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5 Sugar-Free Ways to Make Your Food (and Life) Sweeter

5 Sugar-Free Ways to Make Your Food (and Life) Sweeter

Want to cut back on the sweet stuff, but don’t know how? Start with these simple at-home strategies.

By now, you probably know: Eating too much sugar isn’t good for you. 

“Excess sugar intake has been linked to higher risk for various diseases,” says Kalyani Alladi, PhD, CDE, CNSC, a registered dietitian at Medical City McKinney in McKinney, Texas. “This includes obesity and metabolic syndrome, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a chronic inflammatory status and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.” 

But cutting back on sugar can be a challenge. For one thing, it’s everywhere. Food companies regularly add dozens of different kinds of sugar to a vast range of processed products. You likely add it to your food at home, too, from a teaspoon of honey in your tea to a heaping cup of granulated white sugar in your banana bread. 

What’s more, sugar provides flavor, and many people worry that limiting it will detract from the pleasure of eating. What fun is dessert without a touch of sweetness, after all? 

Fortunately, you can slash your sugar intake with some simple strategies—and you can do it without sacrificing the taste of your favorite foods.

Where we get our sugar
Sugar occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, grains and milk. Since these items are also rife with fiber and valuable nutrients, they’re considered to be vital parts of a healthy diet. It’s when sugar is purposely added to food—whether for preservation or flavor enhancement—that we increase our potential for health problems.

“According to the American Heart Association, the maximum amount of added sugar you should eat in a day is about 9 teaspoons for men, which is about 150 calories, and about 6 teaspoons for women, which is about 100 calories,” says Kalladi. 

Generally speaking, Americans consume much more than the recommended amount of sugar. We eat about 17 added teaspoons daily—roughly the amount in two 12-ounce cans of Coke. That’s about 4.5 pounds of additional sugar each month, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Much of the extra sugar we consume comes courtesy of processed foods like soft drinks, candy and baked goods. There are many different types of these added sugars, and on packaging labels, they may be listed a number of ways, including:

  • Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
  • Raw, brown, turbinado, cane, beet, invert or malt sugar
  • Fructose, dextrose, sucrose and other words ending in -ose
  • Nectar, fruit nectar or fruit juice from concentrate

Typically, there are few health benefits to eating these foods, since they frequently lack sufficient vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients to offset the sugar content. 

The rest of the excess comes from sugar we add ourselves. Whether we’re baking, topping pancakes or pouring it in our coffee, we all enhance our foods with sugar from time to time. Granulated sugar is a big culprit, but “natural” sweeteners like honey, agave syrup, maple syrup and molasses are common sources, as well. And while items like these may have some minor health benefits, they’re still sugar. 

“Honey does have some vitamins and minerals, maybe,” Alladi says, “but it has as much sugar as regular sugar.”

Smart ways to cut back
The single best way to reduce sugar intake is to eat a well-rounded, nutritious diet made up largely of unprocessed foods. But some of the following strategies may help you curb your consumption without losing flavor. 

Spice it up. Adding spices can enhance the taste of food. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice, mace, cardamom and star anise are commonly associated with sweetness. These spices are often used in baked goods and pair especially well with fruit dishes. 

Vanilla extract can also make food seem sweeter, perhaps due to its aroma. One 2019 study in the journal Food Quality and Preference found that pouring a little vanilla into flavored milk tricked participants into thinking the milk was much sweeter. Other extracts, such as almond or orange extract, may make food more tempting, as well.

Yogurt, oatmeal, coffee and baked goods are ideal candidates for extra spices and a few drops of vanilla, says Kalladi. Worried about the cost? Vanilla is typically far less expensive at wholesale clubs like Costco or BJ’s, and you can often get bargain spices at grocery stores serving international communities. Cardamom, for example, is regularly much cheaper at Indian markets than at chain supermarkets.

Get salty. No, you shouldn’t douse your oatmeal with salt, as too much sodium leads to its own health problems. But a dash of the stuff goes a long way, especially if you’re baking. In many recipes, adding a small amount of salt will brighten the natural flavors of your other ingredients. For example, says Alladi, if you’re baking with chocolate, “a little bit of coffee and a little pinch of salt really bring out the sweetness, so you don't have to use as much sugar.”

Choose fruit. When it comes to satisfying a sweet tooth, fruit is nature’s candy. Alladi suggests eating raw whole fruit, using orange or apple slices in green salads, or “trying crushed berries on toast or with yogurt—or with any dessert, for that matter.” Raw fruits can also help sweeten:

  • Smoothies and juices
  • Oatmeal and cereal
  • Cottage cheese
  • Salsas and bruschetta toppings
  • Grain salads
  • Wraps and sandwiches

Want a warmer dish? Cooking fruits intensifies their natural sweetness without adding sugar. Turn apples or pears into a thick sauce or grill up some pineapple, watermelon or stone fruits such as nectarines, plums or peaches.

