3 Simple Ways to Sweeten Foods Without Sugar (or Anything Artificial)

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

We know: Lowering our intake of sugar is one of the best ways to improve our health. But it's not just Snickers bars, Skittles, and soda that are wreaking havoc on our sky-high sugar levels. "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. She says 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 there are 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 the most effective ingredients for cooking and baking 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.

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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 your body's absorption of sugar, making 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." Similarly, add pumpkin to sweeten and add depth of flavor to treats like waffles, pies, and cakes. Keep frozen fruits and vegetables on hand too; they're widely available and shelf-stable.

RELATED: 7 "Unhealthy" Foods That Are Actually Great for You

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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 by amplifying flavor without added sugar. Nuts 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 sweetness to everything from sauces (like hoisin sauce) to cakes and smoothies. For someone with food allergies, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are an easy swap for nuts; and sunflower seed butter or tahini can substitute for nut butter.

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Spices are essential to low-sugar cooking. "I use them liberally in Half the Sugar, All the Love to enhance flavor." According to Tyler Lee; using vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom in your favorite recipes adds the suggestion of sweetness without added sugar. Caution: Some brands of vanilla extract contain added sugar, so check the label.

RELATED: 12 Foods Registered Dietitians Never Eat

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

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