With rising health consciousness, more and more people are looking for ways to reduce their intake of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin are found in many diet foods and drinks. While these sugar substitutes provide the sweet taste without the calories, there are concerns about potential health risks. The good news is that there are natural ways to sweeten foods that don’t require artificial additives.
Why avoid artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners were designed to provide the sweet taste of sugar without the high amounts of calories. They are often found in “diet” or “light” foods like diet sodas, sugar-free desserts, and low-calorie snacks. While artificial sweeteners may help with weight management, there are some potential downsides:
- Associations with health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke (though more research is needed)
- Can maintain sweet cravings and dependence on sweet foods
- Processed nature and lack of nutrients
- Unpleasant aftertaste
- Gut microbiome effects still being researched
For these reasons, many people prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners when possible. The good news is that nature provides plenty of ways to add sweetness without chemicals.
1. Use fruit as a natural sweetener
All fruits contain natural sugars that provide sweetness along with important nutrients, fiber, and plant compounds. Fruit makes an ideal replacement for added sugars like honey, agave, and maple syrup. Here are some ways to use fruit to sweeten foods and drinks:
- Add mashed banana or applesauce to muffins, cakes, or quick breads
- Puree berries, peaches, pineapple, or mango for homemade jam, syrup, or sauces
- Blend dates, figs, prunes, or raisins into smoothies or desserts
- Juice fruits like oranges, pomegranates, and grapes for sweetening beverages
- Mix chopped fruit into yogurt, cottage cheese, or oatmeal
- Make homemade fruit compotes, sauces, or chutneys to top foods
When using fruit as a sweetener, start with small amounts and adjust to taste. Keep in mind that liquid and dried forms of fruit are more concentrated in sugar than fresh fruit.
Tips for using fruit as a sweetener
- Choose ripe, naturally sweet varieties like mangos, pineapples, melons, and stone fruits
- Experiment with less common dried fruits like apricots, cherries, and blueberries which are sweet but lower in sugar than raisins or cranberries
- Look for unsweetened varieties when using pre-cut, frozen, or canned fruit
- Homemade applesauce and roasted fruit purees make great substitutions for oil or butter in baking
- Blend banana, avocado, prunes, or pumpkin into smoothies for natural sweetness and creaminess
2. Try sweet vegetables and roots
Along with fruit, some vegetables also contain natural sugars that provide sweetness. Sweet veggies are a tasty way to add nutrition and fiber along with sweet flavor. Some options include:
- Carrots – Excellent grated or pureed in cakes, muffins, quick breads. Also try carrot juice.
- Sweet potatoes – Puree and use in place of bananas in baked goods. Or make sweet potato pie or homemade yams for a side dish.
- Squash – Varieties like butternut, acorn, and pumpkin have natural sweetness. Use pureed or mashed.
- Beets – Grate raw beets into slaws or salads. Roast beets and puree into dips or dressings.
- Onions – When roasted or caramelized, onions develop sweetness. Use in savory dishes.
- Corn – The natural sugars in corn make it taste sweet when eaten off the cob.
For an extra boost of sweetness, try roasting veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, or onions before using. Roasting caramelizes natural sugars.
Tips for cooking with sweet vegetables
- Experiment with less common sweet veggies like parsnips, rutabaga, and celery root
- Roast peeled, cubed sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon and maple syrup for a sweet side dish
- Saute shredded carrots or squash with ginger and vanilla for a quick compote
- Puree cooked cauliflower florets for a low-carb replacement for mashed potatoes
- Add a dash of orange juice or maple syrup when roasting carrots, beets, or sweet potatoes
3. Incorporate sweet spices and extracts
Many spices naturally contain sugars or subtle sweet undertones. Sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves complement baked goods, cereals, beverages, and more. Here’s an overview of common sweet spices and ways to use them:
Cinnamon contains natural compounds that stimulate sweet taste receptors. It’s excellent in:
- Coffee, oats, cereals
- Sweet potato dishes
- Fruit compotes and baked apples
- Curries, stews, and savory dishes
- Baked goods like muffins, cakes, cookies
Nutmeg has a sweet, warm flavor perfect for:
- Fruit pies and tarts
- Pudding, custards, flans
- Sweet potatoes and squashes
- Green beans, broccoli, spinach
- Mashed root vegetables
Ginger adds warmth and sweetness to foods like:
- Fruit compotes and chutneys
- Stews, curries, and stir fries
- Teas, lemonade, and cocktails
- Cookies, cakes, and muffins
- Smoothies and juices
Cloves have an intensely sweet flavor that complements:
- Fruit pies, compotes, chutneys
- Cider, tea, oatmeal
- Curries, masalas, broths
- Sweet potatoes, butternut squash
- Muffins, cookies, cakes
For baking, start with 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon of ground spice per recipe and adjust to taste. Extracts like vanilla, almond, and mint also add sweetness.