Dried fruits like raisins, dates, figs, prunes and apricots are good options, too. They’re broadly available and can be added to a wide variety of foods, from cookies to chicken salad. “It makes a lot of difference,” says Kalladi. “You can avoid using sugar and it will satisfy your sweet tooth.”

When using dried fruits, be aware of a few things:

  • As they’re naturally high in calories, dried fruits are best eaten in moderation.
  • Some dried fruits, including cranberries, blueberries and cherries, often have sugar added during processing, so it’s important to read labels and look at ingredient lists. Your best options will have one ingredient—the fruit itself—and no added sugar.
  • Make sure that you pick dried fruits and not candied fruits, which look similar, but are infused with sugar.

Coconut is a good addition, as well, says Alladi. “Fresh coconut flakes and coconut flesh—not the sweetened ones—can add a little sugary taste.” Try coconut on pancakes or in smoothies, and toast it for extra punch. Use it in moderation, since it’s also relatively high in calories and saturated fat.

Try veggies. Yes, some veggies are naturally sweet. And roasting vegetables caramelizes their natural sugars, making them taste sweeter. While virtually any veggie can benefit from a long time in a hot oven, roasted root vegetables, tubers or squash may particularly satisfy people craving a little sweetness. Sweet potatoes, acorn squash, carrots and parsnips are good options.

You can also:

  • Add grated or chopped carrots to soups and sauces. Many traditional soups and sauces start with a three-veggie combination of onion, celery and carrot in which the sweet carrot balances the stronger flavors of the other two vegetables. In certain recipes, you may be able to add carrots midway through cooking.
  • Caramelize your onions. Yellow onions cooked slowly over low heat are simple to make and can top sandwiches, burgers and pizzas. “Caramelizing onion brings out the flavor and it's a little sweet escape,” says Alladi.
  • Choose sweeter raw veggies. For salads, sandwiches and snacking, pick produce such as snap peas, bell peppers and sweet corn. They’ll provide crunch and moisture, too.

Bake with smart substitutions. Sometimes, fruits or vegetables can be swapped into baked goods as substitutes for sugar, butter or oil. Mashed bananas, pureed dates, unsweetened applesauce and canned pumpkin can add sweetness while retaining moisture and lowering fat content in quick breads, pancakes, cookies, muffins and more. 

“If a recipe calls for 1 cup of butter or 1 cup of oil, you can actually substitute it with a 1/2 cup of applesauce and a 1/2 cup of oil,” Alladi says. “At the same time, you can also reduce the amount of sugar you use in the recipe because applesauce is sweet.”

Cookbooks, baking websites and blogs frequently include substitution information. If they don’t, check individual recipe reviews; oftentimes, home bakers will have tried-and-true suggestions for healthier swaps.

Moving forward
While tips and tricks for cutting sugar can help improve your health, eating a healthy diet will benefit you most in the long run. Remember, too, that it’s okay to splurge once in a while. “In moderation, of course,” says Alladi. “It’s the bottom line for anything.”

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

Sources:
National Institutes of Health: News in Health. “Sweet Stuff: How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health.” October 2014.
Harvard Health Publishing. “The sweet danger of sugar,” “Is eating dried fruit healthy?”
USCF SugarScience. “The Toxic Truth.”
American Heart Association. “Added Sugar Is Not So Sweet – Infographic,” “Added Sugars,” “Tips for Cutting Down on Sugar.”
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP). “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
The Coca-Cola Co. “How much sugar in Coke is there?”
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. “Limit Fat and Sugar.”
Sharon Salomon. “Get to Know Your Spice Rack.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. January 25, 2019.
Evelisse Capo. “Naturally Sweet – Cooking and Baking Without Added Sugar.” T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. August 10, 2018.
G. Wang, AJ Bakke, et al. “Demonstrating cross-modal enhancement in a real food with a modified ABX test.” Food Quality and Preference. Volume 77, October 2019, Pages 206-213.
Kimberly Y Masibay. “Salt makes everything taste better.” Fine Cooking. Issue 91.
Cynthia Sass. “This Is the Healthiest Dried Fruit, According to a Nutritionist.“ Health.com. November 19, 2019.
Amy Sowder. “Why Roasting Makes Vegetables Taste Sweeter.” Chowhound.com. September 30, 2019.
Produce for Better Health Foundation. “Which Vegetables Have a Sweet Taste Profile?”

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