Month: August 2015

No-Bake Pumpkin Raisin Oat Bars {Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free, Nut-Free}

If you missed two of my most recent posts about the love fest I’m having with sunflower seed butter, check them out here and here.

As I’ve been mentioning, I’m super excited to be teaching a workshop called Yummy Snacks for Healthy, Happy Kids on September 16th at the Institute for Integrative Health in Baltimore. The workshop is capped at 30 people, so make sure you sign up ASAP if you want to come!

It’s going to be awesome 🙂

One of the snacks  both kids and adults eat a lot of is granola bars. This recipe puts a spin on the traditional bars because you don’t have to bake them (huge time saver!) AND they’re nut-free, so they’re school-friendly.

Bonus!

I like to test out recipes with my friends and family, so I brought my first batch of these to my church small group and they were GONE by the time we left. I had a group of moms and their kids sample them a second time, and everyone loved them. Some people had seconds (always a good sign in my book!)

Sunbutter Oat BarsSunbutter Oat bar Sunbutter Bars

Yield: 16 bars

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups gluten-free rolled oats
  • 1 cup packed Medjool dates, soft and pitted
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seed butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup raisins

Directions

  1. Optional: Preheat oven to 350F and put oats on a baking sheet for 15 minutes until lightly toasted. If you’re short on time, skip this step, but it does add an extra crunch.
  2. Put dates and water in a food processor and pulse until dates combine into a paste. You may need to stop and scrape down the sides during the process. Roll into a ball (it’ll be sticky!) and set aside.
  3. Combine sunflower seed butter, honey, vanilla, cinnamon and salt in a small saucepan on low heat on the stove and stir until combined. You can add the date paste ball to the pot so it melts a bit or just add it in at the next step.
  4. Put oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and raisins in a large bowl. Add date paste ball and sunflower butter mix to bowl and mix with your hands until everything is combined. In an 8×8 dish lined with parchment paper, press oat mixture evenly and flatten on top. Put in fridge to set about for about 30 minutes.
  5. Remove bars from dish by pulling up on parchment paper. Cut into 16 squares. Enjoy!

Sunbutter Buckeyes {Nut-Free, Gluten-Free, Paleo}

When I was a kid, I loved everything about going back to school.

From our annual trip to JC Penney to buy fall clothes (which was kind of irrelevant because we wore uniforms) to hitting up Staples for our back-to-school supplies, I was in heaven.

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I was a picky eater as a kid, so I brought some interesting lunches to school like carrot sticks, yogurt, fruit and crackers or chips, since I didn’t like sandwiches.

I know other parents struggle with feeding their kids healthy food, so I’m here to give you options for them and you!

As I’ve been gearing up for a cooking class I’m teaching about Yummy Snacks for Healthy, Happy Kids on September 16th, I’ve been doing lots of research and recipe testing to make sure the workshop and recipes are awesome. Click here to register (we’re capping the class at 30 so make sure you sign up soon!).

After finding out that a lot of schools now have peanut and tree-nut restrictions these days due to increased concerns about food allergies, I started testing out more recipes made with seeds instead of nuts.

My friend, Missy, a rock star mama of three, tried the original version of these a couple of weeks ago. She loves sunflower seeds and since they’re made with sunbutter and sunflower seeds, she was a fan.

You can leave them as sunbutter bites, and they taste great!

But, she offered one suggestion to make them irresistible to kids.

Sunbutter Buckeyes

Dip them in chocolate.

That’s how I came up with these Sunbutter Buckeyes.

All they needed was a little hint of chocolate to turn them from Bites into Buckeyes 🙂

My friend Tim and Katie’s son, 20-month old son, Jack, tried these the other day and his smile afterward was all the approval I needed!

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I’ve since taste-tested them with over a dozen moms and kids (from 18 months to 8-years old), and they were a hit.

You’ll love them, too! 🙂

sunbutter buckeyes2Sunbutter Buckeyes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, unsalted
  • 1/3 cup shredded coconut
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup Medjool dates, packed and pitted (about 10 dates)
  • 1/3 cup sunflower seed butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup Enjoy Life chocolate chips
  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil

Directions

  1. Combine pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, coconut, salt and cinnamon in a food processor until it reaches a fine meal.
  2. Add dates, sunflower seed butter, and vanilla, and run food processor until all ingredients are combined.
  3. Roll dough into tablespoon-sized balls and put on parchment paper in refrigerator to chill.
  4. Make your own double burner to melt the chips. Fill a small saucepan with 1 inch water and place a small glass bowl on top. Set the burner to medium low heat. Put chocolate chips and coconut oil in the glass bowl and stir until melted.
  5. Remove bites from fridge and dip halfway into chocolate. Set on a sheet of parchment paper and put in fridge to harden (about 10 minutes).

