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The holidays are all about baked goods, but if you’re baking for diabetics, hyper kids or just trying to avoid holiday hips, you don’t need 24/7 sugar. What you do need are sugar-free treats that don’t taste like garbage.

Here’s the lowdown on three popular, natural sugar alternatives, plus some delicious recipes you can use them in:

Fruit

“I shy away from using substitutes as much as possible,” says chef and Elle Cuisine founder Lauren Mozer. Mozer soaks dried fruit in water and purees it. Her favourite tricky treat is a sticky toffee pudding that uses dates for sweetness (find her recipe in the gallery below). However, since fruits contain natural sugar, baked goods that use them aren’t quite sugar-free; technically, they are “no sugar added.” It’s also important to note that fruit-based treats will likely be higher in carbohydrates than those baked with xylitol or stevia, but they’ll contain the healthful fibre and nutrients of the fruit.

Xylitol

Holistic nutritionist Andrea Donsky is a big fan of xylitol. Donsky is a spokesperson for Xyla brand, which harvests its product from North American birch, maple and poplar trees (other varieties often use corn husks). Donsky notes that although xylitol looks and bakes like sugar (use it 1:1 in recipes calling for sugar), it contains 40 per cent fewer calories and 75 per cent fewer carbs. Bonus: Unlike sugar, xylitol can actually help prevent tooth decay! Xylitol is a natural, albeit highly processed product that behaves a lot like sugar – simply swap it in for the same amount of sugar in your favourite recipe. Indulging in too much much sugar has bodily consequences, and so does xylitol– it is known to cause flatulence and diarrhea, so it’s probably best to test your personal threshold before downing a big batch of cookies at your next holiday party.

Stevia

Made from the sweet leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia doesn’t give the same consistency, volume and texture as a 1:1 substitute like Xylitol, and can produce a somewhat chemical aftertaste when used as a primary sweetener. That said, it is a zero-calorie alternative, and 200 times sweeter than sugar, meaning a little stevia goes a long way. Products like Truvia Baking Blend, a very processed product which contains a mix of sugar, stevia and erythritol (a sugar alcohol), are easier to work with, and perfect for bakers who want to reduce their sugar intake. But for those looking to eliminate sugar with stevia, a little creativity is in order. Stevia conversion charts help, but it’s important they be brand-specific, as products vary.

But wait…

What about honey, maple syrup, rice syrup, coconut sugar and agave? These are all natural sugar substitutes, but as far as your body is concerned, they still contain calories and carbohydrates (although often fewer than the white stuff) and should be eaten sparingly or not all by diabetics and anyone else committed to a sugar-free diet. Sorry!

Now that you know the difference between these substitutes, let’s get baking:

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