Certainly not Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of just-released Sugar Shock (consider it the bible of spotting sneaky sources of sugar in foods and finding healthier replacements). According to Cassetty, the key to eating desserts that are delicious and won’t wreak havoc on your health—sleep included—is stocking up on snacks and other ingredients that are low in added sugar, meaning the type of sugar that’s added to foods during preparation or processing (versus natural sugar, found in small amounts in fruits, vegetables, and dairy).
“According to the CDC, the leading sources of added sugars in our diet are sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts like cakes and cookies, candy, and dairy desserts like ice cream,” Cassetty explains. Key takeaway? Skip the packaged sweets aisle and scour your grocery store for some of these better-for-you treats instead.
Here, Cassetty’s nine favorite foods for post-dinner indulging that are free of any added sugars.
Unsweetened Coconut Flakes
Coconut flakes have a naturally sweet taste without any sugar. “I use the large flakes because the larger surface area gives you more flavor,” Cassetty says. You can toast them to bring out their nuttiness and use them to make trail mixes taste sweet without adding sugar-coated fruit or candy bits. They’re also an ideal addition to muffins and baked desserts.
RELATED: 12 Foods Registered Dieticians Never Eat
“This is probably my favorite ingredient to enhance sweetness naturally,” says Cassetty. “It really boosts the dessert-factor in foods. If you’re craving something sweet, try this snack: slice bananas and sprinkle with cinnamon, then freeze. The frozen sliced bananas have a creamy consistency and are a good swap for ice cream when you’re trying to lower your added sugar intake.”
This ingredient is underutilized, but it’s a great spice to keep on hand. It punches up the flavor of baked goods, like muffins and energy bites. It’s also delicious mixed with nut butter and served over pear or apple slices. If you warm your sliced fruit in a skillet coated with coconut oil spray and then drizzle with cardamom-enhanced nut butter, you’ll truly feel like you’re eating dessert, but with no added sugar. Instead of the ordinary energy slump you feel after dessert, you’ll feel good after enjoying this treat.
Vanilla reminds you of sweet desserts, like ice cream and cake, so a few drops can trick your taste buds into thinking you’re eating something dessert-like even when you aren’t. Cassetty uses it in smoothies, coffee, and yogurt to heighten the sweetness without any sugar. “It’s also a staple ingredient in baked desserts and quick breads. This is really a must-have for making desserts,” she adds.
“I look for freeze-dried fruit that has no added sugar and then use it on its own as dessert,” says Cassetty. “When you lower your added sugar intake from packaged foods, fruit tastes sweeter! I also mix freeze-dried berries with nuts and unsweetened coconut flakes to eat as a sweet-salty-crunchy snack, and this type of combo with protein and fiber can also help you reduce your cravings for intensely sweet desserts.” You can also grind freeze-dried fruit into a powder to dust on top of baked goods and energy bites, or to add a pop of color and flavor to foods, like yogurt. We eat with our eyes, after all—so this trick makes everything brighter and more fun.
RELATED: 7 “Unhealthy” Foods That Are Actually Great for You
Lily’s Dark Chocolate Baking Chips
“I’m obsessed with these no-added-sugar chips, which are delicious on their own when you want a chocolate fix, but also add chocolatey goodness to just about any dessert,” Cassetty raves. “When you swap in Lily’s chocolate chips in your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, you’ll reduce the overall sugar in the recipe by the equivalent of 25 teaspoons of sugar, but you won’t notice any difference in taste.”
People always think that candy bars and other sugary foods give them energy, but the truth is that studies show the opposite effect—that sugar can actually make you feel less focused and more fatigued. “That’s why I recommend slow-burning energy instead, and you can get that from dates. If you stuff a date with some crunchy nut butter and a few Lily’s Dark Chocolate Baking Chips, you’ll get the closest thing to a candy bar, but without any added sugar,” Cassetty says. By comparison, a typical candy bar can have about 26 grams of sugar, which is just higher than the 25 gram maximum that women should have in a day.
Oats are a whole grain, fiber-rich food and they’re a great baking staple. When you blend them, they take on the consistency of flour. Cassetty recommends using ground oats to make lower-sugar muffins and pancakes and whole oats to make less sugary energy bites and granola. You can also use oat flour to make brownies and other desserts.
Crunchy or Creamy Peanut Butter
This staple ingredient has a natural sweetness and nuttiness that makes everything taste like dessert. If you stir some PB into yogurt or oatmeal, you’ll feel like you’re eating something really decadent. And that healthy fat helps you feel fuller longer, which can help tame cravings and the urge to roam the kitchen for treats. But if you do want dessert, peanut butter can be used to make a lot of options, like no-bake cookies and bars. Because of its flavor, you can get away with using a little less sweetener.