I knew that our country had a collective sweet tooth, but when I recently read that the average American consumes 72 pounds of sugar a year, I nearly fell off my chair. That’s a big mound of sugar for one person, a whopping 22 teaspoons each day. To be clear, that number doesn’t reflect the sugars found naturally in foods like fruit and milk; it’s the sum of added sugar in all its guises, from the white stuff on your table to the corn syrup in candy to the honey you stir into your tea.
The problem with all this sugar is that the vast majority comes from very refined sources like high fructose corn syrup and white sugar. Together, they translate into about 350 nutritionally empty calories a day, which, unless burned off through activity, are stored as fat. What’s more, eating refined sugar leads to big spikes in blood sugar, which stress the metabolic system and are linked to diabetes and heart disease. In fact, the latest research reveals that refined sugars may be worse than saturated fat for your heart’s health.
If a voice in your head is screaming “nooooooo!” at the thought of living in a world without sweets, don’t worry—that’s not necessary. Instead, we can strike a much healthier balance by aiming to use fewer added sugars—more like 10 teaspoons a day, which is closer to the amount our grandparents consumed—and-choosing ones that are less refined.
To do this, you could take the artificial sweetener route, but I prefer to keep things natural, and in doing so, I’ve discovered many delicious alternatives to refined sugar.
One way to cut added sugar without sacrificing flavor is to make the most of fruit’s built-in sweetness. In addition to its natural sugars, fruit provides fiber, which slows the absorption of those sugars and keeps your blood sugar from rising too rapidly. Fruit also has a wealth of essential vitamins, minerals, and health-protective antioxidants.
There are many ways to use fruit as a sweetener. Add a very ripe banana to your morning smoothie, and you’ll need little to no additional sugar. Pour a splash of fruit juice in sparkling water for a tasty soft drink substitute. Or stir mango purée into your lemonade, which lets you cut the added sugar and amp up the drink’s nutritional value.
The concentrated sweetness of dried fruit like figs, dates, and raisins is ideal in homemade energy bars, granola, and pie fillings and allows you to pull back on refined sugar. The same goes for prune purée, which adds a rich sweetness to muffins, pancakes, and quickbread batter. Also, don’t forget about fruit for dessert. Sliced apples, pears, or oranges sprinkled with cinnamon are often all you need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Or try cooking your fruit: It’s tough to beat wine-poached pears or baked apples for dessert, and they’re delicious with very little added sweetener.
When you do need to boost sweetness by adding sugar, reach for less-refined alternatives like honey, molasses, maple syrup, and agave instead of white sugar or brown sugar (which is essentially white sugar with a little molasses added for flavor and color). While these minimally processed sweeteners do count as added sugar and should still be used sparingly, they provide antioxidants and essential minerals and don’t cause as big a spike in blood sugar as refined sweeteners do.
Each has its own distinct flavor, which adds an extra dimension to foods and beverages. Honey is a go-to sweetener for yogurt, teas, and hot toddies, as well as compotes, fruit crisps, and cobblers. Maple syrup is especially appealing in granola and oatmeal. Molasses has an intense depth of flavor that works perfectly in barbecue sauces and sloppy Joes. Agave has the mildest flavor of the bunch; it dissolves easily, so it’s great in cold drinks.
You can bake with all of these alternative sweeteners, too; they tend to make baked goods very soft and moist. Depending on the recipe, you might need to experiment with the amount you use. Start by substituting 3/4 cup honey, maple syrup, or molasses for each cup of sugar, and reduce the liquid by 3 tablespoons. To substitute agave, use 2/3 cup agave nectar for each cup of sugar and reduce the liquid by 1/4 cup. Also, since these sweeteners will speed the browning process (the form of sugar they contain reacts more readily to heat), reduce the baking temperature by 25°F. Check for doneness at the usual time, but you may have to increase the baking time slightly.
The heavenly fruit compote at right brings together nature’s sweetest assets. A medley of dried fruit is simmered with honey and the warming flavors of chai until the fruit is plump and a luxurious syrup forms. Serve it with thick, tangy yogurt and a topping of toasted almonds, which lends a contrasting crunch. Lovely at the breakfast table or as an afternoon snack, this fruit compote is a smart way to satisfy your sweet tooth.
|Chai-Spiced Fruit Compote with Yogur|
|Good to Know
Added sugar doesn’t have to mean empty calories; each of the minimally processed sweeteners below has its own unique health benefits:
• Maple Syrup is rich in zinc and manganese, which are important for immune function; it also has a wealth of antioxidants.
• Agave has an especially low glycemic index, meaning it has a more moderate effect on blood sugar than other sweeteners do.
• Honey is packed with health-protective antioxidants. The darker the honey, the more antioxidants it provides.
• Molasses contains the highest nutritional value of all the sweeteners. It’s rich in essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron.