Throughout the majority of my days, bright colored fruits and veggies, along with lean proteins and good-for-me fats, grace my plate. But don’t doubt for a second: I am a girl who loves her sweets! Cupcakes may be the most perfect creation on the planet, and I never pass up at least a glance at the dessert menu when dining out; if even just for inspiration.
As I continue to be in love with the world of eating clean and using better, whole and natural ingredients in cooking, I’ve been elated to find a wealth of ideas for swapping real ingredient sugar and sweetener alternatives in place of the less-healthy staples we’re so used to, particularly in baking.
Below are five items that are new to my kitchen, and that I’m using to add a little bit of natural sweetness to my special treats. The following are a couple of recipes I’ve tested out recently, too. This list is definitely not an exhaustive list when it comes to healthier, natural swaps, but may provide a few ideas to get you started. In the spirit of being heart healthy and spreading the love this month, get to know some of these healthier alternatives and create some sweet treats for you and your special ones that you can feel even better about, too.
Agave Nectar: With an appearance that’s similar to honey, Agave Nectar comes from the juice of the Agave plant. It’s gained popularity for a its low glycemic index, making it more “sweet friendly” for diabetics and those who need to keep an eye on their blood sugar regulation. It’s a good swap in place of over-processed, white granulated sugar in recipes, especially sweet beverages. I see more and more cocktails these days made with Agave. It’s also a good Vegan alternative to honey and gluten-free. You can find Agave in light, amber, dark and raw varieties at your local grocer. Look for “100% Pure Blue Agave Nectar” (or sweetener) on the label.
Stevia: Yes, it’s natural! Stevia is a natural sweetener from the leaf of the Stevia plant native to South America. It comes in a white, powdery/granulated form or liquid concentrate. A major benefit of Stevia is that it’s a no-calorie sweetener, so it’s a nice substitute for the no-calorie, artificial sweeteners that have been on the market for years. Ease in to it. Stevia does have a stronger flavor than regular sugar, and some say it leaves a tangy aftertaste.
Sucanat: Sucanat, which stands for Sugar Cane Natural, is developed by crushing freshly cut sugar cane to extract its juice. It’s heated to a thick syrup, then “hand-paddled” to create granules. Use it in place of white, over-processed sugar in recipes. It is light brown in color, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on adding it to light-colored sweets.
Rapadura Sugar: Incredibly similar in creation and look as Sucanat, Rapadura also comes from dehydrated sugar cane juice. It’s cooked at a lower temperature than Sucanat, stirred and ground through sieves to create its grainy granules. Like Sucanat, Rapadura is a great swap for sugar, and even brown sugar, in recipes.
Unsweetened Applesauce: Yep, good old applesauce. But the “unsweetened” part is key. Look for varieties that are just that—simple apples with no sugar added. The natural sweetness apples bring doesn’t need any processed sugar added to it to make it delectable. Not only does natural applesauce add good sweetness to desserts, it’s also a great fats replacement in muffin, cake and bread recipes. See the Dark Chocolate Walnut Brownies recipe below!
It can take a while to get used to alternative ingredients. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to sub everything all at once. Just try a new ingredient here and there, see what you think and then try a new one. Enjoy the deliciousness, and please let me know about any yummy, good-for-you discoveries you’re making!
Dark Chocolate Walnut Brownies
Modified from Tosca Reno’s Dark Chocolate Walnut Brownies from Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Cookbook (Buy it on Amazon.com)
¾ cup (4 squares) 70% or darker unsweetened baking chocolate
½ cup Sucanat
1/3 cup all-natural, unsweetened applesauce
¼ cup light agave nectar
3 egg whites + 2 whole eggs
¼ cup strong brewed coffee, cooled
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
½ cup whole-wheat flour
¼ cup cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup raw, unsalted walnut halves, chopped, and toasted or left raw, your choice
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Prepare a 9-inch square baking pan by spraying with organic olive oil spray, or lining it with parchment paper.
- Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Do not overheat, as doing so will cause the chocolate to curdle and burn.
- When smooth, remove the upper pot containing the chocolate, and set aside.
- In mixer, beat sugar, applesauce, agave, eggs, coffee and vanilla. When well combined, add melted chocolate. Beat well. Set aside.
- Combine dry ingredients in a separate large bowl: flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Use a whisk to combine well.
- Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir until well combined. Add walnuts and semi-sweet chocolate chips, and mix in well.
- Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
- Remove from oven. Let cool before cutting.
- Cut into 9 squares.
Hazelnut Espresso Cookies
By Tosca Reno, Tosca Reno’s Eat Clean Cookbook (Buy it on Amazon.com)
¾ cup Sucanat or Rapadura sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon espresso powder
2 cups hazelnuts, toasted and skins removed
4 large egg whites
1 teaspoon best-quality vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest (make sure to use organic, well-scrubbed oranges)
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place racks in the center of the oven.
- Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Place sugar, sea salt, espresso powder and nuts in a food processor and process until fine. Transfer mixture to mixing bowl.
- In another bowl beat egg whites until stiff.
- Fold nut mixture gently into egg whites. Add vanilla and orange zest and mix until blended.
- Spoon batter onto cookie sheets, but don’t crowd.
- Place in oven and bake for 25 minutes or until golden on top.