If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up to come to the Yummy Snacks for Healthy, Happy Kids workshop in Baltimore on Wednesday, September 16th!

I’m Nuts about Two Moms in the Raw Nut Bars! {Gluten-Free, Paleo}

As a blogger, I’ve gotten some neat opportunities to learn about certain trends and products before they hit the mainstream.

One of the most fun things I did last year was attend the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore (I’m going back this year!).

I got to meet the creators of some of my favorite products, including Brad from Brad’s Raw Foods (kale chips!), Mamma Chia herself and the maker of Hilary’s Eat Well (our go to veggie burgers…that taste great!).

expo east

Since changing my diet over the past few years to dairy-free and gluten-free, I’ve had to completely overhaul our pantry.

Over time, we’ve found new staples to use in recipes and as go-to options when we’re in a pinch and need something to hold me us between meals.

When the team at Two Moms in the Raw contacted me to review a recipe in their cookbook, I asked them about any upcoming product releases.

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Until that time, they used agave as their primary sweetener, which I’m not a huge fan of (see this post for why), so I never bought their bars.

I was excited to find out they were on the verge of launching their first line of paleo-friendly bars, sweetened with coconut nectar instead of agave. I couldn’t wait to try them!

Blueberry Bar

Let me tell you something.

These bars are delicious. 

And that’s coming from someone who’s had her share of granola-type bars over the years – from Kashi to Fiber One and Nature Valley to Special K.

Once I started paying closer attention to the ingredient lists in the food I was eating, I realized that none of those bars fit the bill. They were full of processed, non-food ingredients and were usually loaded with sugar.

I focus on getting as much of my food as possible from whole, real, food sources, and that includes convenience foods. We don’t have to lower our standards and expectations just because we’re not making them ourselves.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to find nourishing snacks on the go.

Two Moms Bars In Packages

With flavors like Gotta Getta Gojiberry, Cranberry Crush, Blueberry Burst, Charming Cherry Chocolate and Wow Cacao Nib Nut Bar, Two Moms in the Raw got creative with their newest line of nut-based bars.

Shari, the founder of Two Moms in the Raw, started making raw foods after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. She found that a natural path to wellness (including a raw food diet) worked best for her health. She couldn’t find any raw snacks that tasted good, so she made her own.

The nut bars are 100% organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, non-genetically modified, vegan, paleo, mom-made, raw and sprouted. PHEW! That means that a lot more people can enjoy snack bars like this again 🙂

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting them to taste as yummy as they do. They’re crunchy, subtly salty and just sweet enough.

In short, they’re AMAZING. You need to try these bars!

I’ve used them as a snack between meals and have taken them on hikes with me. They’re a great snack to have when you’re on a road trip, traveling, or on vacation.

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Just to give you an idea of the purity and integrity of the ingredients, the Charming Cherry Chocolate Bar is made with almonds, walnuts, pecans, chia seeds, hemp seeds, cacao nibs, cherries, vanilla, nutmeg, sea salt, and coconut nectar.

All food. All real. All organic. All ingredients in my pantry 🙂

I’ve bought these bars locally at Whole Foods, MOMs Organic Market, and The Fresh Market. I also found them in Green Goddess Natural Market when I was on vacation in the Adirondacks this summer.

Another option is to go to Two Moms in the Raw’s website to order them directly or punch in your zip code in the upper right corner of their website to find where they’re sold near you.

GGG Peek Cacao Nib Peek Cranberry Crush Closeup

I’m going to be sharing more reviews of products we use regularly in our house and on the road because I get lots of questions about that and want to help you out!

Stay tuned for reviews of more of my favorites in the future, and if you end up trying these bars, let me know. I think you will LOVE them (and so will your kiddos!).

