One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. Consider that most cereals, granola bars, energy bars, and most all snack foods have well over 10 grams, it’s the equivalent of downing two or more teaspoons of the sugary, white stuff. While this seems harmless to some, consider that even some non-dairy milks have well over 20 grams of sugar, equal to five or more teaspoons. Would we sit down and eat that many teaspoons with our meals? Likely, no. But what about in baking? Usually, more than 1/2 cup sugar or added sugar (syrups, nectars, etc.) are used and while they certainly do sweeten up a recipe, they also come with a price … empty calories, addiction to sugars (no matter how “natural”), and worst of all, they teach our taste buds to think the flavor of real foods like vegetables, fruits, and even sweeter nuts, seeds, and grains are boring.

Next time you set off to make something sweet in the form of baked goods, try one of these 10 naturally sweet options below to use instead. They aren’t just free of added sugars but are a whole food, that’s perfect for filling you up with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and best of all … they make you feel good! Give your taste buds a few weeks, and in absolutely no time, you’ll learn to love the taste of these sweet ingredients and won’t believe how your taste buds start to cringe at the taste of added sugars!

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1. Applesauce

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Plain (unsweetened) applesauce is a classic ingredient you can use to replace oil and sugar in your recipes. It helps add moisture just like sugar does, but without any added sweeteners in plain form. You can use it in a 1:1 exchange for sugar; also, if you’d like to use apple butter, it adds even more flavor, but do choose unsweetened for the healthiest option. Though applesauce is not sugar-free, it’s sugars are 100 percent derived from apples and are not stripped of the fiber; the flesh is simply blended into applesauce and all the nutrients and whole food properties are still in tact.

2. Pumpkin

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Pumpkin puree is a terrific baking ingredient, especially if you’re looking to replace eggs, oil, and sugar all in one. You can use 1/2 cup pumpkin for 1/2 cup oil, 2 eggs, and 2 tbsp. sugar. Since it’s a very low sugar vegetable and high in fiber, it isn’t as sweet as some fruits. However, it does add a richness that fruit doesn’t add, and can fill you up quicker due to being high in fiber. Use pumpkin in muffins, pancakes, cookies, brownies, quickbreads, and waffles. It’s even the perfect replacement to bananas in smoothies if you’re looking for a healthy, lower carb option, yet still want that creamy, thick, and sweet flavor.

3. Sweet Potato

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Just like pumpkin, sweet potatoes are an excellent natural sweetener. They’re perfect to use as an ingredient in breads, muffins, quickbreads, and even cookies. Use sweet potato just like you would pumpkin and in the same ratios. Canned sweet potato may be easier to use just like you would pumpkin, though freshly baked will add a better flavor. You can also bake up a bunch at one time, leave them in tact, and keep them in the fridge. Then, just cut open and puree the flesh when you’re ready to use them. (They’ll last about a week in the fridge and even caramelize to become sweeter after a day or two.)

4. Banana

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A well-known food you might already be aware of to sweeten recipes is bananas. It’s a fantastic non-dairy ice cream ingredient but also one to include in your baked goods too. Use heavily spotted or completely brown bananas to bake with; their sugars are higher than yellow varieties and they’ll blend much easier too. Don’t fear if their flesh is black; this just means they’re ripe, not rotted. (Bananas would have to be solid black for a few days before they actually rot.) Use pureed bananas in muffins to replace eggs, oil, and sugar in a 1:1 ratio for any and all of those ingredient. You can also use them in pancakes, quickbreads, and waffles the same way. They even make terrific cookies or a dairy-replacement in many other recipes.

