Healthful Sweetening 101

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If you read “The Sugar Plum Fairy Tale” in our magazine, you know that no added sugars are good for you. That said, most of us are accustomed to sweetened foods on a regular basis. This is a guide to some more healthful options to sweeten foods your family often eats (e.g., oatmeal, yogurt, homemade breakfast muffins, snack bars for lunches, etc.) Applying these sweetening tactics is easy if you’re just topping yogurt or oatmeal, but more challenging when you’re substituting sugar in baking or cooking. If you’re just starting out, we suggest looking for recipes that are already employing these methods.

While everyday sweet treats should ideally be whole fruits or healthfully sweetened options whenever possible, but we don’t suggest that you ruin your grandma’s outstanding pumpkin pie recipe by trying to make it healthy if you only have it a few times a year. Special occasion treats like that have a minimal impact on your diet, and food should be fun, too!

Best Sweetening Options for Everyday Foods

These are our top recommendations for sweetening in the most healthful ways.

  • Vanilla and cinnamon both lend sweetness to a dish without adding calories or sugar. Their impact is subtle, so it is usually best used in conjunction with other methods. To increase sweetness with these spices, try doubling the amount called for in the recipe, or adding a teaspoon or two of one or both even if it’s not called for at all.
  • Virgin coconut oil also lends a subtle natural sweetness (along with a hint of coconut) to baked goods. Many recipes can be adapted by subbing in coconut oil in the same volume of other oil, butter or shortening called for in the recipe. In most cases, you’ll need to warm it slightly first to liquefy it. Be sure to use virgin coconut oil, not refined, if you’re looking to add sweetness.
  • Fruit and/or veggie purees: applesauce, mashed overripe banana, carrot puree, pumpkin or squash puree, and sweet potato puree are all very healthful options for adding sweetness and may also add moistness to baked goods. You can try them in pancake batter (reduce other liquid in the recipe) or mixed into yogurt or oatmeal. Mashed banana is probably the most potent sweetening option of these. When you have bananas that start to go ’round the bend, mash them up and put them in ice cube trays to freeze until needed (all the other purees, including the dried fruit purees, can be frozen in the same way). We also have a great recipe for no-added-sugar applesauce, which is likely to result in a sauce sweeter than the pre-packaged kinds.

Dried Fruits as Sweeteners

Dried fruits retain some nutrients and all the fiber of the whole fruit, but taking out water concentrates the sugar. This is why it’s easy to eat quite a volume of dried fruit quickly, whereas the same amount of whole fruit would fill you up well before you could finish it. We recommend caution when consuming foods made with dried fruits rather than whole ones, but still rate sweetening with them as a big improvement over added sugars.

  • Raisins mixed into oatmeal, yogurt, and baked goods add sweetness in every bite. Other dried fruits can work as well, but some (like some dried cherries and cranberries) contain added sugar, so choose carefully.
  • Dried fruit purees: The most versatile option is date puree, which has a wonderful brown sugar flavor (check out our easy date puree recipe). We’ve also seen prune or fig puree used to sweeten. Alternatively, sometimes dried fruits are briefly soaked and processed into a thick paste to use as a base for sweet treats.
  • Date sugar is made from dates that have been completely dried and ground into a fine powder. It is more concentrated than homemade date puree (and thus, should be used cautiously). It can be subbed 1:1 for sugar in many recipes, but it is limited by the fact that it does not “melt” like regular sugar and does not dissolve in liquids. Date sugar isn’t cheap, but if you’re looking for a quick, no-fuss swap to replace less healthful added sugars when baking, this would be the simplest solution.

What about artificial sweeteners?

Our Kitchen Cabinet and other experts we’ve consulted agree that artificial sweeteners aren’t recommended for children for two primary reasons:

  • Not enough studies have been done to prove their safety for children.
    While safety for adults in moderate amounts has been well established, children are growing and developing and much smaller amounts could have an impact on them. It’s unclear what kinds of unexpected effects on development various non-caloric sweeteners may have.
  • Non-caloric sweeteners contribute to overly sweet taste preferences.
    This is true for both adults and children, which is why the dietitians we know typically only recommend these sweeteners to diabetic adults in moderation. However, its especially important for children, who are still developing many of the tastes they will carry with them into adulthood. Kids (and adults) should train their taste buds to savor the natural sweetness in whole foods instead of starting (or continuing) the vicious cycle of giving in to cravings for very sweet, often very processed foods and beverages.
  • Read more details from Dr. Sears about artificial sweeteners and kids here.

Are natural non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia OK?

