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Gimme Some Sugar

My name is monica and I am powerless over cupcakes. I am also a nutritionist who spends a lot of time cajoling people to rein in their sugar intake. Given what I know about the stuff, you’d think it would be easy for me to kick the habit.  It’s not.

My unrepentant sweet tooth makes me easy prey for whatever new zero-calorie sweetener promises to be The One. Over the years, pink packets have given way to blue, yellow, green and now peach. With each new hue, the same hue and cry:  “Use it exactly the way you use regular sugar!” “Substitute cup for cup in your favorite recipes.” “You can’t tell the difference!”
My friend, these are lies.

Artificial sweeteners do not taste like real sugar. If you can live with the brain-numbing sweetness and weird aftertaste, they’re tolerable in coffee, iced tea or soft drinks. And, when combined with enough gels, gums and emulsifiers, you can produce a facsimile of ice cream or pudding.

But forget about baking with artificial sweeteners. One morning, I substitute Splenda for sugar in my favorite bran muffin recipe and get muffins that look like piles of pencil shavings. Another day, I try making brownies with Erythritol. They look promising when they come out of the oven but harden into tooth-shattering bricks within minutes.

Here’s the thing: Beyond making food sweet, sugar molecules bind ingredients together, create pockets where air collects, keep moisture from evaporating and react with heat and proteins to brown foods. Because fake sweeteners contain no actual sugar, they can’t do any of these things. Which means most sugar-free baking projects are dead on arrival.

That’s why I’ve come to view my daily sugar budget (no more than 50 grams or about 12 teaspoons’ worth) the way some people think about clothes. You can fill your closet with cheap but uninspiring things or you can invest in a few fabulous pieces. Rather than stock the cupboard with reduced-sugar fakes, I’d rather save my allowance for one authentically decadent treat. (Current fave: the ice cream sundae at Tapas Teatro, topped with housemade nut toffee and sherry.)

Best Fruit and Nut Bars

Makes 12 bars

½ cup whole flaxseed (or 2/3 cup ground flax)
½ cup peanut butter
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup water
2/3 cup dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, chopped apricots, etc.)
2/3 cup nuts or seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, chopped almonds, etc.)
Pinch salt (two pinches if peanut butter is unsalted)

1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Grind whole flax seed in a coffee or spice grinder. Combine with peanut butter, honey, salt and water in large bowl and stir to combine.
3. Add dried fruits, nuts and seeds in whatever combination you like.  Batter will be very stiff.
4. Spray 12 cup muffin tin with nonstick spray and divide batter evenly into cups. Use damp fingers to press batter into cups and flatten tops.
5. Bake 25 to 30 minutes until tops are dry and edges are a deep, toasty brown. (Bars will not rise.)  Cool completely and store in air-tight container for up to two weeks.

Nutrition information (per bar): Calories 200, Carbohydrates 19g, Fiber 4g, Sugar 13g, Protein 6g, Fat 12g.

Recipe from Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About (St Martins Press, 2011)

Monica Reinagel is a Baltimore-based licensed nutritionist and creator of the award-winning Nutrition Diva podcast. Find her on Facebook or Twitter @nutritiondiva.

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