The dessert book I'm working on is for a macrobiotic community I write for in Croatia, so there are certain criteria: no dairy products, refined sugar or processed ingredients, and of course the recipes need to use ingredients that are readily available there.

When it comes to desserts, "decadent and healthy" may seem like an oxymoron, but I like to prove otherwise. The first time I cooked for one of my actor clients who had a lot of food sensitivities, he called me up late at night as he was about to tuck into a slice of the chocolate berry mousse cake I had left for him and asked, "Aine, is this dessert healthy?" I assured him that it was dairy-free, refined sugar-free and wheat-free, and he responded, "I could eat healthy!" It was quite a revelation for him, and most people are quite surprised to realize how good dessert can be without all the sugar, butter and cream we normally associate with sweet treats.

Sugar is at the root of many of our modern-day health issues. Diabetes is the obvious one that springs to mind, with childhood diabetes becoming so much more prevalent these days. The average American consumes from 1/4 to 1/2 pound of sugar each day—that's anywhere from 30 to 60 teaspoons! Perhaps you're not spooning sugar into your tea or sprinkling it on your food, but if you read labels, there's some form of sugar in almost everything you eat.

Sugar comes in many guises. If it ends in "-ose," it's a form of sugar: glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose and dextrose are all forms of simple sugar, as are high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, Demerara sugar, raw sugar and Turbinado sugar. They're just processed in different ways, but they have similar effects on the body.

All carbohydrates in the body eventually turn to sugar at varying speeds, depending on their structure. Carbohydrates are classified as being complex, as found in whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables, or simple, which includes sugar, honey and maple syrup. The Glycemic Index is a scale used to indicate how fast a particular food is converted to sugar and raises our blood glucose (blood sugar) level.

Sugars are the body's source of energy, but for optimum health, it's important to consume carbohydrates that turn into sugar more slowly to keep our blood sugar levels stable. Concentrate on eating foods—even desserts—that are higher in fiber, because, in general, a food that's high in fiber will take longer to digest, resulting in a slower rise in blood sugar levels and more consistent energy.

Of course, sugar is a big subject, so I'm just brushing on it here. A book I thoroughly recommend for more information on sugar and its effects on the body is Sugar Blues by William Dufty.

See what you can use instead of sugar to create healthier desserts


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