Disclosure: I received free nut bars in exchange for writing this review. All opinions are my own and maintaining the integrity of all content on this site is of utmost importance to me. I will never promote products I don’t love and use myself! 🙂

Easy Apple Sandwiches {Nut-Free, Paleo}

If you’ve been following me on Facebook and Instagram, you’ve probably caught on to the fact my go to ingredient at the moment is sunflower seed butter.

It’s the closest thing to peanut butter in terms of taste and texture and is school-friendly, since it’s peanut and tree-nut free.

As I’ve been preparing for the Yummy Snacks for Healthy Kids workshop in Baltimore on September 16th, two things I’ve been doing intentionally are making sure I have some allergy-friendly options AND recipes that kids can help make, too.

My friend and mother of three kiddos, Missy, told me that one of the keys to getting kids to eat food is to let them be a part of the process. All of the recipes I will make (including this one!) are recipes that kids can help prepare, too.

I saw lots of examples of this snack on Pinterest but wanted to make it nut-free and school-friendly and put my own spin on it.

Whether you leave it as a solo slice (pizza-style) or put two apple rings together (sandwich-style), this snack is easy to make and super versatile.

It could be made with nut butter instead of sunflower seed butter, and the possibilities for toppings (or fillings) are endless!

IMG_1276 apple sandwich apples slices blueberriesapple coconut sunbutter
Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup sunflower seed butter
  • 4 teaspoons hemp seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 apple, cored and sliced
  • Topping ideas: Blueberries, shredded coconut, Enjoy Life chocolate chips, chopped nuts, raisins, goji berries, etc.

Directions

  1. Combine sunflower butter, hemp seeds, and cinnamon in a small bowl.
  2. Remove core from apple and cut apple into 1/2 inch discs.
  3. Spread sunflower butter on each apple slice and put toppings on one slice. Make an apple “sandwich” by pressing the remaining slice on top. Repeat until the apple is gone! 🙂

If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up for the Yummy Snacks for Healthy Kids Workshop on September 16th!

Back-to-School Sunbutter Spread {Nut-Free, Paleo}

Now that I’m back from vacation and through the craziest part of the summer, I’ve been spending some time back in my happy place…my kitchen.

I’m gearing up to teach a cooking class in September called Yummy Snacks for Healthy, Happy Kids at the Institute for Integrative Health (click this link to register!) and have been doing lots of recipe testing and experimenting.

My friend, Lindsay, contacted me because she found out that her son’s kindergarten is completely peanut-free.

Like most kids, he loves PB&J, so she was looking for another option.

Meet sunflower seed butter AKA sunbutter :)

IMG_0739Just like its peanut and tree-nut cousins, sunflower seed butter is made by grinding up sunflower seeds until they’re smooth and creamy.

It tastes WAY more like peanut butter than almond butter does, so if you’re not a huge fan of almond butter, give sunflower seed butter a shot!

I decided to upgrade the basic sunbutter, as it’s commonly called, by adding in some hemp seeds and cinnamon.

Let’s take a look at each ingredient in this quick, easy, and tasty recipe.

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These little guys don’t get enough love, but they should! Here’s why…

  • Good source of magnesium to calm our nerves, muscles and blood vessels
  • Anti-inflammatory, containing heart healthy fats and vitamins
  • The detoxifying and cancer preventive mineral selenium
  • Rich in compounds called phytosterols that promote healthy cholesterol levels

You can find sunflower seed butter at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wegmans, MOMs Organic Market, most Giants, The Fresh Market, and any natural food store. It’s also sold online at Amazon and Thrive Market.

Hemp Seeds

In case it’s crossing your mind, these hemp seeds won’t give you the “high” you’re thinking of, but they DO have lots of other benefits. They’re a great source of plant-based protein, high in healthy fats that naturally balance hormones and promote heart health, and rich in  fiber to keep us feeling full and satisfied.

For more benefits of hemp seeds, click here.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a naturally sweet tasting spice that helps us regulate our blood sugar, which is key for sustained energy. Check out the top 10 proven health benefits of this super spice from the folks over at Authority Nutrition.

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Servings: 2

Ingredients*

  • 1/4 cup sunflower seed butter
  • 4 teaspoons shelled hemp seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (add more to taste)

Note: If your sunflower seed butter is salt-free and sugar-free, add a pinch of fine grain sea salt and 1 teaspoon of maple syrup for a touch of sweetness.

Directions

Stir all ingredients in a bowl with a spoon until combined. Use as a spread or dip for celery, apples, pears, Mary’s Gone Crackers pretzel sticks or sandwiches. It’s versatile and delicious! Make a double or quadruple batch to have on hand throughout the week.

The next post will cover another fun way to use this dip, so stay tuned!

**Remember, if you want one of the 30 slots for the Yummy Snacks for Healthy, Happy Kids workshop, click here to register and get more info!**

I’d love to hear from you! What was YOUR favorite snack at school when you were a kid?

One-Pot Lentil, Onion & Baby Bella Saute {Vegan}

I’m back from vacation and excited to be in my kitchen again making new recipes to share with you!

I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I had half the day on Saturday to experiment 🙂

Today’s dish came about as I was planning the menu for a cooking class I’m teaching about GBOMBS foods (Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries, Seeds/Nuts) for a client in DC. If you missed the GBOMBS post, check it out to learn which foods are the best disease-fighting, nutrient-dense foods we can eat.

Aside from being packed with nutrient-rich foods, the other motivation behind this recipe was to make a quick and easy dinner option (on the table in under 30 minutes).

Two of the GBOMBS foods in this meal are onions and mushrooms, two of the most underappreciated plants we eat.

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For most of my life, I had no idea just how good these foods were for my body, but I’ve learned a lot about just how amazing they are!

They both contain powerful compounds called angiogenesis inhibitors, compounds designed to prevent the formation of new blood vessels, thereby stopping or slowing the growth or spread of abnormal cells and protecting the body against fat storage.

Certain cancer drugs contain angiogenesis inhibitors, but these compounds also occur naturally in dozens of plants, including onions and mushrooms! 

shrooms and onions

I didn’t eat onions or mushrooms until a few years ago (I’d deemed them both “gross”), and neither did my husband, Bill. Now, we love them and put onions in just about every savory dish we make.

What I like about this dish is that it’s “semi-homemade,” meaning one of the ingredients is from a can.

BUT, just because it comes from a can doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards when it comes to quality and nutrition! We still make sure we can recognize and pronounce all of the ingredients and that they are real, whole foods.

The star of this dish, a can of lentils from Eden Organic, passes the real food test 🙂

eden beans

We’ve been using Eden Organic beans for years because they taste great, don’t get mushy at the bottom of the can like other bean brands, and they have no added sodium.

Lentils are packed with fill-you-up fiber and protein, and they keep me feeling full for hours.

Because the lentils are already cooked, this dish can be prepared in about 20 minutes and requires only one pan 🙂 Yay for recipes with minimal clean-up (not my strong suit).

I had leftovers for lunch today in my thermos, and they were delicious! The onions melt in your mouth.

lentil sautelentils

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil (or other high heat cooking oil)
  • 1 large yellow onion, cut into half moons
  • 1/2 pound cremini (AKA baby bella) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt (+more, to taste)
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 1 can Eden Organics Lentils with Onion & Bay Leaf* (below for 100% GF option)
  • 1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced

**100% GLUTEN-FREE OPTION: Although all of the other recipes on my site are gluten-free, this can of lentils does contain a small amount of shoyu, which is made with organic wheat. I’ve contacted the company to see if they have plans for a wheat-free option in the future. In the meantime, if you are completely avoiding gluten, follow the box directions for cooking one cup of green lentils and add some basil, garlic and tamari to the dish at step #3 below.**

Directions

  1. Melt 1 tablespoon ghee or oil in a large saute pan set to medium heat. Add onions and saute for 6-8 minutes or until soft.
  2. Add 1 tablespoon ghee or oil, salt and mushrooms. Saute with onions for about 6-8 minutes or until they’ve shrunk in size and softened.
  3. Add can of lentils, including juices, and stir to combine. Let simmer for about 5 minutes.
  4. Remove from heat and sprinkle in scallions, tossing to combine. Serve hot.

The Power of Disconnecting: 7 Life Lessons from the Adirondacks

I know how important it is to nourish myself with more than food, but I’ve been running myself a bit ragged over the past few weeks and haven’t made that much of a priority.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day busyness and lose sight of what matters.

Amazing things happen when we physically get away and give ourselves space to just be.

My recent vacation to Upstate New York was exactly what I needed to reset, recharge and refocus my body and brain.

It nourished my soul.

