Looking to cut or reduce sugar from your diet but can't swear off sweets? There are several natural sweetener alternatives that don't contain artificial ingredients that are perfect for your favorite baked goods and sweet treats that yield yummy--and healthy--results.
The current thinking in clean-eating circles is to use natural ingredients--dates, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, and honey--to get your fix in everything from cookies and truffles to granola and smoothies. Not only do these ingredients have unique, rich flavor profiles and textures that can enhance baked goods and sweets, but some (we're talking about you, dates) are an excellent source of nutrients, especially when combined with other superfoods, like ground nuts and flax seed meal. And these naturally sweet ingredients have lower glycemic index, which is helpful for anyone dealing with blood sugar issues.
Our favorite three common sources of sweetness straight from nature concoct some of our favorite confections.
1. Be a Big Sap: Sweeting with Maple Syrup and Coconut Sugar
We associate maple syrup, which comes from the sap of sugar maple trees, with pancakes and trendy maple lattes, but its thin, semi-viscous state makes it ideal for baking, especially in crunchy treats like granola and energy bars. Cookie fan? You need No Bake Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies, which yield a chewy, not-too-sweet treat using seven ingredients: rolled oats, peanut butter, vegetable oil, cocoa powder, cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup. Coconut sugar is another sap (of the coconut palm, natch) and has been used as a natural sweetener in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Try it as a substitute for white or brown sugar in cookie recipes or let it shine in Coconut Palm Sugar Toffee Candy, which is reminiscent of toasted marshmallow butter crunch.
Fruit Forward: Dates, Raisins and Figs
Despite their dull brown color and odd wrinkles, pitted dates have been a source of happy sweetness since the beginning of time. They are also widely considered a superfood for their high fiber content, and other nutrients, including vitamins A, B6 and K. They'll satisfy a sweet tooth eaten on their own, stuffed with Gorgonzola and walnuts, or rolled into Cinnamon Bun Balls, a healthy raw food treat using Medjool dates, ground walnut, cardamom and cinnamon. Or, try them rolled with ground hazelnuts and cacao powder in sensational Dark Chocolate Doughnut Holes, created by functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama for Barre3 fitness. Curious which dates to use? Medjool dates are more moist and good for no-bake energy bars or smoothies and Deglet Noor dates are better "all around" dates for baking.
Like dates, raisins and dried figs bring a depth of flavor and natural fruity sweetness to almost any recipe, including buttery Sugar Free Rugelach, which gets its sweetness from raisins and spreadable apricot fruit.
Or, to make a quick, sweet-savory appetizer that everyone will swoon over, pulse the following in a food processor: Chopped dried figs, kalamata olives, rosemary, whole grain mustard and garlic or shallots. Serve with crackers.
The Honey Pot
Did you know that honey is up to 50% sweeter than sugar and varies in flavor and color depending upon the bees' diet? Even cooler: eaten regularly on its own, local honey may actually reduce allergy symptoms by increasing immunity to local allergens. Remember that baked goods containing honey tend to be extra moist, dense, and brown faster when baking than those made with sugar. Honey is the source of sweetness in delicious High-Protein Energy Bites, which get a kick from ground coffee beans. Try honey in Easy Baklava or layer it into any granola recipe instead of brown sugar. We love Grandma Dalley's Honey Granola, which gets an extra sweet kick from plump, golden raisins.
What's the best way to use these naturally sweet ingredients in recipes? Follow these guidelines for proportions--and find even more inspiration for making tasty treats with natural sweeteners.
More Ideas To Sink Your Sweet Tooth Into:
Substitute coconut sugar or honey for sugar in Chocolate-Hazelnut Marble Cake Scones
Maple syrup is a natural replacement for sugar in aromatic Chai Spice Cheesecake