From agave nectar to dried fruit, alternatives to refined sugar can be just as good
Vancouver — ike the plumber with the eternally dripping faucet, cooks and chefs don’t always fix bad eating habits.
For Andrea Potter, busy 12-hour shifts as a line cook at Feenie’s led to erratic eating and, eventually, to trouble.
“I was a sugar addict. I’d wait until I got really tired and have a sugar binge,” she says. “I was hypoglycemic from eating too much processed sugar at unpredictable times. I suffered a minor health collapse.”
And for that, she’s now grateful because five years later, her life and health are totally turned around. In the restaurant industry, she saw others like her old self. “I saw a lot of burnout, mood disorders, adrenal fatigue, blood sugar issues and sometimes weight problems,” she says.
She now runs Rooted Nutrition (www.rootednutrition.wordpress.com) and is a holistic nutrition consultant and teaches holistic cooking classes. (She was the chef at Radha Yoga and Eatery until last year.) Her cooking classes boycott processed white sugar. Her only use for it is for making kombucha, a fermented health beverage where fermentation turns sugar into organic acids and pro-biotic bacterias. “You don’t get the negative effects and kombucha helps the immune system and digestion,” Potter says.
Her recent travels through China were a reminder of how other cuisines balance flavours of sweet and sour and bitter and salty through a meal. “Our meals are super salty and heavily meaty and really sweet at the end. If the dishes were more balanced, we wouldn’t crave sugar at the end,” she says. “I try to add natural sweetness in every course through root vegetables, like beets, and grains. I like fruit, especially dried fruits for the concentrated sweetness. I’ll serve apricot chutney with mushroom strudel or apple sauce with a pork chop.”
At Radha restaurant, a vegan restaurant with a wine list, chef Robert Wilson-Smith — who trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in N.Y. city — says it makes more sense to eat denser, fibrous foods at the end of a meal and desserts at the beginning. Desserts can digest and burn off first and fast, but if their digestion is slowed by meats and starches they will ferment, resulting in reflux, gas or belches. Besides, he says, a craving for sweetness at the end of a meal could be a symptom of withdrawal from too much highly refined white sugar, or of a dietary deficiency.
For sweeteners in desserts or savoury foods, both Potter and Wilson-Smith use healthier alternatives to the super-refined, nutrient-empty white sugar. They’ll turn to alternatives such as coconut sugar, molasses, maple syrup, sucunat (short for Sucre de canne natural, or cane sugar without the molasses stripped away), fresh and dried fruits and agave nectar (from the agave plant). Potter uses honey, but Wilson-Smith doesn’t, sticking to vegan principles. He does, however, use jaggery, an unrefined cane sugar with minerals and vitamins still present.
“We don’t use anything white in the kitchen,” Wilson-Smith says, “nothing bleached or highly refined.”
“I was a sugar addict. I’d wait until I got really tired and have a sugar binge. I was hypoglycemic from eating too much processed sugar at unpredictable times. I suffered a minor health collapse.” Andrea Potter
Potter says agave’s popularity dropped after initial excitement about its fructose (instead of sucrose) makeup.
“There’s been press about it damaging the liver over long-term use so it’s not viewed as the magic pill. Some companies started cutting it with corn syrup so people lost their trust,” Potter says of agave. She does, however, use it along with other whole food sweeteners.
Stevia (powdered or leaf), another natural sweetener, has a bitter edge so she’ll use it in combination with another sweetener. She’s also a big fan of coconut sugar. “It’s low-glycemic, has a rich flavour and it’s not nutrient-depleted.” Asian stores would likely carry it. As for the higher cost of processed sugar alternatives, she says: “You’re buying real food, not nutrient-deprived white sugar, which robs, not adds. White sugar is cheap and plentiful and it doesn’t have much flavour so you can put it in anything. It’s instant gratification.”
Sucunat, she says, can be used much like refined white sugar but has a molasses flavour. And when she uses molasses, she’ll combine it with another sweetener. As for maple syrup, she says “the darker it is, the more minerals it has.”
Wilson-Smith is a big fan of dates.
“It’s a whole food with fibre and minerals and when it’s pureed, it’s thick and helps to emulsify and solidify.”
Eliminating refined white sugar from recipes requires experimenting. “Mainly, be adventurous,” says Potter. “It’s uncharted territory. It’s a different kind of baking than what our moms taught us. It’s pretty much new ground.”
She’s mindful of the days before cane sugar was so readily available and when sweetness was derived from berries and roots. “So many generations have forgotten how to cook and bake with alternatives,” she says.
A characteristic of processed white sugar is its hydrophilic property, or its ability to hold moisture. “If you’re using substitutes, you might have to add moisture with fruit juices,” she says, adding she’s particularly fond of pear juice. “I’ll use pear juice in barbecue sauce instead of sugar.”
“Be open-minded,” says Wilson-Smith. “Don’t be stuck on having the same results (as conventional European baking). Expect the results to be crunchier, browner, and to have a more broad sweetness rather than a sharp sweetness. Get away from what it has to look like.”
His vegan dessert pies, for instance, are made with nut crusts, held together by the sweetness and a “mortar” of dates instead of pastry.
Potter hasn’t had much luck with alternative recipes online, she says. “A lot don’t work and I get really upset because it’s expensive.” Instead, she recommends a dependable cookbook like Whole food by Jude Blereau.
For recipes, see page B2