The word is out! We now know that sugar can contribute to a whole host of issues from diabetes to chronic inflammation. There's no denying that it's just not healthy for us. But there's also no denying that tasting sweetness is one of our favorite, most enjoyable senses, right? So it's time to expand your mind (and your palate) to discover sugar alternatives that are actually healthy for you! That's right, all 12 of these sugar swaps have actual health benefits that extend far beyond a dopamine-driven sugar buzz.
The Sweet Spices of Life
I know I'm going out on a limb here, but have you ever noticed that some spices and herbs can actually be kind of sweet? Of course they aren't sugar bombs by any means, but when you start to back off the refined stuff, foods that you wouldn't typically consider to be sweet suddenly have new life! I challenge you to experiment with the following spices and herbs and see if you agree. And take note of all the other side benefits they each have!
Allspice has a taste similar to a mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. You can use allspice when preparing ham, Swedish meatballs, baked goods, and desserts to add a nice touch of spicy sweetness. Medicinally, allspice has been used throughout history in the treatment of toothaches, muscle aches, and for its blood sugar-regulating effects. So if you feel like reaching for a sweet fruit or special treat, and want to decrease the impact on your blood sugar levels, sprinkle it with allspice!
Like many spices, allspice is also a digestive aid. Consuming it with meals can result in reduced gas, less bloating, and decreased nausea. Not a bad spice to have on hand in your cabinet.
Cinnamon has a wonderful sweet flavor and can be used as in a ground powder form or as a dried stick. This spice can be used in just about anything. From sweet dishes, to stews and curries, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that a small amount of cinnamon goes a long way. Two teaspoons of cinnamon can change a tart, lip-puckering apple pie to a sweet one. It can replace brown sugar in any dish and can be sprinkled on fruit to liven up a simple dessert.
One of cinnamon’s best attributes is its ability to lessen the impact of sweets on your blood sugar levels. Cinnamon also slows the rate at which your stomach empties after meals, which also reduces the rise in blood sugar after eating. This little spice packs a powerful punch and can be added to any dish or beverage as a substitute for sugar. If the food does contain sugar, add a bit of cinnamon to lessen its negative impact on your body.
Cloves have a bittersweet taste and can be used when ground or dried. Cloves are great when used to give sweet, bold flavor to curries and stews. And who can’t visualize a glorious clove-studded ham? Cloves also go well with chicken and can spice up an otherwise plain piece of fruit.
Did you know that clove oil can even be applied to a cavity to relieve a toothache? That makes this spice very valuable if you can’t get in to see your dentist right away!
4. Nutmeg and Mace
Mace and nutmeg are two slightly different flavored spices but both originate from the fruit of the nutmeg tree. This “nutmeg apple” looks similar to an apricot. When the mature fruit splits open, the nutmeg (a seed surrounded by a red, slightly fleshy covering, or aril) is exposed. The dried aril, alone, is called mace. The nut is removed and dried to produce nutmeg. Both have a warm, sweet, spicy flavor and are best when freshly ground.
Studies have found that nutmeg may be useful in enhancing libido. But use caution since nutmeg can also be added to milk as a sleep aid. The last thing you want when trying to enhance your libido is to fall asleep!
Cardamom is used in Scandinavian bakeries, German and Russian pastries, and in the Middle East and India. This spice can be used instead of sugar when making baked goods and with creams to make treats like cardamom-flavored ice cream, which is mouth-wateringly delicious!
You can also steep the seeds in milk, water, or almond milk for use as a digestive aid to relieve gas and bloating.
6. Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans are really more of a fruit than a spice. Sweet and fragrant, vanilla is best when used from whole or dried beans. One inch of vanilla bean is roughly equal to one teaspoon of pure vanilla extract. Vanilla is a great sugar substitute and can be added to breakfast grains, coffee, and desserts such as ice cream, pudding, and cake.
The active compound in vanilla is vanillin. Vanillin is a polyphenol with strong antioxidant activity. Some neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are associated with formation of a chemical called peroxynitrite, which causes damage to brain cells. Because vanillin has such strong antioxidant activity, it may offset some of this oxidative damage, keeping brain cells healthy and potentially helping to off-set the devastating effects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
7. Anise Seed
Anise seed smells like black licorice and can be used whole or ground. These delicious seeds are often used as a flavoring in some cookies, candies, pastries, and even in poultry dishes. Chewing on a teaspoon of anise seeds after a meal can relieve uncomfortable gas and bloating within minutes. Also, one teaspoon of the seeds can be steeped in a cup of boiling water as a delicious sweet tea for similar results.
8. Sweet Basil
This herb is somewhat pungent and sweet. It’s a bit odd to think of this herb for use as a sweetener, but you’ll be hooked after you try it. You can use sweet basil with eggplant, tomato dishes, pesto, Vietnamese dishes, Thai dishes, and salads, as well as when cooking vegetables to make them more interesting. Corn, tomato, peppers, and eggplant are divine when served with a dusting of fresh basil. Add it to dishes at the last moment, as cooking quickly destroys the flavor.
