No matter what kind of diet we might be following we can all agree that eating excess sugar is not healthy. It is not only the fact that sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever but overconsumption of sugar is an independent risk factor for increased risk of cardiovascular disease including heart disease and strokes. The American Heart Association points out that excessive consumption of added sugars has been linked with several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients. (1,2).
Eating sugar in small amounts for people eating diets that are healthy overall is not harmful. In addition it is important to note that there is absolutely no need to limit fruit for fear of ingesting too much sugar. Studies regarding fruit and their effect on blood sugar are illuminating. Drinking a glass of water containing three tablespoons of sugar causes a large spike in the level of sugar in the blood within one hour. An excess amount of insulin is also released, culminating in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which in turn causes the body to dump fat into the bloodstream in order to stave off the starvation that it perceives is happening. Add some fruit to this scenario and what happens? Even though the fruit adds more sugar, the blood sugar level increase is not worsened and hypoglycemia does not occur (3). Sugar in fruit is entrenched within the fiber structure of the fruit which results in its slower absorption and consequently a lesser rise in blood sugar. The fiber in whole fruit decreases the rate of stomach emptying and also has a gelling effect in the intestines that further slows sugar release from fruit. In addition, phytonutrients have the ability to lessen sugar uptake by the cells lining the intestines (4). Research on eating berries along with high glycemic foods such as white bread reveals that the fruit reduces the amount of insulin released in spite of the fact that the berries are adding more sugar to the meal (5).
Most North Americans derive 16 to 20% of their calories from added sugars. This is much too high. The World Health Organization and the American Heart Association both recommend that we should keep the number of calories derived from sugar to less than 5% of total daily calories ingested (1,6). In practical terms this means that a woman should try to consume no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar and a man should keep it under 150 calories. One hundred calories can be found in about 6 teaspoons of sugar. This sounds like a lot but one regular can of a sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage provides around 150 calories, the upper limit for a man in a whole day.
It is important to read labels on the food products that you buy. Sugars can hide where you least expect them. Be aware too that, besides ingredients that actually include the word “sugar” in their names, there are many others that are not so obvious. Watch for the following and know that they also are sugars – agave nectar, barley malt, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, coconut water (50% sugar), dextran, dextrose, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, galactose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, isomaltulose, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, potato syrup solids, sorghum syrup, sucanat, sugar alcohols (erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol) and sucrose. New labelling guidelines in Canada that require all sugar-based ingredients to be grouped together on the label will make this process easier. However, manufacturers have until 2021 to comply with the new regulations so we’ll need to know our sugars for a while longer. (7)
In our house the practical aspect of all this is finding the best way to sweeten food when we need it to be sweetened. We try to use sweeteners rarely but there are circumstances where they come in handy. For instance, sometimes a dish we are making might taste a little bitter and a teaspoon or two of sweetener takes the edge off. And then of course there are desserts. We don’t eat dessert every night or even every week but we do enjoy the occasional plant-based dessert, especially when we are serving food to friends or family. A pan of black bean brownies can certainly be a pleasant conclusion to a satisfying meal.
Fortunately there is a natural sweetener that comes in a whole food “package”, bringing along with it fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and the slower, healthier release of its sweetness within. An added plus is that its preparation is simple. The magic ingredient? Dates!
Dates are a delicious whole fruit, packed with sweetness but also bursting with nutrition. For instance, let’s compare the nutritional content of 50 gm of dates (about 6 dates) with 50 gm of refined sugar (8). Note that eating a few dates a day can supply a significant amount of many important beneficial nutrients. The %DV column tells the percentage of the daily recommended value of a nutrient that can be derived from 50 gm of dates.
|CALORIES||138 cal||194 cal|
|FIBER||3.4 gm||14%||0 gm|
|PROTEIN||0.9 gm||2%||0 gm|
|VITAMIN A||75 IU||1.5%||0 IU|
|VITAMIN K||1.4 mcg||1.5%||0 mcg|
|THIAMIN (VITAMIN B1)||0.05 mg||1.5%||0 mg|
|RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2)||0.05 mg||2%||0 mg|
|NIACIN (VITAMIN 3)||0.8 mg||4%||0 mg|
|PYRIDOXINE (VITAMIN B6)||0.1 mg||6%||0 mg|
|FOLATE (VITAMIN B9)||7.5 mcg||2%||0 mcg|
|PANTHOTHENIC ACID (VITAMIN B5)||0.4 mg||4%||0 mg|
|CHOLINE||5 mg||1%||0 mg|
|BETAINE||0.2 mg||N/A||0 mg|
|IRON||0.45 mg||2.5%||0 mg|
|MAGNESIUM||27 mg||7%||0 mg|
|PHOSPHORUS||31 mg||3%||0 mg|
|POTASSIUM||348 mg||10%||1 mg|
|SODIUM||0.5 mg||0%||0 mg|
|ZINC||0.2 mg||1.5%||0 mg|
|COPPER||0.2 mg||9%||0 mg|
|MANGANESE||0.15 mg||7.5%||0 mg|
|SELENIUM||0 mcg||0%||0.3 mcg|
|FLUORIDE||0 mcg||0%||0,5 mcg|
So how do we put this nutritional sweetener into action? We make the dates into a paste, a quick and easy process.
