Craving sweet flavors is an evolutionary behavior that, prior to modern times, kept humans away from harmful plants and toxins. Our sweet cravings haven’t evolved much, so it’s natural to like sweet flavors because our bodies need natural sugars to complete certain biological processes.
What isn’t natural is the way highly processed sugars such as granulated sugar and high-fructose corn syrup have popped up in foods where we don’t expect them like breakfast cereals, dairy products, salad dressings and nut-butter spreads. These sugars are highly processed and have been zapped of nutrients during refinement.
Luckily, there are a variety of foods that contain natural, unprocessed sugars you can enjoy!
- Raw Honey
This is honey from flowers that still contains healthful vitamins A, C, D, E and K, various B vitamins, calcium, potassium, magnesium and live enzymes that are removed when honey is heated, filtered and processed. Raw honey is also rich with bifidobacteria, a group of bacteria associated with digestive and immune health. An effective probiotic, raw honey stimulates bifidobacteria growth in the intestine and aids in digestive health. Allergy-free gardening expert Thomas Ogren suggests that the trace amounts of bee pollen in local raw honey may reduce allergy symptoms by providing small doses of regional allergens, potentially boosting immune health.
How to enjoy: Stir it into hot cereals, mix a teaspoon into a lemon juice-based salad dressing or enjoy a small drizzle with yogurt for a sweet dessert. Since honey is more concentrated in both calories and sugar content than granulated sugar, a little goes a long way.
- Maple Syrup
Similar to honey, maple syrup contains antioxidants, vitamins and phytonutrients not found in refined sugar. Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees and also contains trace minerals absorbed from the ground by the trees.
How to enjoy: Similar to honey, you can drizzle maple syrup on your hot cereal, in salad dressings or on yogurt. You can also use maple syrup in your baked goods instead of conventional granulated sugar — just reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe.
- Dark Chocolate or Cacao Nibs
Not all chocolate bars are created equal, and dark chocolate — containing more than 70% cacao — has a higher quantity of superpowered cacao than chocolate bars, which contain more milk and sugar. The cacao portion of a chocolate bar is made by grinding the nibs in cacao beans. The nibs are dried, then fermented and ground for making chocolate. The percentages you see on a chocolate bar wrapper are indicative of how much cacao is in each bar out of 100% by weight. So, if you read 45% on the bar, it means the bar is 55% milk and sugar and only 45% cacao. But a 75% bar contains only 25% milk and sugar, making it a lower-sugar choice. A bar that reads 100% would be made entirely of cacao nibs and cacao butter without added refined sugar or milk solids.
Many associate the word chocolate with something unhealthy, but this isn’t always the case. The nibs are considered a superfood because they contain high amounts of antioxidants, healthy fats, polyphenols and trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, sulphur, zinc, iron and potassium.
How to enjoy: Look for bars of 65–85% for the highest nutritional value and least amount of sugar in your chocolate bars.
- Coconut Palm Sugar
Similar to the way that maple syrup is harvested, coconut palm sugar is made by harvesting the sap of a coconut plant. Then, the sap is dried to evaporate the liquid out, leaving the natural sugar crystals behind. Coconut palm sugar is lower on the glycemic index than both honey and maple syrup and is a great substitute for granulated sugar in baking recipes.
How to enjoy: There are occasions — for instance, in baking — where granulated sugar is required. In those instances, generally a one-for-one substitution of coconut palm sugar is a natural alternative to processed granulated sugar.
- Dried Fruit
Dried blueberries, cherries, peaches, apples, dates — even kiwi and mango — are all great options when you’re reaching for something sweet. Dried fruits are made by evaporating the juices out of fresh fruit, leaving concentrated flavors and natural, unprocessed fruit sugars behind. But be warned that in addition to being a concentrated source of flavor, dried fruit is also concentrated in calories, so once again, a little goes a long way. Some dried fruits are rolled or dried in sugar or sweeteners so always purchase the unsweetened variety.
How to enjoy: Try sprinkling a few tablespoons of dried fruit on your salads or cereal, or snacking on a few of dates when your sweet cravings hit.
- Fresh Fruit
Fresh fruit has the added bonus of a higher water content so it’ll fill you up faster and the natural fiber will keep you full for longer than dried fruit. Eating ripe, fresh fruit is a wonderful, healthful way to sate your sugar cravings. Not only do the natural sugars in the fruit taste delicious, the nutrients, vitamins and minerals in each piece of fruit fuel your body, the juice refreshes you and the fiber keeps you full and satisfied.
How to enjoy: Try eating a range of colored fruits for the most variety and highest nutritional value and stick to what’s in season for the best taste. Apples will be the most flavorful in the fall, while strawberries will be bursting with sweetness in the spring.