Mother Earth Living

Make Holiday Desserts Without Refined Sugars

When your friends and family gather this holiday season, treat them by serving pitch-perfect desserts—sweetened with unrefined sugars. A chance to cut some sugar from our diets, while keeping the deliciousness in, is much needed.
By Gina Mohammed
October/November 2010
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Pecan Pie Tart
Photo by Howard Lee Puckett
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6 Holiday Desserts with Unrefined Sugars:

• Pecan Pie Tarts
• Ginger Cookies
• Ginger Molasses Muffins 
• Chocolate Beet Cake 
• Whipped Chocolate Ricotta
• Cranberry Orange Cake 

Online Exclusive Recipes: 

• Date Cake
• Aromatic Pears 

When your friends and family gather this holiday season, treat them by serving pitch-perfect desserts—sweetened with unrefined sugars. After all, special pies, cakes and cookies are the stuff of memories. But let’s face it: A chance to cut some sugar from our diets, while keeping the deliciousness in, is much needed.      

Consider the average American, who now consumes 136 pounds of added sugar every year. This is not sugar naturally present in foods like fruit and grains, but that which is added in baking, cooking and food processing. Half is refined sugar, the rest mainly corn sweeteners used in industrial food processing. Little is from wholesome or less-processed sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses or fruit. 

What’s Wrong with Refined Sugar?

Sugar is not inherently evil. Even refined white sugar (99.9 percent sucrose) is not dangerous in moderation—the body can metabolize sucrose for energy and other functions. Problems arise when we consume more sugar than our bodies have the capacity to manage. That threshold is about 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men, according to the American Heart Association. Currently, Americans consume at least three to four times that amount. Clearly, sugar is loved in too many ways!

Sugar overload is linked to such ills as worsening age-related mental decline; type 2 diabetes; cardiovascular disease; elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides; and obesity in children and adults.

Refined sugar is also rather disappointing as a food. Refining sugarcane sap or sugar beet extract (the two main sources of white sugar) deplete enzymes, vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients originally present in the plant. 

Surely, there are more healthful alternatives to enjoy.

Honey—The Versatile Sweetener

Honey, an enduring favorite, has flavor, goodness and variety. More than 300 North American plants are used by bees to concoct honey. Flavors range from the dark, assertive honeys of buckwheat to the milder charms of clover or basswood and the delicacy of fireweed. Honey’s goodness comes partly from its fermentable carbohydrates, which support bifidobacteria—those faithful friends of our digestive tract. In its raw (unpasteurized) state, honey also contains protein, vitamins and antioxidants. 

In desserts, lighter honeys are good for delicately flavored sweets; darker ones for some fruit pie fillings, dense puddings and fruit cakes. Choose local or domestic honeys from reputable suppliers; ask at your local market.

Molasses—Wasted Treasure

Molasses is what’s left after white sugar has been removed from the sap of the sugarcane plant. These dregs of refining actually contain the best nutrients.

Light molasses, left after the initial sugar extraction, is golden-colored and sweet, perfect in gingerbread, spice cakes, and as dessert sauces.

Blackstrap molasses, left after the final extraction, is stronger and slightly bitter, and is used only in small amounts. (I once substituted an equal quantity of blackstrap for fancy light molasses in my gingerbread men—they were strong enough to get up and walk off the cookie tray.) 

Blackstrap molasses is stocked with vitamins and minerals, being a good source of manganese, copper, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin B6. Unsulfured organic molasses is best. 

When substituting molasses for refined sugar, baked goods will darken more quickly, so reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees. Also add extra baking soda (1 teaspoon per cup of molasses) to counteract the acidity.   

Date Sugar—Super Sweet

Date sugar is the dried, ground fruits of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). This whole fruit product is rich in fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins. It may be used instead of regular sugar, but it will not melt or dissolve in liquids. Try it in muffins, dessert squares, tart fillings and firm puddings. It is stable and keeps well for up to a year at room temperature. Purchase date sugar from health-food stores, specialty groceries or online suppliers. 

