July 2011 Issue

Born to Sweeten — Whole Foods Naturally Flavor Dishes and Boost Their Nutrient Value
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 7 P. 32

Americans can reduce their intake of added sugars by turning to bananas, berries, cinnamon, and other fruits and spices to enhance recipes.

Thanks to the success of a little book written by William Dufty in 1975 called Sugar Blues, in which the author railed against the “evils” of eating sugar, my mother joined the then-swelling movement to eliminate white sugar from our family’s cupboards. She tried sweetening cakes and cookies with everything from applesauce to bananas, as was fashionable at the time.

The antisugar revolution seemed to lose traction over subsequent decades and was replaced by the more popular attitude that sugar is sugar (and a carb is a carb), regardless of whether it comes from fruit or the sugar bowl.

But the pendulum is swinging back as refined sugars take the heat again. And now there’s more reason than ever to dial up the sweetening power of whole foods in the kitchen.

Calls to Cut Back on Added Sugars
Sugar is the subject of much recent debate and the oft-asked question, “How much is too much?” The American Heart Association (AHA) answered this question in a 2009 scientific statement that provided guidelines on restricting added sugars to help prevent obesity and cardiovascular disease. According to the AHA statement, evidence links excessive sugar intake with several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, the overconsumption of discretionary calories, and shortfalls in essential nutrients. It notes that the adult consumption of added sugars has been on the rise; between 1970 and 2005, the average annual availability of added sugars increased by 19%, which has added 76 kcal to Americans’ average daily energy intake. Thus, the AHA recommends an upper limit for daily added sugar intake: no more than 100 kcal for women (about 6 teaspoons) and 150 kcal (about 9 teaspoons) for men.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also addressed sugar, reporting that added sugars contribute an average of 16% of the total calories in American diets. The major sources of added sugars in Americans’ diets are sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks (36% of added sugar intake), grain-based desserts (13%), sugar-sweetened fruit drinks (10%), dairy-based desserts (6%), and candies (6%). The majority of sugars in the typical American diet are sugars added to foods during processing, preparation, or at the table, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. These added sugars include high-fructose corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, and crystal dextrose.

Since reducing the consumption of these sources of added sugars will lower the calorie content of a person’s diet without compromising its nutrient adequacy, the Dietary Guidelines highlighted reducing the intake of calories from added sugars as a key recommendation.

Whole Food Sweetener Benefits
What’s the benefit of turning to whole fruits that offer natural sweetening power? The potential glycemic advantages are still under debate. According to the Dietary Guidelines, the body’s response to sugars does not depend on whether they are naturally present in foods or whether they are added to foods. Once eaten, all types of sugars are broken down by the body to produce energy and metabolic building blocks. The American Diabetes Association’s position is that the type of carbohydrate can affect how quickly blood glucose levels rise, but the total amount of carbohydrate someone eats affects blood glucose levels more than its type.

Yet some experts stress that the body handles sugars found naturally in fruits quite differently from refined sugars. Most whole fruits, naturally rich in fiber, tend to be low in glycemic load. And foods (eg, fruit) that are high in soluble fiber are recommended as preferred sources of carbohydrate by the Diabetes and Nutrition Study Group of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes because of their ability to reduce postprandial blood glucose levels.

In a 2000 study published in Diabetes Care that followed 63 subjects with type 1 diabetes, those consuming a high-fiber diet (consisting of naturally occurring fiber in foods) after 24 weeks decreased both mean daily blood glucose concentrations and the number of hypoglycemic events compared with a low-fiber diet. Both diets were similar in macronutrient spread, except the low-fiber diet was limited to 15 g of fiber per day and the high-fiber diet included 50 g of fiber per day from one serving of legumes, three servings of high-fiber fruit, and two servings of high-fiber vegetables.

