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Most of us are in a serious relationship with sugar, and just like any romance, it has its issues. From spiking blood glucose levels to contributing to insulin resistance, refined sugar can seriously mess with your health. But you’re probably not going to give up treats forever. Because, happiness.
So we turned to our favorite food bloggers for their favorite sugar substitutes—and then tasty, simple recipes that incorporate each ingredient. Of course, using these sweet substitutes won’t turn a doughnut into a superfood. But they offer a more natural source of sweetness and even some health benefits, too.
RELATED: 5 All-Natural Sweeteners That Are (Somewhat) Healthier Than Sugar
Naturally sweet and full of fiber, dates are a no-brainer sugar substitute. Plus, they’re super versatile. “Dates are perfect in smoothies, energy balls, salads, and salad dressings,” Brittany Mullins, from the blog Eating Bird Food, tells Health. “You can also blend them into a paste or puree to use for baking.” Make a date to bake her chocolate chip muffins or four-ingredient Samoas, both of which get their sweetness from this fruit.
Recipe developer and food blogger Rachel Mansfield knows a thing or two about sugar substitutes. Her top pick? “Coconut sugar is my go-to baking sweetener,” she tells Health. “It provides that grainy texture that cane sugar does and sweetness without the blood sugar spike.”
A little goes a long way with coconut sugar, which is made from the sap extracted from the buds of coconut palms and contains nutrients like thiamin, iron, and zinc. “If a recipe usually calls for one cup of cane sugar, I will add 3/4 cup coconut sugar instead,” says Mansfield. Give the sweetener a try by whipping up Mansfield’s vegan cinnamon rolls. “They are one of my favorite recipes and they have no refined sugar in them!” she says.
RELATED: What Is Monk Fruit Sweetener and Is It a Healthy Option?
UK cookbook author and personal trainer Sassy Gregson-Williams tells Health she’s all about applesauce when it comes to cutting down on added sugar in her recipes. “Applesauce works particularly well in healthier cakes, muffins, cupcakes, and cookies,” the founder of Naturally Sassy explains. “It helps to moisten the bake, and can also be used as a substitute for butter or oil.” To give the swap a go, sample Gregson-William’s recipe for lavender lemon-glazed cookies, which slashes sugar by using half apple sauce and half maple syrup.
Monk fruit sweetener
We’ve been obsessed with holistic chef and food blogger Laura Lea Goldberg ever since she gave us this must-try recipe for ultra fudgy black bean brownies. So we were hardly surprised when she filled us in on the benefits of monk fruit sweetener as a sugar substitute. “I’ve really enjoyed playing with dried monk fruit sweetener recently,” she tells Health. “It’s low-glycemic, low-carb, and subs for white sugar just about 1:1.”
Monk fruit sweetener can have a bit of funky aftertaste, says Goldberg, so it’s best to pair it with strong ingredients. “I’ve found that using rich, bold flavors like cocoa powder, cinnamon, walnuts, and banana in tandem with monk fruit sweetener is best,” she explains.
Need some inspiration? This sugar-free chocolate avocado mousse is her newest obsession, and it’s a perfect fit for monk fruit, she says. “Unctuous, satisfying, and sugar-free, you can indulge in this recipe and receive fantastic health benefits at the same time.” Sweet!
RELATED: This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Sugar
Who says sugar substitutes have to be super sweet? “When it comes to leaving out the white stuff but still maintaining flavor and an overall sense of sweetness, my favorite trick is to add cinnamon and vanilla bean (not extract or powder, but the actual black specks from the vanilla bean pod),” wellness blogger Britt Berlin, who doesn’t use sugar substitutes like coconut sugar, maple syrup, or honey in her recipes, explains to Health. “You’d be surprised at how quickly your tastes buds adapt to not using sugar.”
One of her favorite treats, her sweet potato brownie loaf, relies on warming spices for its rich, satisfying flavor. Says Berlin: “It’s so sweet from the sweet potato, cinnamon, and vanilla bean, you’d think you’re having a decadent fudgy brownie!”
Unlike super processed table sugar, this sugar substitute delivers a sweet flavor that’s all natural. Also, honey—especially the manuka variety—contains antibacterial properties. Chefs and foodies mostly love it because it can be used for just about anything.
RELATED: What is Manuka Honey—and Why Is It So Good For You?