5. Coconut Flour or Coconut Shreds

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Coconut flour is very high in protein and has a tender, sweet crumb that’s perfect to bake with. The shreds offer similar benefits and also make a delicious ingredient in place of flour. Refined flour has no nutrients, is inflammatory, and contains very little flavor. Coconut flour actually tastes naturally sweet, yet is very low in carbs, has no sugar, and boasts 3.5 grams of protein per 2 tbsp. You can also use less of it to produce the same results as you would need of a gluten-based all purpose flour. The trick to using coconut flour is to use 1/4 cup with another natural egg-replacer, but double the egg replacer. One great combo to replace 1/2 cup regular flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 2 eggs is: 1/4 coconut flour with 1/4 cup flax seed, and 1/2 cup pumpkin (or applesauce or bananas). The flax replaces the eggs and acts as a natural flour replacement, which compliments the coconut flour. The pumpkin or other choice ingredient suggested replaces oil, sugar, and adds moisture and thickness.

6. Berries

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Berries are naturally sweet, full of fiber, and are some of the easiest to use in a recipe to replace sugar. Use 1/2 cup blueberries or strawberries (blended in a food processor first) to replace 1/2 cup sugar, or you can process them into diced pieces for a chunkier texture. You may also use frozen berries in items like muffins and quickbreads, but they may retain too much water for baking cookies and brownies since these are smaller and don’t cook as long (which helps some of the excess water in frozen berries evaporate through the cooking heat).

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7. Dried Fruits

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Smaller dried fruits like raisins, mulberries, goji berries, and golden berries can also be used in your recipes; just sprinkle them throughout the flour mixture of your choice (see some healthy options for flours here). If using larger dried fruits like figs, dates, or even apricots, you’ll need to soak and either chop or puree them first so they don’t weigh down your recipe and their sugars can be distributed more evenly. Many people think dried fruits are unhealthy, and while you shouldn’t snack on them in large amounts because they are very high in natural sugar and don’t contain any water to fill you up faster like whole fruits, they’re healthier to use in baked goods, or raw desserts, instead of sugar. This is because their sweetness intensifies a recipe and is distributed more evenly, so you’re not actually consuming that much sugar per serving. While you should still be mindful of them, they’re a better option that added syrups and liquid sugars any day, and contain vitamins, minerals, and most importantly, fiber. 

8. Sweet Spices

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Sweet spices include: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and even cloves in certain recipes. While they can also be used in savory dishes, when blended with some of the other ingredients above, the yield a sweet flavor to recipes. Just consider that apple pie, pumpkin pie, and coffee cake wouldn’t be complete without some of these spices; they’re excellent choices to add a true depth and sweetness that even sugar can’t produce on its own! Use them in normal amounts to enhance the sweetness of a recipe, not to replace sugar, which won’t work and will ruin the flavor.

9. Rice Milk

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Rice milk is higher in natural sugars than other non-dairy milks, even if you choose unsweetened (which you should). This makes it a nice milk to use when baking if you’re looking to add sweetness without refined sugars. It’s also lighter in texture so won’t weigh down your recipes as much. Do choose an unsweetened version when possible since non-dairy milks are typically a culprit of added sugars from either agave or evaporated cane juice or syrup.

10. Vanilla Beans

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Last but not least, vanilla beans are possibly one of the healthiest sweeteners any of us can use … and we’re not talking about imitation vanilla here. Real vanilla bean powder or real vanilla extract without added sugars are the best option (read labels). Real vanilla bean powder is the best option and even contains significant benefits like magnesium and potassium contents, not to mention it’s a natural aphrodisiac. However, if you can’t afford real vanilla bean powder or can’t find it, use alcohol-free and organic vanilla extract. It’s typically made with real vanilla beans even if it’s not raw and the alcohol-free forms are sweeter with no sugar needed. Use 1 tbsp. of the powder or 2 tbsp. the extract to replace 1 tbsp. sugar, and combine it with another option above instead of using it to replace all the sugar in a recipe (which is definitely not recommended for flavor purposes).

Nature gave us all the sweetness we need with real ingredients, not refined or added sugars. Don’t let marketing tactics tell you one form of sugar is any better for you than another; some may not be as harmful as others, but your body still doesn’t benefit from so many added sweeteners that don’t come in real, whole food format.

What’s your favorite healthy ingredient to flavor baked goods the healthy way?

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