Looking beyond glycemic response, there’s little disagreement about one benefit of choosing whole food sweeteners over added sugars: Sugars that occur naturally in foods are part of the food’s total nutrient package, as stressed in the Dietary Guidelines. “As we know, sucrose adds calories and nothing else. Fruit provides a whole host of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and various antioxidants. These are nutrients that are in short supply in this country,” says Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RD, a Chicago-area nutrition consultant.

Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD, coauthor of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous! calls naturally sweet plant foods “‘sweeteners with benefits’ since they add sweet taste to foods and contribute fiber, minerals, and, in the case of berries and other fresh fruit, vitamins too.”

By using whole fruits to sweeten foods, people can also help meet that elusive recommended number of fruit and vegetable servings, linked with a plethora of health benefits. And they shouldn’t forget about the health-protective effects of polyphenols found in a wide variety of whole fruits.

A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition led by Britt Burton-Freeman, PhD, director of nutrition and health-promoting foods at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Illinois, discovered just how powerful a serving of fruit can be. Twenty-four hyperlipidemic men and women participated in this randomized, single-blind, placebo-controlled, 12-week crossover trial. Subjects consumed either a strawberry beverage containing 10 g of freeze-dried fruit or a placebo beverage matched in energy and macronutrient composition for six weeks. Twice before randomization and once at the six-week crossover point, the subjects received either the strawberry drink or placebo with a high-fat challenge meal. After the high-fat meal, during the run-in period, triglyceride and oxidized LDL levels were lower after the strawberry drink compared with placebo, and the high-fat meal responses after six weeks of strawberry drink vs. placebo resulted in decreased lipid and oxidized LDL levels. Burton-Freeman’s team concluded that strawberry mitigated the fed-state oxidative stressors that can contribute to atherogenesis.

“Replacing white sugar sweet calories with berry sweet calories is a win. Berries, particularly strawberries, as we have studied, can offer advantages in helping people stay in oxidative and immune balance,” explains Burton-Freeman. “That [means] strawberries have been shown to protect LDL from oxidation after a meal as well as reduce inflammation response that can occur after a high-simple sugar or -fat meal. Depending on how many calories you are talking about cutting, you can reduce oxidative stress and inflammatory burden with reduced calories. However, with reducing calories, you won’t get the healthful nutrients, appetite satisfaction, or overall eating pleasure you’d get with consuming berries.”

Taking It to the Kitchen
While most nutrition experts believe sugar shouldn’t be demonized and that consumers can fit a modest amount into a balanced diet, evidence does suggest that Americans would benefit from reducing their intake of added sugars. People can naturally sweeten many of their favorite foods—from pancakes and cereals to cookies and cakes—with whole foods. This strategy can help people not only incorporate important foods and nutrients into their diet but also meet the AHA’s suggested guidelines for added sugars.

Suggest clients and patients try these expert tips for making the most of the naturally sweet power of whole foods:

Stir in applesauce. Rely on the naturally sweet moistness of applesauce to flavor many dishes. While it’s a cinch to add applesauce instead of sugar to hot cereal, it’s a little more complicated trying to replace sugar in baked goods such as cakes and cookies. Try replacing one half of the required sugar with applesauce and cutting out 1/4 cup of the liquid in your favorite recipe. (This strategy can also be used with puréed prunes or other fruit and mashed bananas.)

Skip the sugar in pies and cobblers. Let the ripe fruit flavor shine through by skipping the added sugar altogether for subtly sweet yet tart fruit desserts.

Try an oatmeal-fruit combo. There’s no need to sweeten oatmeal with sugar when fruit can do the job. “Cook up oatmeal with sliced bananas, raisins, or dates to make the cereal very sweet and thicker so that you don’t need added sugar,” suggests Barbara Storper, MS, RD, founder and executive director of FoodPlay Productions.

Sweeten vegetables and grains naturally. Sugar often lurks in nondessert foods such as glazed vegetables and sauces. O’Neil suggests adding golden raisins plumped in orange juice to sautéed carrots in place of a sugar glaze or adding golden raisins to rice, quinoa, or couscous for natural sweetness, flavor, and fiber.

