You probably already have a bunch of these ingredients in your pantry, too. 

By now, we’re all well aware that lowering the amount of sugar we eat is one of the best things we can do to improve our overall health. But it’s not just Snickers bars, Skittles, and soda that are wreaking havoc on our efforts to reduce our intake. “Added sugars show up in up to 70 percent of packaged foods, including savory ones like soups, sauces, salad dressings, and should-be healthy foods like cereal, granola, nut butters, yogurt, and ‘health’ drinks,” says Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH. According to Patel, the average American consumes about three times as much added sugar as the recommended amount. “The daily limits are 6 teaspoons or 24 grams for women, 9 teaspoons or 36 grams for men, and up to 6 teaspoons or 12 grams to 24 grams for children,” adds Patel. “But children less than 2 years of age shouldn’t consume added sugar since this is a critical developmental time for establishing taste preferences.”

The good news is that there are a few smart, simple ways to sweeten foods without adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. (Because let’s face it, liking sweet foods is what makes us human.) We sat down with Jennifer Tyler Lee, author of Half the Sugar, All the Love: 100 Easy, Low-Sugar Recipes for Every Meal of the Day, to learn which are the most effective ingredients for cooking and baking successfully with less added sugar. “These ingredients, available in most well stocked grocery stores, preserve texture and add flavor so you won’t miss the sugar one bit,” says Tyler Lee. Sweetness.

1 Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

Ripe, fresh fruits like dark speckled bananas, pears, and pineapple, along with vegetables like sweet potato, add naturally sweet flavor without added sugar. “There’s an important distinction between added sugar, like granulated sugar, honey, and agave, and naturally occurring sugar found in fruit and vegetables,” explains Tyler Lee. “Fiber is one huge difference.” It helps slow absorption of sugar in your body, which makes it easier to process. It also helps you feel fuller for longer.

“Pears add natural sweetness and creamy texture to everything from poppy seed salad dressing to blueberry scones,” says Tyler Lee. “And sweet potato is the secret ingredient in my Double Chocolate Brownies—it boosts sweetness while cutting down added sugar by two thirds compared to a boxed brownie mix.” Pumpkin works in a similar way, and can be used to sweeten and add depth of flavor to treats like waffles, pies, and cakes. Frozen fruits and vegetables are widely available and shelf-stable, so it’s helpful to keep them on hand as well.

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2 Nuts and seeds.

“Nuts and seeds are another one of the secrets to cooking with less added sugar,” says Tyler Lee. Toasting nuts is a small step that pays off when you need to amplify flavor without added sugar. Nuts can also add texture, which helps round out low-sugar recipes. “Pecans, walnuts, and almonds are the nuts I rely on most. They can be an easy and delicious addition to quick breads, like in banana bread.” Unsweetened nut butters can also add sweet flavor to everything from sauces (like hoisin sauce) to cakes and smoothies. If you have a family member with food allergies, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are an easy swap for nuts, and sunflower seed butter or tahini can be used as a substitute for nut butters.

3 Spices.

Spices are an essential element to low-sugar cooking. “I use them liberally in Half the Sugar, All the Love to enhance flavor.” According to Tyler Lee, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom add the suggestion of sweetness without added sugar in your favorite recipes. Note that some brands of vanilla extract contain added sugar, so be sure to check the label.

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Excerpted from Half the Sugar, All the Love by Jennifer Tyler Lee and Anisha Patel, MD, MSPH. Workman Publishing © 2019.