By Fabiana Santana
You know sugar is not doing your health any favors, and breaking the habit can be tough. The World Health Organization recommends reducing daily sugar intake to just 10 percent of our total calories or less. But sometimes you just… want a treat. We get it. Here are some healthier alternatives so you can have a little something your sweet tooth will enjoy without harming the rest of your body.
Of course, even the healthiest sweeteners are still sweeteners, so though these are better for you, we still don’t recommend scarfing down the whole tray of cupcakes (sorry). Even healthier treats are best as occasional indulgences.
This zero-calorie sweetener is made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It can be 250 times sweeter than white sugar, so a little goes a long way. Stevia comes in a few different forms, too, so swapping will depend on the type you choose. Check labels carefully and avoid brands with fillers like inulin, silica, maltodextrin, or natural or artificial flavors.
You can replace 1 cup of sugar with 1/3 to ½ teaspoon of undiluted stevia powder, 1 teaspoon of liquid stevia or 1 to 3 1-gram stevia packets. Baking with stevia can be a challenge, since it doesn’t have the bulk that sugar does, so it’s best to use recipes developed for it instead of trying to swap it. It’s also a good choice for recipes that just need a little bit of sweetener, like fruit compote, jam, and sauces.
If the taste of stevia is just too bitter for your palate, consider mixing it with other tabletop sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar or maple syrup to improve taste and texture.
Given its thick, liquid form, honey works well for both sweetening and binding raw granola bars and energy bites, and blends easily into dressings, beverages and sauces. Raw honey, which has not been pasteurized or processed, is the best choice, because it contains antioxidants and phytonutrients and is naturally anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Pasteurization destroys these benefits.
In general, it’s best to use honey for sweeteneing uncooked items, since it loses its benefits when heated about 145ºF. But if you do choose to bake with it, a few tips: Honey can be somewhat acidic depending on the type of flower it comes from, so you may need to adjust the leavening, adding an additional ½ tsp. baking soda to allow batter to rise. Also, honey is sweeter than white sugar, so you can use about half the amount. Honey may cause faster browning, so be sure to lower your oven temperature 25ºF from what the recipe calls for. Since honey is about 20 percent water, you will likely need to reduce other liquids in the recipe as well. The darker the honey, the stronger its flavor, so factor that in when choosing one for recipes.
COCONUT PALM SUGAR
Take the flower of the coconut palm plant, extract the sap, heat it and let it dehydrate. What’s left after evaporation are crystals that taste and bake up like sugar, with a flavor similar to brown sugar (though the sweetness is less intense). It’s equal to white sugar in its calorie and carb content, but coconut palm sugar is just 3 to 9 percent fructose and glucose compared to 50 percent in cane sugar, so it falls lower on the glycemic index. Swap it one-for-one in recipes.
Dates, with their super-sweet, caramel flavor, are delicious in baked goods. But if you don’t want the stickiness of the fruit, try date sugar, which is dried dates ground to the consistency of sugar. Because it’s made of the whole fruit, it isn’t the best for no-bake desserts or some cakes because it doesn’t melt like traditional sugar. But it’s great for heartier recipes where some texture is welcome, such as parfaits, granola, fruit-based pies and quick breads (see the Date-Nut Bread recipe, below). Because it’s made from whole fruit, date sugar contains fiber and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. Use about 2/3 cup date sugar to replace 1 cup of white or brown sugar in recipes.
If you’re a parent, you may have already swapped this staple in for sweeteners in your kids’ treats. It works well for grownup sweets, too. Similar to honey, since applesauce is a wet ingredient, you’ll want to reduce the amount of other liquids in the recipe by about 25 percent. Be sure to always choose an unsweetened applesauce to avoid unwanted added sugars.
Hungry for more?
- Another Important Reason to Reduce Sugar (And 7 Ways to Do It)
- How to Bake with Less Sugar
- Why We’re Sweet on Honey
BIO: Fabiana Santana is a food writer, culinary instructor and recipe tester whose work has appeared in Bustle, Refinery29, Maxim, Daily Meal and others.
- 2 cups chopped pitted dates (about 9 oz.)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup date sugar (96g)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ cup boiling water
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, optional (3.25 oz.)
- Place dates, butter, baking soda, salt, date sugar and lemon juice in a large mixing bowl set with a paddle attachment. Pour in the boiling water and beat well for 3 to 4 minutes, until well combined. Let cool for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 8 ½-by-4 ½-inch loaf pan.
- Add the egg, vanilla, baking powder and flour; beat on low speed until smooth. Fold in the walnuts, if using. (Batter will be thick.) Spread batter in the prepared loaf pan.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Loosely tent with foil and bake 20 minutes longer, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out bread onto rack to cool completely.
To store, wrap leftover slices in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for up to 3 days, or refrigerate for up to a week.