Tips for using sweet spices
- Add a cinnamon stick to coffee, oats, smoothies for natural sweetness
- Infuse milk or cream with a vanilla bean, then use for desserts or beverages
- Toast spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to bring out flavors
- Sprinkle ginger or allspice on roasted sweet potatoes, squash, and apples
- Mix pumpkin pie spice into muffin, pancake, waffle, or cake batters
4. Use natural sweeteners in moderation
For those times when ingredients like fruit and spices still don’t provide enough sweetness, you can use small amounts of certain natural sweeteners:
Maple syrup offers a more complex, rich sweetness than plain sugar. Use sparingly in:
- Yogurt, oatmeal, cereal
- Salad dressings, sauces, marinades
- Tea, coffee, lemonade
- Baked goods
- Roasted veggies and sweet potatoes
The sweetness of raw honey varies by floral source. It works well in:
- Tea, lemonade, marinades
- Yogurt, fruit salads
- Smoothies, protein shakes
- Oatmeal, granola
- Baked goods
Blackstrap molasses provides an intense, bittersweet flavor. Use in small amounts in:
- Marinades and sauces
- Bean dishes, chili
- Granola, energy bars
- Gingerbread, spice cakes
- Beef and pork roasts
Coconut sugar, date sugar, and stevia extracts like monk fruit are less processed alternatives. But natural sweeteners are still sources of sugar and calories, so use them in moderation.
Tips for using natural sweeteners
- Use just a drizzle of maple syrup in plain yogurt or oatmeal
- Sweeten dressings with a teaspoon of honey instead of sugar
- Blend bananas and dates instead of honey or syrup in smoothies
- Try molasses or coconut sugar for a small portion of the sweetener in baking recipes
- Reduce other sugars in a recipe by a third when adding stevia extracts
5. Focus on ingredients’ natural sweetness
Many foods have natural sugars and sweetness without adding any sweet ingredients. Bringing out an ingredient’s inherent sweetness through preparation methods can satisfy a craving for sweet flavors. Some examples include:
- Eat fresh corn on the cob during peak sweet seasons
- Saute or grill corn lightly to caramelize natural sugars
- Roast peeled, cubed sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon
- Saute mashed sweet potatoes with vanilla and nutmeg
- Select fully ripe, sweet fruits like mangos, figs, melons, and pineapples
- Macerate berries and stone fruits in juice or liqueur to release sweetness
- Caramelize onions slowly over low heat until richly sweet
- Roast diced sweet onions with balsamic, maple, and thyme
Milk and cream
- Braise vegetables in lightly sweetened cream or coconut milk
- Whip sweetened cream lightly and fold into yogurt or custards
Enhancing natural sweetness through preparation boosts flavor without added sugars. Macerating, caramelizing, roasting, and sautéing are easy ways to intensify sweetness.
Creating delicious foods and beverages without artificial sweeteners or added sugars is very achievable. Nature provides a wide range of healthy, natural options to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Fruits offer easy and nutritious ways to sweeten sauces, drinks, baked goods, and more. Roots and sweet vegetables like carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, and onions also add sweetness along with nutrients. Sweet spices like cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, and nutmeg infuse desserts and drinks with flavor. And techniques like caramelizing through roasting or grilling boost the natural sugars in ingredients.
In moderation, natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey can also be used. But always taste and adjust recipes to use as little added sweetener as possible. With all these delicious options, you can still enjoy sweet flavors without relying on artificial sweeteners.