup doesn’t contain any added sugar, artificial flavor, or preservatives, and it is actually pretty rich in compounds like vitamins, minerals, amino, and organic acids. Studies have even suggested that the sweet stuff might help prevent or manage health problems like diabetes, and cancer and help promote healthy liver function. While this maple syrup does contain ten more calories per teaspoon than granulated sugar, the catch is, you only need to use ⅔ of what you might normally have used in a recipe that calls for sugar, or as an additive in your morning coffee. So, if you’re baking, you can replace 1 cup of sugar with ⅔ cup of pure maple syrup, according to Blake Mirzayan of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. “Maple syrup can also serve as a one-to-one substitution for other liquid sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, and corn syrup. It can also be used in coffee and tea, vinaigrettes and marinades,” he says.
Sugar contributes empty calories without any vitamins, minerals or fiber, and four dates contain about 7 grams of fiber, along with magnesium, potassium, manganese, and copper, according to Linzy Ziegelbaum of LNZ Nutrition. “Dates are great to use in recipes in place of sugar. They are sticky, so I recommend using them in no-bake recipes since there stickiness helps hold things together,” she says. “I use dates to make my own energy bars and energy balls, and when I am craving something sweet, sometimes I will also eat a date with some peanut butter on top. This way I am able to get my sugar fix without having any table sugar.” Try popping them in the blender to use in place of sugar or honey in recipes that call for it, or using them to sweeten smoothies or breakfast cereal.
Fiber syrup is made of natural plant fibers, with only 5 percent of the syrup containing sugar and 70 percent containing fiber. According to Frida Harju, in-house nutritionist at health app Lifesum, that means it has almost no calories. And, she says, despite having less than half of the calories of both sugar and honey and containing less carbs, it still contains 60 percent of the sweetness of both. The smooth consistency of fiber syrup is like that of honey or syrup, so it is particularly good as a substitute for sugar in home baking,” she says. “It can also be used to sweeten hot drinks such as coffee and tea, and since it’s a dietary fiber and contains probiotics, it is also good for the digestive system.” She adds that it’s best to use this one in moderation since it can also act as a laxative, but that it’s perfect for making homemade chocolate sauce for ice cream or homemade energy bars.
The sugar in prunes is unrefined, and when you eat the fruit you also get some fiber, which helps buffer the breakdown of that sugar, and they also add moisture, which helps lend a satisfying texture to baked goods, according to Jessica Cording, RD. “Stewing them in warm water and then pureeing in a blender or food processor is the best way to get a smooth texture, and the slight tart flavor makes prunes a great sugar substitute for recipes like fruit pies, energy bars, and muffins,” she says. “They also work great in muffins or quick-breads.” If a recipe calls for one cup sugar, use half a cup of prunes, which also contain healthy amounts of iron and fiber. “I find that prunes’ very sweet flavor work best in recipes where you don’t have a lot of other sweet ingredients. Using them in banana bread would be overpoweringly sweet, but in something like a spice muffin or pumpkin pie, it would be the perfect compliment,” she says.
Lower in calories and rich in minerals and vitamin B, lucuma is often used in South America as both a flavoring agent and immune-booster, according to Janis Isaman, certified nutrition coach at My Body Couture. Lucuma, she says, is most similar to brown sugar in terms of taste, and can be substituted for it in most recipes by doubling the amount. So, if you use one teaspoon of sugar in a recipe, you’ll want to use two teaspoons of Lucuma. “It really shines in recipes that contain fat, such as ice cream or smoothies,” Isaman says. “It also helps stabilize the blood sugar and has anti-inflammatory properties. So, you can enjoy a caramel flavor without a blood sugar crash.