How to add sweetness to your meals - with little or no added sugar
As a registered dietitian, few days pass without someone asking me about sugar. It's everywhere. You'll find sugar in many foods and drinks and under many different names, from granulated white sugar and coconut sugar to agave nectar, molasses and maple syrup. Sugar serves many purposes. In food, sugar adds flavor, texture and color to baked goods, balances acidity and helps preserve jam, jelly and more. In the body, sugars are a main energy source for the brain and red blood cells, especially for intense physical activity.
But most of us get too much. According to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, the average American eats 20 teaspoons of sugar per day. The general consensus among the medical community is that we need to reduce our overall intake of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends not getting more than 6 teaspoons added sugars per day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (equal to roughly 1 regular can of cola). Think about this the next time you start adding teaspoons of sugar to your coffee or tea.
By no means am I suggesting you eliminate sugar altogether. The preference for sweet tastes is innate. I can't imagine life without the occasional sweet treat, and no one should have to. But there is room to cut back.
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Think outside the bag for ways to sweeten with little to no added sugar. Add unsweetened cocoa to coffee for rich flavor and an antioxidant boost. Use naturally sweet fruits and vegetables when in season, such as sweet peas, sweet corn, peaches or melons to add sweetness to salads, snacks and more. Add a few dates or dried figs to smoothies for added sweetness, fiber and nutrition. To add to the list, I asked some of my registered dietitian nutritionist friends how they add sweetness with little or no added sugar. Here's what they had to say:
"I am of a huge fan of cinnamon for sweetening things up! In smoothies, coffee/tea, oatmeal and baked goods, cinnamon is a great way to add not only sweetness but a little bit of fiber and calcium, too. Cinnamon also has the added benefit of slowing down digestion, which helps keep your blood sugar from spiking after eating."
– Danielle Omar, MS, RD integrative dietitian at www.foodconfidence.com
"Ripe colorful tomatoes or pink grapefruit sections (skinless) with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar are naturally sweet, delicious and nutrient-rich appetizer options. They help you meet your daily fruit and vegetable quota, and they provide great flavor and natural sweetness. An added bonus: These sweet sides can fill you up and potentially help you eat less during the meal."
– Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, author of "Younger Next Week"
"I often turn to naturally sweet bananas to add flavor without added sugar to smoothies, smoothie bowls, frozen desserts, overnight oats, pancakes, muffins and cakes. I let bananas ripen on the kitchen counter, and when they're ripe (or a tad bit beyond ripe), I peel them, slice and store in zip-top bags in the freezer. I pull them out when needed. Besides the benefit of less or no added sugar, pureed bananas also add a naturally creamy texture."
– Family nutrition expert Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, managing editor of Meal Makeover Moms' Kitchen
"Add cut up fresh fruit to plain Greek yogurt. Mash the fruit to get the juice blended into the yogurt. Try watermelon, pineapple, peaches or berries for starters."
– Malena Perdomo, MS, RD, CDE, registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, Malena Nutrición
"To use less added sugar in my favorite dishes and drinks, I opt for potent sweeteners like honey and maple syrup that are so sweet, I only have to use a tiny amount. I also use fresh fruit and fruit purees to sweeten dishes like oatmeal, cottage cheese and yogurt."
– Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT, nutritionist and blogger at The Foodie Dietitian
"Dried fruit is packed with fiber, phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Soak dried fruit like dates or raisins in water, then puree to create a sweet paste that can be used in smoothies, salad dressings or even in baking. Just be sure to purchase unsweetened dried fruit, as many contain added sugars."
– Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE, private practice dietitian at Avocado A Day Nutrition LLC
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