Most people who live in Baltimore spend their summers at the beach, but my vacation has always involved an 8-hour drive to the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. It’s where my mom spent her summers as a kid and where her parents lived for as long as I can remember.

I have so many great memories of spending summer vacations “Up North” as a kid, and I’ve grown to appreciate it even more as an adult.

My parents think of it as their heaven on earth, and it has become something similar for me in recent years. As much as I’m running around all the time at home, I can’t help but disconnect and refocus myself physically and mentally when I’m up there.

It’s such a special, centering, and grounding place.

Overlooking the Adirondack Mountains on a recent hike in Lake Placid, New York

One of my favorite things to do is hike the mountains. The air is crisp, clear and free of pollution, and the views are absolutely breathtaking.

As my husband, Bill, and I were hiking one of the 46 High Peaks with my parents (both in their 60s!), it started to hit me how much hiking and life have in common.

Whether we’re trying to reach a goal related to weight, movement, or what we’re eating, having a healthy perspective around the journey, destination and challenges along the way can help us stay on the path instead of being deterred or discouraged.

I’m always open to inspiration, no matter what I’m doing, and our hike up Phelps Mountain ended up being the perfect time to take in the lessons life had to teach me that day.

When we take time to nourish our entire being and realize that there’s more to life and being well than kale salads and green smoothies, we can learn tremendous lessons.

Lesson #1: Be prepared and have a plan

When you go for a hike, you don’t typically do it on a whim.

You pick a trail you can physically handle and usually a peak with good views. You check the forecast to make sure the weather is going to be nice. Clear days are the best days for views at the summit, so you plan for those as best you can. You pack food, water, a trail guide, first aid supplies, a camera, and whatever else you’ll need to stay hydrated, fueled, and safe.

Some of my favorite snacks to take on a hike!

The same goes with life. The more we set aside time to think through a plan and map out what we’ll need to be successful, the more likely we are to end up where we want to be.

I know quite a few people who plan each day the night before, so they can live intentionally and start each day focused on what they want to get out of it instead of just letting it pass by.

Planning time is not wasted time. It helps us be more productive, focused and intentional, so make time for it in the midst of the busyness.

Lesson #2: Enjoy the journey

The goal of hiking isn’t just to get to the summit and climb back down. Relative to the total hike, you spend a sliver of time at the top and most of the time getting there or back.

Getting through the hike makes you appreciate the summit that much more, so instead of anticipating the outcome at the expense of appreciating the journey, enjoy the entire hike, from the ascent to the summit to the descent.

Stop and pick the blueberries, look for beauty, take off your shoes and rest your tired feet in the ice cold spring water.

Stopping to pick blueberries on Blueberry Mountain

Someone else spelled this out on one of the lookouts. So cool!

Bill taking a break along the trail

We stopped at a stream to put our toes in the water on our way off the mountain

As the daughter of two entrepreneurs and someone with passion and desire to continually raise the bar, I often forget to do this. I’m so focused on “getting somewhere” that I don’t appreciate where I am in the moment and end up stressed as a result.

Enjoying the journey as much as the destination is about being fully present to where we are in the moment instead of wishing it away.

Lesson #3: It’s okay to get lost or go the “wrong” way

Hiking trails aren’t always clearly defined. Sometimes you make a wrong turn or get lost and have to figure out how to get back on track.

One time, Bill and I completely missed a sign and ended up hiking up a ski trail (talk about tiring!). It actually ended up being a bit of a shortcut but was a tougher climb than the actual trail would have been. We may not have gone the “right way” but we ended up where we needed to be.

The same thing happens in life. We can be so afraid of making mistakes or doing something “wrong” that we don’t even try.

Who says your way isn’t the right way just because other people do it differently?

Lesson #4: Trust your gut; it’s smarter than you

When we talk about having a “gut” feeling, that’s a real thing. We have neurotransmitters and nerve endings in our digestive system that are directly connected to our brain. When we were on our hike with my parents, we didn’t see trail markers for a solid half hour, and my mom started to worry if we were going the right way.

But we instinctively knew we were on the trail. Eventually, we saw trail markers, but we didn’t wait until we saw them to keep moving up.

In life, there aren’t always giant, in-your-face signs telling us what to do or where to go.

If we’re always waiting for a definite, clear-cut answer about what to do before moving forward, we might miss out on something or never get to where we’re meant to be.

