By Lauren Fischer
From mid-week meals to holiday treats, cooking and baking for our families provides tradition and nutrition. Unfortunately, these do not always go hand in hand. Many of our favorite recipes include refined sugars and oils that are nutrient poor and harmful to health. With a few unnoticed sugar and oil substitutions these recipes can be transformed into healthier, more nourishing meals and treats.
When preparing to bake, the first ingredient we reach for is refined white sugar. The snow-white crystals are the result of a multi-step process that strips away fiber, nutrients and color from sugar cane or sugar beets resulting in an isolated, super concentrated sugar that is not so sweet for our health.
The body requires B vitamins and minerals like chromium to metabolize sugar. However, through the refining process, all nutrients are stripped from the sugar. As a result, refined sugars require vitamins and minerals to be pulled from the body’s nutrient stores to process the sugar. Overtime or with over consumption of refined sugar, vitamins and minerals become depleted, blood sugar regulation is compromised, the immune system becomes suppressed and inflammation increases.
Luckily, nature provides whole food sources of sugar that are packed with the B vitamins and minerals necessary to process and digest sugar. Raw honey*, maple syrup, coconut sugar and dates are healthy sugar substitutes for cooking and baking.
Raw honey and organic, grade B maple syrup are antioxidant-rich additions to baked goods, dressings and sauces. Honey is a great sweetener for cooking and baking but keep in mind that it is sweeter than refined sugar. When baking with honey, Bee Maid Honey, a company owned by Canadian beekeepers, recommends using about ⅔ cup honey and ½ teaspoon of baking soda to replace 1 cup of refined sugar. You should also reduce liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup and decrease the baking temperature by 25 F.
When swapping maple syrup for refined sugar in a baking recipe, Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery + Café and author of “Baking with Less Sugar” recommends substituting 1 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar and reducing liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for every 1 cup substitution.
Coconut sugar is made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree flower and is lower on the glycemic index than refined sugar. It can be used 1:1 to replace white sugar.
Dates are an iron-rich natural sweetener. Just two to three Medjool dates add a subtle sweetness when blended into smoothies, dressing and sauces. Soaking dates in warm water prior to blending softens the tough outer skin making for a smoother finished product.
Sugars are not the only refined ingredient used in cooking that can cause health issues. Many oils are refined oils. Refined vegetable and seed oils like canola, soy and corn are classified as polyunsaturated fats because of their chemical structure. Polyunsaturates “tend to become oxidized or rancid when subject to heat, oxygen and moisture as in cooking and baking” according to “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. Oxidized or rancid oils release free radicals that can cause tissues damage throughout the body. For example, free radical damage of the skin causes wrinkles and free radical damage to blood vessels sets the stage for cardiovascular disease.
Cooking does not have to be bland to be nutritious. With a few smart swaps, you can nourish your family with the recipes you love without compromising the scrumptious tastes you have come to know and love!
*The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children less than 12 months avoid honey.