Scientific studies have established that compounds in basil oil have potent antioxidant, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties.
If all this talk of herbs and spices is leaving you longing for something sweeter that will stimulate your dopamine center, roll your eyes into the back of your head, and cause a euphoric moan of delight, take a deep breath and read on!
As much as I love sweet spices and herbs, it's true that sometimes we just need some real sweetness in our lives. Natural, unrefined sweeteners give food certain tangible qualities that ooze deliciousness, and feed all our senses! There’s nothing like enjoying a honey-roasted pear with a touch of cinnamon or maple-sweetened treats.
But remember, we can't get too carried away now. Unlike herbs and spices, unrefined sweeteners can still have an adverse affect out our blood sugar and health. So please use them wisely and sparingly!
9. Raw Unfiltered Honey
Honey is made when the nectar from a flower mixes with the saliva of a bee. (Sounds delicious, no?) High quality raw honey typically contains anti-microbial and antioxidant compounds, as well as probiotic bacteria. It also contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. So while you are moaning with delight, you are at least getting some nourishment!
Honey is sold over the counter in most grocery stores, and it is usually pasteurized, clarified, or filtered so it’s important to read the label and know what to look for. Raw honey is the variety that is sold as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling, or straining without adding heat (caution: some honey that has been “minimally processed” is often labeled as “raw honey” so be on the lookout). You can stop real raw honey, as it typically contains some pollen and may also contain small particles of wax.
10. Grade B Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, made from the sap of black or red maple trees, is a good source of manganese and zinc and, to a lesser degree, potassium and calcium. Manganese, known for its ability to maintain blood sugar levels, is the highlight of this sweetener. Manganese is an essential cofactor in a number of enzymes important in muscle energy production and antioxidant defenses.
I recommend Grade B maple syrup because it contains more nutrients than Grade A and has a thicker, richer flavor. Maple syrup is low on the glycemic index and can be used to sweeten salad dressing, replace honey for a different taste, or be used instead of table sugar in some baking recipes.
If you need to sweeten a dish, fruit is another healthy option. Fruits, such as crushed pineapple, applesauce, strawberries, cherries, or blueberries can naturally sweeten almost any dish. You can even customize your diet by reaching for a fruit to provide your body with certain nutrients.
For instance, if constipation is an issue, reach for an apple. It contains sorbitol, a substance that attracts water. Apples also contain fiber and pectins, which increase the volume and viscosity of the stool. These substances make for one of the most enjoyable bowel movements ever!
If you are looking for an antioxidant rich, heart-healthy hit of sweet goodness, reach for some sweet berries. If younger skin is something you would like to nurture, cantaloupes can deliver some skin supporting nutrients and tickle your sweet fancy at the same time.
12. Dried Dates
Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree. They are raw and unprocessed (but read the ingredient list just to make sure), and they have lots of nutrients such as potassium, iron, and vitamin A. It’s easy to use dates to sweeten smoothies, baked goods, sauces, and more by making a paste.
To make a paste, simply use dried dates and soak them in warm water overnight. Then blend the dates with some of the water used to soak them until you reach a consistency that is similar to honey. (When I make my own almond milk, I add some dried date paste to sweeten the batch.)
I was recently playing around with dates and developed the following recipe. I had no idea it would turn out to be the Snickers® bar for the health conscious! A warning should seriously come with this recipe as it has the perfect combination of sweetness, saltiness and fat, which can be a deliciously addictive combination...
Coconut Pecan Stuffed Chocolate Covered Dates, Oh My!
Makes: 30 dates
Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Ingredients for the Stuffed Dates:
¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut (plus extra for topping)
¼ cup toasted pecans
¼ teaspoon unrefined sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
30 large Medjool dates
Ingredients for the Dipping Chocolate:
2 (4oz) bars Ghirardelli® bittersweet chocolate
1. Place the shredded coconut, pecans, salt, vanilla and cinnamon in a food processor. Process until mixtures begins to clump together. Set aside.
2. Cut the dates in half lengthwise on one side and remove the pit. Stuff a small amount of coconut pecan mixture into each date and press to close. Place dates in the refrigerator.
3. In a small double boiler melt chocolate. Remove dates from the fridge and using two spoons, dip the cold dates in the chocolate. Roll each around to cover completely and then lift out, letting the excess chocolate drip off before placing on a parchment lined baking sheet.
4. Sprinkle shredded coconut on top of each date. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Life is Too Short
When we choose to make Good Decisions Most of the Time, our bodies are well equipped to handle the occasional indulgence and sweet treat like these decadent stuffed dates! Life is too short not to have chocolate, but life is also too short to feel sick and tired all the time.
Reaching for sweet spices or natural sweeteners instead of refined sugar, artificial sugar, or high fructose corn syrup will not only please the palate, but provide the body with nutrients as well. Cheers to making Good Decisions!
If you're on board for challenging sugar and showing it whose the boss, check out our 30 Day No Sugar Challenge.
And tell me, which sweet alternative do you like the best?