Taste and smell are two of our senses that have the power to unearth our memories and emotions in remarkable detail, even decades later. The neural pathways for taste, smell and memory all reside together in our limbic system, known as our “primitive brain”, where we feel our emotions. Whether it’s grandma’s desserts, or a comfort food we enjoyed on sick days from school, we all have foods that permeate our bodies with sensory AND emotional delight. In recreating these special recipes for our children, we pass on traditions, family recipes and most importantly, memories that they will live to enjoy well after they have families of their own. As health-conscious parents, we may struggle with deciding how and when to give our kids baked treats. With slight modifications to favorite recipes, we can make them more nutritionally dense and anti-inflammatory treats for everyone in the family to enjoy.
There are nutritionally dense sweeteners that we can sub in traditional recipes. Often, I find that a less than 1:1 substitution works beautifully. Once people convert to natural sugars, many people note that dessert recipes are often “too sweet” and prefer the fuller flavor of natural sweeteners. They often also find that their energy levels are sustained, instead of experiencing the typical crash that many experience with refined sugar. It make take a couple of attempts to find the perfect substitution in favorite recipes. My secret is to look for examples of similar “refined sugar free” recipes online if I’m feeling particularly intimidated. (Some of my favorite recipe sources are Detoxtinista, Chocolate Covered Katie and Wellness Mama.)
Maple syrup contains micronutrients such as manganese, zinc, riboflavin and antioxidants. This is a much healthier option, considering that refined sugar contains zero micronutrients and often depletes our micronutrients as our body attempts to metabolize it.
Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct produced during the refining process of sugar. It is a low glycemic sweetener that contains high levels of B6, calcium, magnesium, and iron. It provides a hearty flavor and can be blended with other sweeteners. It’s especially helpful for infants under one who cannot have honey as well as for toddlers, who tend to have lower blood stores of iron, especially if they’re breastfed. Iron, B6 and magnesium are nutrients that are required for red blood cell production and helpful in cases of anemia.
Honey in it’s 100% raw form is an excellent option for anyone over the age of 1. You’ll want to make sure to purchase cold-pressed honey, so that the bioactive anti-microbial and anti-oxidant compounds are preserved. Local honey is known to help promote tolerance of allergies, which can be very helpful for children with a family history of allergies.
Whole fruit is my favorite option for sweetening foods! Dried figs, raisins, dates and ripe bananas are nutrient dense and high fiber options that also add a boost of flavor to baked goods and puddings. Dates and figs often provide a softer chewy texture. Bananas provide hydration and moisture to recipes. Apple sauce and bananas in combination are often a good way to make very moist and naturally sweetened cakes and muffins.
Sucanat, like molasses, is derived from the sugar cane plant and retains many of it’s micronutrients including potassium, iron, calcium and B6. It can be substituted 1:1 for many recipes without noticing a difference.
A note on calorie-free “natural” sweeteners such as stevia, erythritol and monkfruit
I am very wary of zero-calorie sweeteners, even if they’re often reputed as a “health food” and sold in supplement sections of stores. As consumers in the U.S., it’s important for us to research the safety of food products for ourselves because it is very common for the FDA to approve foods that are known to cause harm as safe for human consumption (ex: pesticides, sucralose, artificial food colorings, etc.)
In the case of sweeteners, our bodies have developed under evolutionary pressures where sweet foods are associated with quickly metabolized sugar and good sources of calories. The moment our body tastes a sweet flavor, it releases a cascade of neurotransmitters and digestive hormones and enzymes that cause us to digest, absorb and process sugar. There is mounting concern that these zero-calorie “natural” sweeteners may actually lead to increased sugar cravings, fat storage, and other metabolic derangements because the body is still responding to the sweet flavors as if they contain calories. They may also be tied to increased cravings for sweet foods because satiety hormones that are responsible for feeling satisfied after meals are not being released at levels they would normally be, if we were consuming calories and sugar associated with sweet flavors. In a nutshell, growing evidence is starting to suspect that natural calorie free sweeteners may be leading to weight gain, diabetes and other metabolic problems in an indirect way.
Traditionally, stevia has been used as a form of contraception and has been found to impact fertility1, 2. While the whole herb form of stevia does have medicinal properties including combating Lyme disease and tumor cells, the heavily processed over the counter form sold in the USA has very little herbal benefits.
Erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol
Erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol and other sugar alcohols are often used in ketogenic, paleo and other low-carb recipes. The sugar alcohols provide a sweet flavor and are not absorbed by our bodies and instead pass through the gut. They are often associated with gas, bloating and abdominal pain and can cause issues for people with gastrointestinal disorders. These sugar alcohols run the same risk of wreaking havoc on our metabolic systems due to the ways these substances interact with our taste receptors and lead to a cascade of hormonal and neurotransmitter changes.
When you’re consuming baked goods that contain natural sugars, you can enjoy the sweet flavor, stimulate satiety centers in your body and enjoy healthier levels of energy and nutrition over the course of your day.
Stay tuned for Wholesome Baking with Kiddos part II: Alternative Flours are a Must!
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