“One of my favorite alternatives to white sugar is honey,” says Nicole Modic, creator of the blog Kale Junkie. “I use it in my tea, I bake with it, and I drizzle it on top of my toasts.” After Modic switched from processed sugars to natural sweeteners, she says she kicked her sugar habit. “Back in the days when I wasn’t paying attention to my diet, my cravings were off the hook, and I attribute that to the processed sugars that made me crave more and more.”
These days, you can find Modic adding raw manuka honey to her avocado toast on her wildly popular Instagram account, or posting recipes on her blog such as this one for cinnamon tahini cookies. These delicious treats use honey and cinnamon. Tahini has health benefits too; it’s a paste made from ground sesame seeds that supplies some protein.
Even the biggest fans of kitchen shortcuts—and I count myself among their ranks—must admit that there are some foods for which one ought not cut corners.
Here’s my entirely opinionated list of which pre-sliced, pre-chopped, pre-made items to ignore at the store.
The stone-cold truth is that pre-minced garlic tastes really different from the fresh stuff. Often it’s much more pungent, too: Garlic’s signature flavor comes from a compound called allicin, which forms when its cells are ruptured (i.e.: cut). That flavor tends to build right up until the moment you use your garlic. Consider, too, that the nature of garlic’s taste changes depending on whether it’s whole, sliced, crushed, minced, or microplaned. Each preparation entails a different use.
Jarred garlic is a different animal than the fresh stuff, so buy your garlic in whole heads, and use a clove—or a bunch of cloves—at a time. If you’re making, say, a tomato sauce and need to roughly chop nine cloves of garlic, just hit them with the side of a knife to get the skins off more easily and throw them in a mini-prep. It’ll save time and frustration.
Any fan of mushrooms on her pizza can tell when her local pizzeria has switched to pre-sliced (or worse, started buying the jarred, watery kind). Pre-sliced ‘shrooms dry out, so on a pizza, you’ll notice papery little skins rather than plump, bodacious slices. Mushrooms also have a way of getting wonky over time in the refrigerator. Don’t add to the problem by buying them pre-sliced. Yes, it’s a time-saver, but those tend to go bad faster.
RELATED: Is Mushroom Coffee the Next Superfood Trend?
Lemons, limes, and oranges are persnickety and want to be squeezed pretty much to order. (There’s a reason you never see signs trumpeting “three-day-squeezed orange juice!”) Pre-squeezed juice just doesn’t tend to hold up very well, its flavor changes over time, and—if you’re buying it—it often comes with preservatives and sulfites.
If you must go in that direction, check the label; otherwise, buy an inexpensive citrus reamer.
Unlike yogurt, granola is a food I absolutely think is worth making on your own. You can cook it on a baking sheet, control the amount of sugar and salt you add (I like this recipe, which incorporates olive oil), and make enough at one go to top your yogurt for a week or two. There’s a ton of great granola on the market, but at $9 to $13 for 14 ounces, you can likely do better on your own by buying bulk oats on the cheap.
RELATED: 21 Homemade Granola Recipes That Slash Sugar
Every time I buy pre-chopped kale I am full of regrets. Most companies chop their kale haphazardly. Unlike lettuce, you really can’t do anything with those heavy ribs leftover from the rough chop. You end up de-ribbing each piece of kale, generally hating your life, and wishing you’d simply run your fingers down each leaf to remove the green stuff.
If you’ve never tried this, pinch the stem end of the leaf hard between your fingers, then use the first three fingers of your other hand to create a “pincher” shape. Folding the kale leaf in half, run the pincher down the length of the leaf like you’re pulling a sword from its sheath, removing green from both sides of the rib as you go. After some practice, you should end up with rib-free greens.
OK, there’s some great salad dressing on the market, I know. But I tend to prefer the stuff I make at home, usually haphazardly, adding a 2:1 ratio of olive oil and red wine vinegar to the tablespoon of mustard left at the bottom of the mustard bottle. I add salt and pepper and maybe minced shallot, and shake the bejesus out of it. Or I’ll blitz up a green goddess dressing, and use that in marinades, too. If you’ve got five minutes, you can generally make your own dressing.
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Oh, mashed potatoes. Tater technology has changed; you can now make great ones in an Instant Pot and—crucially!—hold them at temperature under pressure and they don’t get gluey. But pre-made packages of mashed potatoes make my skin crawl. Those of us who make our own stovetop taters know just how lumpy and annoying they can get—and how fast it happens. Yes, there are tricks to revive them, like whisking in hot milk, and you can always make potato pancakes out of leftovers. But I would not recommend buying pre-mashed potatoes; there’s just too slim a chance that they’ll be great. Why mess with one of the best foods there is?
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.
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