Brown Rice Syrup—Nutty, Chewy

Brown rice syrup, a traditional Asian sweetener, is still a novelty in North America. Less sweet than regular sugar, brown rice syrup yields a pleasant nutty flavor and chewy texture. Drizzle this subtly sweet syrup over ice cream or dessert-style pancakes, or use in any dessert requiring liquid sweetener. 

The syrup is made from brown rice starch that has been fermented and broken down enzymatically to yield maltose, a complex sugar. And because it contains a mix of 50 percent soluble complex carbohydrates, 45 percent maltose sugar and 3 percent glucose, brown rice syrup is absorbed more gradually into the bloodstream, thus avoiding dangerous spikes in blood sugar. The syrup has a shelf life of six months.

Barley Malt Syrup—Sweet Tonic

Barley malt syrup—made from sprouted barley that has been dried, powdered and mixed with water—historically was given to children in Europe as an iron-rich, blood-fortifying tonic. It also delivers B vitamins, potassium and magnesium. Its flavor is a bit strong, though less sweet than regular sugar. Try it in spice cakes, muffins and steamed puddings. It keeps for about six months.   

Six More Marvelous Sweeteners

Fruit: Fruit juices or mashed, dried, frozen, or fresh fruit lends flavor, color and natural sweetness to baked goods. Fruit contains natural sugars, including fructose, sucrose and glucose in good balance—plus fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. The sweetest fruits are dates, bananas, figs, persimmons, lychees, guava, pomegranates, kumquats, mangoes and grapes. Many dessert recipes use fruit for sweetening with no added sugar.

Evaporated Cane Sugar: Also known as unrefined cane sugar, this product is sold under names like rapadura or sucanat, and also under brands like Alter Eco ground cane sugar. It is minimally processed, especially rapadura, which is filtered, heated gently to evaporate the water, and crystallized, thereby conserving nutrients of the sugarcane sap. You can use this product as you would regular sugar.

Maple, Birch or Sorghum Syrups: We already know how good maple syrup is. Birch syrup is tapped the same way and boiled down to produce a dark, vibrant syrup that is wonderful in candies or simply drizzled over ice cream. Sorghum syrup is also worth trying. Sorghum is grown with very little pesticides (it’s naturally insect-resistant)—so there should be fewer residues in your goodies.

Vegetables: Naturally sweet vegetables include yams and beets. One of the best chocolate cakes I ever tasted was loaded with beets for a super-moist, delicately sweet treat. Nonetheless, most dessert recipes using vegetables still need some added sweetener, as in the beet cake, opposite.

Sweeteners for Antioxidants

Some sweeteners supply antioxidants—substances that clean up unstable, damaging oxygen products in the body that can contribute to cancer, heart disease and degenerative disorders. Biochemists at Virginia Tech have analyzed various sweeteners, including molasses, date sugar, brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, agave nectar, honey, corn syrup, and white or brown sugars. Blackstrap or dark molasses and date sugar were the best antioxidant sources. Barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup were slightly lower, and cane sugars, honey and agave nectar lower yet. Granulated white sugar and corn syrup had negligible amounts.

Spice It Up

Some spices and flavors enhance the sweetness of desserts—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mint, and vanilla or almond extract add flavor and interest to countless sweet dishes. Try reducing the sugar in recipes and add an extra dash of these instead.

Artichokes, Anyone?

Eating an artichoke at supper will make other foods seem sweeter. Artichokes contain active components such as cynarin, a unique polyphenolic compound that stimulates sweetness receptors in the taste buds. Even water is sweeter after an artichoke!

Sweet Substitutes

To replace 1 cup of granulated sugar in baking or cooking, use:

• Agave nectar: 3⁄4 cup
• Barley malt: 3 cups
• Brown rice syrup: 2 1/2 cups
• Date sugar: 2 cups
• Evaporated cane sugar: 1 cup
• Fruit juice concentrate: 1 cup
• Honey: 2⁄3 cup
• Maple syrup: 1 cup
• Molasses: 2⁄3 cup (all light or a combination of light and blackstrap)
• Sorghum syrup: 2⁄3 cup


Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist who researches medicinal and other specialty uses of plants. E-mail editor@herbcompanion.com or write to 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609 for a detailed reference list. 


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