’Tis the season for sugar. It kicked off with loads of Halloween candy, was followed closely by Thanksgiving pies … and now the tempting holiday cookie trays are on the way. But before you load up your plate with sweet treats, let’s take a look at sugar.
Refined sugar is stripped of everything but its sweetness — a cup has 775 calories, but zero fiber or vitamins. These “empty calories” play a role in weight gain and diabetes. Plus, when sugar makes up more than a quarter of daily calories, you’re twice as likely to suffer heart disease and other major health problems, according to a 2014 study from the Harvard Medical School.
Given all the downsides, experts say we should be eating less sugar. New federal nutrition guidelines are due out before the year’s end, and they are expected to cap added sugars at 12 teaspoons (50 grams a day). The FDA is also redesigning food labels to clearly show how much sugar has been added to foods.
The good news
While it’s hard to avoid the pure white stuff, it isn’t the only sweetener in town. There are many natural alternatives out there.
“If you look at a fruit, it's sweet, but it’s not a sugar” in the way that candy is, says Julieanna Hever, a registered dietitian and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition.
Recipes employing applesauce and mashed banana abound, drawing their taste and texture from sweet options that also have vitamins and fiber. They aren’t calorie-free, but, the thinking goes, they do offer benefits the body needs. Many recipes using refined sugar alternatives may still include some pure sugar, but they’ll usually have less than in recipes without.
Purists who worship at the oven of the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, may say that messing with recipes lessens the pleasure so much that dessert barely wears the name anymore. But Hever says that’s often due to taste buds grown acclimated to heavy, sugary baking.
“You might surprise yourself when you eat this way,” cutting out refined sugars and focusing more on natural sweeteners, says Hever, an expert in vegan nutrition. Over time, your taste buds may adjust to a less sugary-sweet taste.
Here are some suggestions for swapping sugar alternatives into your favorite recipes.
Use in quick breads, muffins, and brownies — anything that’s thicker and more cakey. Avoid in cookies, especially recipes where you want a crunch.
Sub an equal amount of applesauce for sugar, but dial back other wet ingredients — for example, use a little less water or milk, if the recipe calls for it. You can also use applesauce instead of oil to reduce fat — use the same 1:1 ratio. The fruit company Musselman’s has a handy oil sub chart.
Calories in a cup of unsweetened applesauce: about 100. Applesauce also has fiber, vitamin C, and potassium.
To substitute mashed banana for sugar in baking recipes, use very ripe bananas and cut the amount in half. As with applesauce, you’ll also need to reduce the liquid elsewhere.
Peel a banana, set it on the counter, grab a fork or a potato masher and pound away. Mashed bananas will add a strong taste, for better or worse. Bananas can vary in sweetness depending on their ripeness, so you may need to taste test.
Calories in one cup of mashed banana: about 200. Plus a boatload of potassium, fiber, and more vitamin C.
Sweet potatoes or sweet squash
Any fall recipe that calls for pumpkins is a natural for using squash or sweet potato as a sugar substitute. Use it as you’d use banana in baked goods (see above), but since even a sweet squash like kabocha (this writer’s favorite) may not hit banana highs, you may need to use some sugar.
Roast or microwave the potatoes or squash, seed them, and mash the flesh. In pies, you might need some sugar, but you’ll drop from one cup to half a cup or less — just compare these recipes for sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie. And if you find a recipe using one type of squash, like butternut, you can swap in a different squash (or tuber) too.
Calories in a cup of mashed sweet potato: about 250. You’ll hit 400 percent of your daily vitamin A goal, along with a healthy dose of vitamin B6, potassium, and fiber. Calories in a cup of kabocha squash: about 40 (no, that’s not a typo). That comes with 70 percent of your daily vitamin A needs.
Date syrup or paste
Use instead of corn syrup, simple syrup, agave, or honey in baking, or instead of sugar in cooking.
Date syrup can replace the same measurement of other sweeteners. You can make your own by soaking dates overnight in liquid, like almond milk, Hever says, then puree the dates. Or you can order date paste online. Some grocery stores may carry it, but you may have better luck in a Middle Eastern grocery.
Calories in one tablespoon of corn syrup: 55. Calories in one tablespoon of date syrup: about 50. Peer-reviewed studies show that dates, and their syrup, have loads of free-radical-busting antioxidants.
Use it to fill in for sugar in dishes like baked or glazed carrots, or add a natural touch to salad dressing. In baking, substitute maple syrup equally for another sweet syrup option, similar to how you’d use date syrup. When baking, use slightly less — ¾ cup in a recipe that calls for a full cup of sugar — and reduce the liquid from other ingredients by a few teaspoons.
Calories in one tablespoon of real maple syrup: about 50. This may not hit the vitamin highs like squash, but real maple syrup holds its own. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association notes potassium, riboflavin, zinc, and other minerals in syrup that refined sugars don’t have.
Molasses forms the backbone of the eponymous cookies and baked beans, and works well with some glazed recipes (carrots, chicken, and duck, for example).
The strong taste doesn’t tickle everyone’s tongue. You probably don’t want to sub in molasses for sugar in a recipe — even Hever, who just finished a cookbook, says she doesn’t use it that often. Many recipes call for both sugar and molasses, but seeking out molasses-friendly recipes could cure your cravings with a sweet, moist result.
Calories in one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses: about 50. Molasses’ strong taste masks some solid minerals: calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, even selenium and vitamin B6.