Get mashing with bananas. Mashed bananas contribute naturally sweet, flavorful goodness to many baked desserts, such as quick breads, waffles, pancakes, muffins, cakes, and cookies. Find a recipe that’s already designed to let bananas do their job, or experiment with your favorite recipe by following our instructions for applesauce.

Add a sweet touch with berries. Naturally sweet berries, including blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries—fresh, frozen, or dried—can add a sweet touch to just about anything. Skip sweetened yogurts and stir berries into plain yogurt, add them to breakfast cereals, and mash them into iced tea as a refreshing beverage sans sugar.

Whip up prunes. Get out your blender and purée prunes to add natural sweetness and nutritional power to baked goods in place of sugar, suggests O’Neil. Search for recipes that include prune purée as the sweetener, or follow the same instructions for applesauce.

Don’t forget about dates. Don’t underestimate the sweetening power of dates, which can be chopped into cookies, pies, and cakes to add natural sweetness and allow you to cut down on the sugar in the recipe. Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a vegetarian food expert and author, uses dates to sweeten blended salad dressings, sweet potato pie, and strawberry and rhubarb sauce, which she serves with light desserts. “I have used other dried fruit, combined with dates, for a crust for pies, raw or cooked,” she adds.

Consider the power of dried fruit. Who says you can’t rely on the naturally sweet power of unsweetened dried fruit? “Dried fruits provide natural sweetness to a variety of recipes. In some cases, you can replace added sugar; and in other cases, you can enhance the natural sweetness of foods,” says Palumbo. Dried fruit can enhance the flavors in a wide variety of foods, such as Middle Eastern or Mediterranean entrées and side dishes, salads, cereals, baked goods, puddings, and yogurts. In particular, Palumbo suggests making your own natural trail mix by combining unsweetened raisins and dried fruit such as apricots, berries, and cherries with unsalted nuts for a nutrient-rich snack that will satisfy your sugar cravings.

Spice it up! Don’t forget the taste sensation of spices that “create a sense of sweetness without added sugar,” according to Mandy Rother, RD, LDN, healthy living coordinator for Weis Markets in Pennsylvania. Rother suggests using ground cinnamon in coffee, tea, applesauce, and oatmeal to replace sugar and add powerful antioxidants.

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.


Whole Food Sweetening Stars

This table features a sampling of fruits that contribute easy sweetening power and an added nutrition bonus to recipes.




Notable Nutrients

Applesauce, unsweetened

1 cup (244 g)


3 g (11% DV) fiber, 2.4 mg (4% DV) vitamin C, 0.1 mg (4% DV) thiamin, 0.1 mg (4% DV) riboflavin, 0.6 mg (3% DV) iron, 181 mg (5% DV) potassium, phenolic compounds such as quercetin

Banana, fresh

1 small (101 g)


3 g (11% DV) fiber, 8.8 mg (15% DV) vitamin C, 0.4 mg (19% DV) vitamin B6, 20.2 mcg (5% DV) folate, 362 mg (10% DV) potassium, 0.3 mg (14% DV) manganese, phenolic compounds such as catechins and epicatechins

Dates, Medjool

1 (24 g)


2 g (6% DV) fiber, 167 mg (5% DV) potassium, 0.1 mg (4% DV) copper, 0.1 mg (4% DV) manganese

Raisins, seedless

1.5 oz (43 g)


2 g (6% DV) fiber, 0.8 mg (4% DV) iron, 322 mg (9% DV) potassium, 0.1 mg (7% DV) copper, 0.1 mg (6% DV) manganese, phenolic compounds such as catechins and epicatechins

Strawberries, fresh, sliced

1 cup (166 g)


3 g (13% DV) fiber, 97.6 mg (163% DV) vitamin C, 3.7 mcg  (5% DV) vitamin K, 39.8 mcg (10% DV) folate, 0.7 mg (4% DV) iron, 254 mg (7% DV) potassium, 0.6 mg (32% DV) manganese, phenolic compounds such as anthocyanins and ellagitannins

— Source: Self Nutrition Data. Available at: http://nutritiondata.self.com


This collection of recipes features the sweetening power of whole fruits, which can either replace or reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe.

