The nutritional landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. For decades, fat was the sworn enemy of the health conscious. Not anymore. Sugar is public health enemy number one, and viewed as more pure, white and deadly than ever before, being strong implicated in the deadly trio of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
The sticking point here of course is that we do rather like our sweet treats, and with the exception of the most hard-line health eccentrics, the idea of completely foregoing all things sweet for the rest of ever is just too punishing to contemplate.
Our fear of refined sugars has paved the way for a whole new generation of more “natural” forms of sugar, such as agave, maple syrup, honey, molasses, coconut sugar and so on. Whilst some of these should be treated with grave caution (for example, agave is very high in fructose, probably the most damaging of all sugars when consumed in excess), others have some small advantages when compared with normal sugar, due to being generally less heavily processed and refined. For example, coconut sugar contains small amounts of nutrients, including inulin (a prebiotic that feeds our friendly bacteria). But the bottom line with all of these new age sweeteners is that they are still virtually pure sugar, and not that discernibly different to standard sugar, thus should be seen as a treat, not a staple.
But is there a way to have your cake and eat it? One sweet ingredient that deserves a mention is dates. The fact that they contain a staggering 66 per cent sugar sure doesn’t bode well for their health credentials. But their saving grace comes in the form of polyphenols. Dates are in fact brimming with these health promoting natural plant compounds, to the extent that they seem to mitigate the damaging effects of all that sugar. Eaten in moderation, research shows that dates actually have no real noticeable blood-sugar raising effects and contrary to refined sugar are even linked to having less diabetes and heart disease.
Unlike a lot of the new-fangled ‘natural’ sugars that abound, the date palm is one of the oldest trees cultivated by man, and dates have served as a staple food for millions of people around the world for several centuries. In addition to their rich polyphenol content, dates are blessed with a host of essential minerals including copper, magnesium and potassium, B-vitamins, and vitamin C, and high in fibre. It’s quite an exciting nutritional package, so much so that some researchers even refer to them as a “medicinal food”.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to be eating them by the bag full, and moderation is the order of the day. But the fact that they are really versatile in home-baking, such as Sticky Toffee Pudding just goes to show that really can be such a thing as a guilt-free treat.