Healthier Food Options: Natural Sweeteners for Your Desserts
We’re officially one month into 2012 and I suspect there are some people out there feeling a little deprived. Undoubtedly, you’ve been so good about your diet to kickstart the new year. And without a question, those sweet cravings are starting to nag you (and I bet that has nothing to do with all the pink-and-red-packaged chocolate currently taking over store shelves everywhere.) While I won’t argue with a true indulgence here and there, my sweet tooth requires a bit more than the occasional treat. Fortunately, I’ve developed a handy repertoire of sweet treats that fit in with a clean eating diet.
What exactly is clean eating? One might consider it a detox for life. Cleaning up your diet from processed, unhealthy foods to heal your body and your mind. Focusing on colorful veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to satisfy your cravings and fuel your daily activities. Trying to eat more ingredients instead of things that have ingredients.
Clean eating is not eating sugar. Specifically, refined sugar (common granulated white sugar and brown sugar) is a big no-no. Same for the artificial alternative. The problem is that both of these are hidden almost everywhere. So what’s a guy or gal with a sweet tooth on a clean eating diet to do?
Easy-to-find, more nutritious and all-natural sweeteners include honey, maple syrup, and molasses. Other options becoming increasingly more mainstream are succanat (also referred to as evaporated cane juice) and coconut palm sugar. These sweeteners all have caloric value comparable to “regular” sugar but are less processed and retain higher nutritional value. Each has its pros and cons, including flavor and ease of use, which will help determine which one should be used in place of sugar in a specific recipe. Also becoming increasingly popular is stevia, a zero-calorie all-natural sweetener derived from the stevia plant. In its pure form, stevia is many times sweeter than sugar (1 teaspoon is equivalent to 1 cup of sugar in terms of sweetness) which makes it difficult to use a direct replacement in baking, but not impossible. Stevia is sold in various forms, including concentrated liquid drops (great for sweetening coffee and tea) and bulkier mixes (easier to use in baking or for measuring small amounts.)
Over the past year I’ve been experimenting with these various sweeteners and put them to use in many recipes. In general I find that these sweeteners work best in combination; I rarely use just one in a recipe. Here are some of my favorite all-naturally sweetened indulgences.
In this Salted Caramel Ice Cream, I started with coconut palm sugar to provide the rich color and caramel flavor. I could have used only coconut sugar to sweeten the ice cream, but to shave some calories, I opted to use about half of what I would have needed to create an adequately sweet ice cream, and added liquid vanilla stevia to provide the rest. (If you just clicked that link and dropped your jaw at the price of a 2oz bottle, relax. It seems like a lot of money but I promise it lasts forever. This stuff is highly concentrated and you only need a few drops to sweeten a cup of coffee or tea.)
Similarly, in these Mint-Cacao Cookie Dough Truffles, I used a combination of powdered steviaalong with maple syrup. In this no-bake recipe, the maple syrup is desirable because it helps to bind the dry ingredients. But just like with the ice cream recipe, I opted to lighten the caloric load by using some stevia in addition.
Now take a look at my Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake Swirl Brownies (that are not only refined sugar-free, but vegan and gluten-free too!) Here I used a combination of maple syrup and another sweetener I didn’t even mention above: dates! Date puree (made from soaking dates in hot water and then pureeing in a food processor) provides not only sweetness and obvious nutrition, but contributes to the soft, chewy texture desirable in brownies and cookies. Also note that instead of oil, I used a combination of applesauce and pumpkin to provide the necessary moisture. These natural fruit and vegetable options provide some sweetness too. Decadently rich and fudgy, these brownies are some of my favorite baked goods to date (no pun intended.)
Lastly, here is an example where stevia did work perfectly well on its own. That chocolate-covered dream you see is a a Chocolate Raspberry Macaroon Tart I created for Clean Eating Magazine. There you have it: another resource to support your new clean eating lifestyle, and one to which I’m proud to be a regular contributor. I served this tart at a big family party last spring, and the only complaint was that I didn’t bring a second one as well.
I hope that with these ideas, you’re able to stay on track and feel good about what you’re eating!
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