All that needs to be done is to soften the dates so that they will process into a smooth paste. Here are a couple of methods to try out.
THE COOKING METHOD:
Place a quantity of dates into a saucepan. You can adjust the amount according to how much of the paste you intend to use in the next two or three weeks.
Add water until the dates are just covered.
Bring dates and water to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about ten minutes to soften the dates.
Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes.
Transfer everything in the saucepan into a food processor or blender and process just until smooth. This only takes a few seconds.
If the mixture is too thick, add a bit more water.
THE SOAKING METHOD:
Place a quantity of dates into a bowl. You can adjust the amount according to how much of the paste you intend to use in the next two or three weeks.
Add water until the dates are just covered.
Allow to soak for twelve hours or overnight.
Transfer everything in the bowl into a food processor or blender and process just until smooth. This takes only a few seconds.
If the mixture is too thick, add a bit more water.
Date Paste can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for two to three weeks. It also keeps well in a freezer.
You need have no concerns that the processing of dates will separate the sugars from the whole food structure and result in the same effect on the body as refined sugar. Studies show that fruit pureed in a regular blender has the same effect as does whole fruit in moderating blood sugar rise and preventing the subsequent drop in blood sugar that occurs with refined sugar, indicating that the sugars in fruits remain fixed within their fibrous environment after processing (10,11). In fact it has been found that eating pureed fruit in smoothies controls sugar absorption so well that this practice can improve the insulin sensitivity of the whole body over the long term (12). Other research has shown that high speed, long duration processing of foods does not detach phytonutrients from their bonds within a whole food such as a fruit or vegetable (9). Still, sugars may be detached from the fiber more easily than phytonutrients so it is prudent to blend fruits only until smooth and reserve your high-powered ultra-blenders for other tasks.
To replace sugar in a recipe simply add the same amount of date paste as the amount of sugar called for in the recipe. You can feel comfortable using refined sugars in small amounts if your diet is otherwise healthy but it is liberating to know that you can also choose a simple fruit sweetener knowing that you are ingesting a health-giving food rather than a substance with the potential to cause harm.
1 Johnson, R.K., Appel, L.J., Brands, M., Howard, B.V., Lefevre,M. Lustig, R.H., Sacks, F., Steffen, L.M., Wylie-Rosett, J. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009 Sep 15; 120(11):1011-20.
2 Singh, G.M., Micha, R., Khatibzadeh, S., Lim, S., Ezzati, M., Mozaffarian, D. Global Burden of Diseases Nutrition and Chronic Diseases Expert Group (NutriCoDE). Estimated Global, Regional, and National Disease Burdens Related to Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption in 2010. Circulation. 2015 Aug 25; 132(8):639-66.
3 Torronen, R., Kolehmainen, M., Sarkkinen, E., Mykkanen, H., Niskanen, L. Postprandial glucose, insulin, and free fatty acid responses to sucrose consumed with blackcurrants and lingonberries in healthy women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Sep; 96(3):527-33.
4 Manzano, S., Williamson, G. Polyphenols and phenolic acids from strawberry and apple decrease glucose uptake and transport by human intestinal Caco-2 cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2010 Dec; 54(12):1773-80.
5 Torronen, R., Kolehmainen, M., Sarkkinen, E., Poutanen, K., Mykkanen, H., Niskanen, L. Berries reduce postprandial insulin responses to wheat and rye breads in healthy women. J Nutr. 2013 Apr; 143(4):430-436.
9 Padayachee, A., Netzel, G., Netzel, M., Day, L., Mikkelsen, D., Gidley, M.J. Lack of release of bound anthocyanins and phenolic acids from carrot plant cell walls and model composites during simulated gastric and small intestinal digestion. Food Funct. 2013 Jun; 4(6):906-16.
10 S F Evans, M Meister, M Mahmood, H Eldoumi, S Peterson, P Perkins-Veazie, S L Clarke, M Payton, B J Smith, E A Lucas. Mango supplementation improves blood glucose in obese individuals. Nutr Metab Insights. 2014 Aug 28;7:77-84.
11 R Törrönen, M Kolehmainen, E Sarkkinen, H Mykkänen, L Niskanen. Postprandial glucose, insulin, and free fatty acid responses to sucrose consumed with blackcurrants and lingonberries in healthy women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Sep;96(3):527-33.
12 A J Stull, K C Cash, W D Johnson, C M Champagne, W T Cefalu. Bioactives in blueberries improve insulin sensitivity in obese, insulin-resistant men and women. J Nutr. 2010 Oct;140(10):1764-8.