Date Cheese Cake
Recipe courtesy of California Dates

Makes 16 servings

15 graham crackers, crushed
2 T butter, melted
4 (8 oz) packages fat-free cream cheese
3/4 cup low-fat milk
4 eggs
1 cup fat-free sour cream
1 T vanilla extract
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup diced dates

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Spray a 9-inch spring-form pan with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs with melted butter. Press onto bottom of pan.

In a large bowl, mix cream cheese until smooth. Blend in milk, and then mix in eggs one at a time, mixing just enough to incorporate. Mix in sour cream, vanilla, and flour until smooth.

Pour filling into prepared crust. Add dates to the mixture, making sure they are spread evenly. Bake in oven for one hour.

Turn oven off and let cake cool in oven with the door closed for five to six hours to prevent cracking.

Chill in refrigerator until serving.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 176
Protein: 12 g
Fat: 4 g
Saturated fat: 2 g
Cholesterol: 68 mg
Carbohydrate: 24 g
Sodium: 462 mg
Fiber: 1 g


Breakfast Quinoa With Cherries, Walnuts, and Honey
Recipe courtesy of the Cherry Marketing Institute

Makes 4 servings

1 1/3 cups quinoa
2 2/3 cups water
1 small golden delicious apple, unpeeled, cored, and cut into chunks
1/4 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 T honey, plus more for serving
1/2 cup 1% low-fat milk, plus more for serving
4 tsp unsalted butter (optional)

Pour quinoa into a fine mesh strainer and rinse with tap water. Transfer rinsed quinoa to a saucepan filled with 2 2/3 cups water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Add apples and cherries and continue to cook over a low heat, covered, until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes more.

Meanwhile, toast walnuts in a dry skillet over a medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until they are fragrant, about 2 minutes. Allow them to cool, and then coarsely chop.
When quinoa is cooked, stir in cinnamon, honey, and milk and cook for 1 minute more, until milk is heated through.

Place in serving bowls and top with walnuts and butter, if using. Serve with additional honey and milk to taste.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 430
Total fat: 17 g
Sat fat: 4 g
Trans fat: 0 g
Carbohydrate: 61 g
Cholesterol: 10 mg
Protein: 11 g
Fiber: 5 g
Sodium: 35 mg


Cherry Pecan Energy Bars
Recipe courtesy of the Cherry Marketing Institute

Makes 12 bars

Cooking spray
1 cup quick-cooking oats
3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour or regular whole wheat flour
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large egg, beaten to mix
1 large egg white
3/4 cup chopped dried cherries
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup “fruit only” apricot preserves

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, whisk together oats, flour, wheat germ, cinnamon, and salt.

In another bowl, whisk together honey, applesauce, canola oil, egg, and egg white until well combined. Stir in oatmeal mixture until well combined. Add dried cherries and pecans.

Spread mixture into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, scoop preserves into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

As soon as bars come out of the oven, brush with preserves. Cool completely and cut into 12 bars, about 4 X 1 1/2 inches each.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 230
Total fat: 10 g
Sat fat: 1 g
Trans fat: 0 g
Carbohydrate: 34 g
Cholesterol: 20 mg
Protein: 4 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sodium: 60 mg


California Autumn Fruitcake
Recipe courtesy of California Raisins

Yields 1 loaf (3 lbs), about 15 slices

1 envelope active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
3/4 cup honey, divided
1 cup canned solid pack pumpkin
1/3 cup orange juice
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cardamom
3/4 cup chopped dates
2 cups California raisins
3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 tsp grated orange rind

Sprinkle yeast over warm water (110˚F to 115˚F) in a large mixing bowl; stir until dissolved. Stir in 1 tsp honey and let stand until foamy.

