On my quest to tweak every part of your diet for the better, to improve the quantity and quality of your years on this planet, it is time to tackle sweeteners! It is probably no surprise that there are neurons in your brain that are programmed to be highly stimulated by the taste of sweet compounds, evident in everything from breast milk to a perfectly ripe peach. While this may have been helpful when humans needed to forage for food, in today’s environment, those neurons are hyper-stimulated by the large amounts of refined sweeteners in nearly all processed products, from ketchup to cough syrup. Many Americans are so hooked on this super sweet sensation, that their health is paying dearly. The blood sugar roller coaster ride created by these low fiber, concentrated sweets can all but take over, leaving little room for healthful food choices and significantly contributing to extra weight, as you take another bite or two or three, hoping it will satisfy you. Although it may sound bleak, with most sweets falling into the discretionary calorie “wasteland”, do you think that I can find a sweetener that is actually good for you? Yes!
To get you the most nutrient bang for your calorie buck, the most antioxidants for every sweet bite, the clear winner, head and shoulders above the rest, is…dates! Dates?! Those brown wrinkly things on my grandparents’ dried fruit plates? Yes, these are your grandmother’s dates, but they are also beginning to get the respect that they deserve! One of the reasons why dates are so much better for us than conventional, refined sweeteners like white sugar, brown sugar, and even agave nectar, is that they are the whole food, the fruit of a date palm, so the phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber are all intact. So, how much more antioxidants will dates provide? Well, agave, granulated sugar and corn syrup all scored 2 on the antioxidant scale, and date sugar scored a whopping 1300! Dates also provide fifteen minerals and six vitamins, with the Hallawi variety being the most nutrient dense. Although dates are 80% sugar by weight, research showed that they did not negatively impact blood sugar levels or body weight. They were even described by a researcher as “an almost ideal food,” since eating them resulted in lower blood triglycerides and antioxidant stress levels!
While these delectable treats may look a bit odd, dates can taste like caramel and turn out to be quite versatile in the kitchen! My running friends know that I look forward to my very portable, mid-run snack of dates stuffed with a few almonds. I have also toasted a few pecans and slid them into a Medjool date with a dusting of cocoa powder for a turtle-like experience! I make a delicious topping for fruit crisps by combining pitted dates with oats, cinnamon, nuts and a splash of water in the food processor. I have also started making a weekly batch of date syrup (recipe below) for the fridge, so my family can use it in place of maple syrup, which provides 4 times the calories and costs 4 times more! I bought date sugar, which I have used in a variety of recipes, from oatmeal cookies and brownies to multi-grain spiced pancakes, with much success! Date sugar is made from dried and pulverized dates, with nothing else added. Since it is about ~70% as sweet as sugar, and tends to act as a thickener, you will need to experiment when substituting for white or brown sugar, adding a bit more liquid to your recipes, as needed. I have enjoyed it mixed with my pumpkin pie spice (recipe in last month’s article) and sprinkled on a baked sweet potato. I store a quart sized zip-top bag of dates and an opened bag of date sugar in my fridge, with a larger bag of dates in the freezer, where they will be great for up to a year. While the pits can be removed very easily, you can also find dates already pitted. I still coarsely chop them before adding to my blender or food processor, just to make sure that I don’t miss a pit. Get creative and begin using dates to replace other sweeteners in your favorite recipes!
TNP’s Date Syrup (makes a little more than 2 cups)
10 pitted (Medjool) dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups of water
1/2 tsp of vanilla (or extract of your choice, using more to taste)
3/4 tsp of cinnamon
Combine ingredients in a powerful blender until very smooth, adding more water until the desired thickness is achieved. We like our syrup a bit thick, as it is easier to keep in the shallow nooks and crannies of our homemade waffles! Store in a squeeze bottle in the fridge and give it a shake before using. If the dates you use are a bit hard, let the ingredients sit in the blender for 15-30 minutes so the dates can soften before blending.
Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College, conducts corporate wellness work, and has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV. To learn ways to include Timaree’s Date Syrup, and many more wonderful recipes, in all types of delicious meals, get a copy of her cookbook – The Foodie BarTM Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy. at www.FoodieBars.com If you missed any of her newspaper columns or TV appearances, you can find them at http://www.
Her article was published in the Lodi News Sentinel, titled: “From snacks to syrup, try using dates for a healthier sugar alternative“