There are three non-nutritive sweetener products we are aware of that have somewhat more natural origins: stevia extract, monkfruit extract, and erythritol (which is actually a sugar alcohol, but has almost no calories and is far less likely to upset your digestive tract in moderate amounts.) Make no mistake: the stuff you buy at the store is still quite processed from its natural form (although some brands are processed less than others). Many experts prefer these over artificial sweeteners, but still don’t typically recommend them for children. The bottom line is that, regardless of their source, non-nutritive sweeteners promote a preference for very sweet foods.

Are xylitol and other “sugar alcohols” healthful options?

Sugar alcohols are a different class of sugar substitutes that, despite their name, are neither sugar nor alcohol. There are several types that vary both in calories and sweetness, and many are used in processed sugar-free goods. The full list of sugar alcohols is on Wikipedia, if you’re curious. Many of them are naturally occurring in very small amounts, but they are usually made in bulk from processed derivatives of corn or other plant fibers. Most offer sweetening with less calories than sugar, no fructose, and no glucose; however, they do have drawbacks as well. The one that most people would use at home is xylitol.

Often called “birch sugar,” xylitol was originally derived from birch trees, but most is now derived from corn. It is about the same sweetness as sugar with 40% less calories. You can swap it 1:1 with sugar in baking AND it has been shown to help prevent tooth decay. It has a slightly cool feeling on the tongue, so it’s often used in sugarfree gum. We’ve baked quite successfully with it, but the cooling feeling is a bit odd paired with your average oatmeal cookie.

While the above may make it sound like manna from heaven, xylitol also has some notable downsides: it’s extremely toxic to dogs, can cause gastrointestinal discomfort for some, and it’s quite expensive. Plus, it’s still empty calories (just less of them). If you don’t have dogs and it doesn’t upset anyone’s tummy in your household, it could be a good choice. Read more about xylitol on Authority Nutrition.

Are less refined added sugars worth using?

We’re probably beating a dead horse here, but less refined sugars are still sugars, period. In our eyes, most of the differences between them come down to flavor and consistency, not health.

Some of them may have a key benefit: our Kitchen Cabinet member Susana Holloway of Portland’s Culinary Workshop finds that the flavor of more “natural” options like maple syrup and coconut sugar allows her to sweeten foods effectively with less than when using plain white sugar. Unfortunately, they are usually quite expensive, and — let’s face it — a lot of us don’t actually reduce the amount we use when we switch from regular sugar to a more natural option. If they fit in your budget and/or you prefer their flavor, they could be worth a try — especially if you use them in conjunction with other sweetening methods to keep added sugars as minimal as possible in foods your family eats often.

The only specific recommendation about the more “natural” sugars we have is to avoid agave (a.k.a. agave syrup/agave nectar). Agave is even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup (many varieties are 75% or more fructose), making it a poor choice in the eyes of many health experts. From what we can tell, it doesn’t matter whether the packaging says “raw” or not — all of them have a very high fructose content.

The bottom line: use what works for you and your family as sparingly as you can.

Are there any no-added-sugar baked goods at the store that don’t use artificial sweeteners or stevia?

They are out there, but they’re not easy to find, and they’re generally quite expensive.

Some packaged snack bars and other baked goods say they use fruit purees to sweeten right on the box, but don’t take those front-of-packaging claims at face value. The ingredient label will usually show you that puree is present, but other added sugars (or artificial/non-caloric sweeteners) are too. This is one of those cases where the manufacturer generally employs the “sneaky hidden sugar” technique, breaking down the total added sugar content over several different healthier-sounding sugars to push them down further in the ingredients list. Also, beware things that are sweetened with fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate or fruit juice crystals. Remember, since fruit juice is heavily processed and the fiber is stripped out, it still counts as an added sugar.

If you know of tasty packaged baked goods that don’t actually use any added sugars OR non-caloric sweeteners, we’d love to know about them! Leave a note in the comments.

No-Sugar-Added Whole Foods Recipes

Most of these KitchenFable Kitchen Tested recipes use multiple sweetening strategies we outlined above. If you find more great sweet treats that don’t use added sugars, be sure to share them in the comments!

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Jordana Bowen

Creative Director & Editor-In-Chief at KitchenFable Publishing, Inc.
Jordana has years of experience in web and graphic design,copywriting and journalism, along with a BA in English from Portland State University. An accomplished home cook who has never met a cuisine she didn't like, Jordana enjoys nerding out on the latest nutrition research. She lives with her husband, Jake, and her beautiful 2-year-old daughter, Caia, in Forest Grove, Oregon.

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