Illustration by Becca Clason for The Washington Post; animation by Susana Sanchez-Young/ The Washington Post
If you are thinking you should be cutting back on sugar, you are probably right. The average American eats the equivalent of about 20 teaspoons of it each day — a lot more than the cap of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men recommended by the American Heart Association , and nearly double the 12 teaspoons a day proposed by the FDA last week as the Daily Value for added sugars on nutrition facts labels.
And if sugar’s adding empty calories and spiking our blood glucose weren’t bad enough, an eye-opening study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed how dangerous it can be for your heart. According to the study, people who typically ate slightly more sugar than the typical American had a whopping 38 percent greater risk of dying from a heart attack than those who ate half that.
To be clear, the sugar that matters here is added sugar — not just the stuff you put in your coffee or bake into a cake, but the sugar added to most packaged foods, even those you don’t typically think of as sweet, such as salad dressings, soups, breads and crackers. It comes in dozens of forms: white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave, molasses, raw sugar, coconut sugar, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, malt syrup, and more. Although some of these may be less refined than others and offer a smattering of beneficial antioxidants and minerals, they all count as added sugar.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to start avoiding healthful foods such as whole fruit and dairy because of the sugars they inherently contain. The sugar in these foods is naturally “bundled” with a bounty of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients so, as a whole, they have a tremendous protective effect on our health. Plus, you can take advantage of fruit’s natural sweetness by incorporating it into foods and drinks to help you cut back on the refined stuff. Here are some of my tried-and-true fruity sweet-tooth satisfiers.
Next time you find yourself with a bunch of bananas that are too ripe for eating, don’t toss them! Instead, peel them, break them into pieces, pop them into a bag and freeze them. Frozen bananas transform smoothies, making them thick and frothy, and contribute enough sweetness that you won’t need any added sugar. Uber-ripe bananas can also be mashed and added to pancake, muffin or quick bread batter for sweetness and moisture.
There are dozens of ways to make the most of mangoes’ juicy sweetness. Buy them fresh and cut them yourself, and/or keep packages of frozen, unsweetened mango chunk on hand. Like banana, you can add it straight from the freezer to smoothies for a gloriously colorful sweetness. If you are craving a dessert, blend frozen mango with a little milk or coconut milk to make an instant sorbet or sherbet. And use a couple of tablespoons of pureed mango to sweeten salad dressings, marinades or barbecue sauces.
Dried fruit, such as dates, figs, prunes and raisins, tastes like candy but is packed with antioxidants, fiber and minerals. Of course, you can simply eat it au naturel, but that is just scratching the surface of the possibilities. Dried fruit makes a great base for a trufflelike confection: Put dried fruit in a food processor with some nuts and dessert-y spices such as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Then, because of the fruit’s natural stickiness, you can easily roll the mix into balls and coat them in chopped nuts, shredded coconut or cocoa powder. Also, try pureeing dried fruit with a little water to stir into oatmeal or to add to pancake batter, muffins and quick breads. Dried fruit, too, can be added to smoothies to eliminate the need for extra sugar.
Whole fruit trumps juice when it comes to healthfulness, because juice lacks fiber and it is easy to drink too much of it. But juice is nutrient-rich, and in small amounts can be a helpful tool for cutting back on added sugar. For example, you can use a little orange, grape or apple juice instead of sugar to sweeten salad dressings, and if your tomato sauce tastes a bit bland, a splash of orange juice can work wonders.
A little juice could also help you cut back on the single biggest source of sugar in the American diet: sugar-sweetened drinks. If you crave a tastier option than plain water, instead of grabbing a soft drink, add a splash of 100 percent fruit juice to some sparkling water. It’s a small change that could make a big difference.
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