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Reducing sugar is so tricky – it’s something most of us need to do, and it’s also one of the most challenging. Between strong cravings and the abundance of sneaky sugar in everyday foods, it takes real effort to cut the sweet stuff. Luckily, there are several ingredients that can help you eliminate sugar and other sweeteners, but still enjoy some sweetness.
Here are seven common, easy-to-use ingredients that’ll add a sweet touch to everything from beverages to baked goods, along with ideas on how to use them.
The acid in citrus brings out the flavor in foods and brightens it. So, sweet foods taste sweeter with a splash of lemon or a bit of orange zest. Blend zest, juice, or both into sauces, dressings, baked goods, or drinks. Use any that you like (lemon, orange, grapefruit, lime, etc.), or combine them.
This super-popular spice has a secret weapon: cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives it its fragrance and sweet flavor. “I love sprinkling ground cinnamon over plain oatmeal and adding a big spoonful of nut butter,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN. “I find that I don’t need any additional sweetness from syrup or jam when I do this.” You can also add a sprinkle to beverages, sauces, and spice rubs to give them a complex sweetness without sugar.
Sometimes adding an ingredient can trick us into thinking foods are sweeter because we associate that ingredient with sweetness. Such is the case with vanilla. When researchers at Penn State added vanilla to milk, study participants, who didn’t know vanilla was added, perceived the milk as sweeter.
If a dessert doesn’t call for vanilla, add a little and reduce the sweetener slightly, or add it to items where you might not expect it: As a sub for wine, use a bit of broth and a splash of vanilla when deglazing a pan; add a drop to dressings or cocktails; or try a tiny bit to cut the acidity in tomato sauce. “I’ll splash in some pure vanilla extract when I make a smoothie,” Largeman-Roth says. “It adds depth of flavor and seems to boost the natural sweetness from the fruit.”
We think of coconut as a nut, but botanically it also can be considered a fruit. Though we usually associate sweetened coconut with desserts, coconut on its own has a mild, sweet flavor, and that’s true of the flesh, oil, and milk. Use coconut oil in baked goods, make a custard out of coconut milk (or cream), sweeten a smoothie with coconut water, add coconut flakes to bar cookies or crumble toppings, or mix coconut butter and maple syrup into a glaze for lemon bread.
Loaded with good nutrition, beets boost brain and heart health, add color and flavor to salads, and are the star of the show in borscht. Along with their earthy edge, beets boast plenty of sweetness, so you can use them in some unexpected places to reduce or replace sugar. Try adding beets to cake or fudge, blending them into smoothies, or pour some of the juice into a cocktail or mocktail.
With their caramel flavor and soft, chewy texture, dried dates are a natural way to sweeten dishes without sugar (plus, unlike sugar, dates are rich in fiber and minerals). Use them to make healthier candies or cookies, as the only sweetener in flourless chocolate cake, or to bump up the sweetness in banana cake. You can also blend them into smoothies, transform them into energy bites, or use them to sweeten sauces (I once blended a date into steak sauce to make a Whole30-compatible barbecue sauce).
Yes, you read that right–salt makes foods sweeter. Along with making foods saltier, salt lights up glucose receptors in our mouths, so we sense the sweetness more. Salt also causes bitter tastes to fall into the background, further enhancing sweetness. Of course, it’s always a balance – too much salt makes all manner of dishes unpleasant. The interaction of salt and sweetness is why we love salty-sweet combos so much, as in this pie or these chocolates.