Meanwhile, combine remaining honey and pumpkin in a small saucepan; heat until just warm (110˚F to 115˚F), not hot. Stir pumpkin mixture and orange juice into yeast. Add flours, oats, salt, and cardamom; beat well (50 strokes by hand). Stir in fruits, nuts, and orange rind. Spoon into greased 8- X 4- X 2-inch loaf pan. Cover and let stand in warm place for 30 minutes or until nearly doubled in bulk.

Bake at 300˚F for 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool completely on wire rack.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 260
Total fat: 4 g
Sat fat: 0 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Protein: 5 g
Carbohydrate: 54 g
Fiber: 5 g
Sodium: 160 mg


Chewy Raisin Squares
Recipe courtesy of California Raisins

Makes 16

2 cups California raisins
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup low-fat milk
1/4 cup honey
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Spray 8- X 8-inch baking pan with cooking spray; set aside.

Measure raisins into 1-qt microwaveable bowl or 4-cup glass measuring cup; add just enough water to cover. Microwave on high for 7 to 8 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

Combine canola oil, milk, and honey in a small bowl; mix well and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, wheat germ, oatmeal, and baking soda until well mixed. Add liquids all at once and stir until well blended. Divide into two parts, one slightly larger than the other. With dampened or well-oiled fingers, spread larger half evenly over bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle raisins evenly on top and crumble remaining dough over all.

Bake at 350˚F for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

While still hot, cut into 16 pieces; cool completely before removing from pan.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 160
Total fat: 4.5 g
Sat fat: 0 g
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Protein: 3 g
Carbohydrate: 29 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sodium: 45 mg


Dried Blueberry & Spice Swirl Bread
Recipe courtesy of Mariani

Yields 2 loaves (32 slices)

4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
2 packages active dry yeast
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup light molasses
2 T oil
1 egg
2 T margarine, melted
3 T sugar
1 1/2 T cinnamon
1 1/2 cups dried Mariani Wild Blueberries (8 oz)

In a large bowl, stir together 1 cup flour, oats, dry milk, yeast, and salt; set aside.

Heat water, molasses, and oil until very warm, 120˚F to 130˚F. Pour warm liquid over flour-yeast mixture in large bowl. Add egg and beat with an electric mixer on low speed for 3 minutes. By hand, stir in 3 cups of flour. When dough can be handled, remove from bowl and knead with hands for 5 to 7 minutes, incorporating the remaining cup of flour if needed, until dough is firm yet smooth. Place in a greased bowl, cover with greased waxed paper, and let rest in a warm, humid place free from drafts until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Thoroughly grease two 81/2- X 41/2-inch loaf pans; set aside.

Punch down dough and divide in half. Roll each half into a rectangle, 8 X 16 inches. Brush each half with melted butter. Combine sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over halves. Sprinkle Mariani dried blueberries evenly over the cinnamon mixture. Starting at the short end, roll each half tightly. With the seam sides down, place in prepared pans. Cover with greased waxed paper and let rest in a warm, humid place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Bake in oven preheated to 375˚F for 40 to 45 minutes or until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove bread from pans and allow to cool on wire racks.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 slice)
Calories: 125
Protein: 3 g
Fat: 2 g
Cholesterol: 5 mg
Sodium: 161 mg
Carbohydrate: 25 g
Fiber: 1 g


Mango Banana Bread
Recipe courtesy of Mariani

Makes one loaf (16 slices)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup Mariani Philippine or regular Mango, diced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 325˚F.
Sift together the first four ingredients and set aside. Cream oil and sugar. Add eggs and bananas; blend. Stir in flour mixture; mix gently until blended. Fold in mango and walnuts, if using.

Pour batter into greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour or until done.

Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 slice)
Calories: 162
Protein: 3 g
Fat: 5 g
Cholesterol: 21 mg
Sodium: 186 mg
Carbohydrate: 26 g
Fiber: 1 g