Sometimes, we just have to trust our gut and listen to what our intuition is telling us.

Lesson #5: You’re going to have some “Holy S#@!” moments

The High Peaks are infamous for some pretty steep rock beds and scrambles as you approach the summit. When you’re hiking, you’re usually looking not more than a few feet in front of you, so you don’t always see them up ahead.

I remember on our hike that I looked up at a steep pitch at one point and just thought to myself, “Holy S#@!” as I tried to figure out how the heck I was going to get beyond it.

 

This happens in life a lot. We’re in the midst of our day or our journey, and roadblocks or barriers come out of nowhere and rattle us.

Sometimes, we have no idea how we’re going to get around them. But we assess the situation, consider a few possible options and go with what makes the most sense or “feels” right. We have to take action, or we won’t move forward.

Lesson #6: Get support from others along the way

Some people like to hike alone for the solitude, and I can totally understand why. But I find so many aspects of hiking are more fun when I’m with at least one other person.

It means we can share the load of whatever we have in our packs. We have another set of eyes and intuition to guide us along the trail. We have someone who can help us over physical obstacles like ladders or steep pitches. We have someone to talk to and take pictures with throughout the hike.

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The same goes with life. When we bring other people on our journey with us, they can support and guide us along the way and celebrate with us when we reach our goal.

Struggles and celebrations are easier when we go through them with other people.

Lesson #7: Soak in the summit

One of the most magical moments of a hike is when you reach the peak of a mountain. The views are stunning, especially on a clear day, that you can’t help but be silent and take in the beauty and peacefulness of your surroundings.

When we hike, we usually spend a solid hour at the summit. We take our shoes off, down some water, and enjoy our well-deserved lunch. We take pictures, lay on the rocks, bask in the sun, and take in the entire experience.

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I find this hard to do in my life. When I accomplish something, I’m quick to move on to whatever the next project or goal is and rarely appreciate what I’ve just done.

I don’t take time to celebrate victories.

But last week, the mountains reminded me that there’s something incredibly satisfying about pausing to treasure and honor something we’ve worked hard to accomplish, to fully soak in the awesomeness of that moment.

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Sometimes we have to step away from the crazy busy worlds most of us live in to reflect on our journey and what we’re trying to accomplish on a daily basis. I hope some of these reflections speak to and inspire you today to reset, refocus and take on a new perspective along your journey, no matter where you are on the path.

Sweet Tooth Truths Part 4: The Best Choices for Natural Sweeteners

In this fourth and final post of the Sweet Tooth Truths series, I’m going to give you the scoop on natural sweeteners. From agave to yacon syrup, we’re going to take a look at some of the most common natural sweeteners and what we know about how they impact our bodies.

One of the common questions that stood out during the Sweet Confessions talk was, “How much sugar should/can we eat?”

The reality is that even the experts can’t seem to agree on a magic number. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests no more than about 12 teaspoons per day, while the American Heart Association (AHA) says 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.

Regardless of whom you ask, the main thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to eat a lot of sweeteners, even if they are from natural sources. They’re meant to be used in moderation but aren’t an essential part of our diet.

They just happen to taste really good and make food more enjoyable 🙂

Dr. D’Adamo rounded out his presentation making this point about sweeteners in general:

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So keep that in mind as you read through this list of sweeteners and what’s recommended for each.

If you want to get even more detailed information about each of these sweeteners and others not covered in this post, check out this website. It’s an excellent resource!

Agave

The Basics: Indigenous to Mexico & South America, agave is the slow boil of sap of the agave plant. There are many species, but it’s usually derived from “Blue Agave.” Tequila is fermented agave. Agave is marketed as a “low glycemic” sweetener because its glycemic index (GI, which measures the impact of a carbohydrate on our blood sugar) is 15, but it’s primarily made up of fructose, which can be tough on our liver and favors fat storage.

agaveWhere to Find It: Syrups, cereals, nutrition bars

The Controversy: Most modern agave is highly refined, full of pesticides, genetically-modified and has minimal antioxidant content. “Raw” & organic agave is less refined and likely more nutritious but we want to limit consumption even if it is raw and organic for a number of reasons:

  • Very high in fructose (up to 90% fructose compared to HIGH fructose corn syrup which is 55% fructose!), which is primarily metabolized in the liver
  • Increases triglycerides (fat in our blood) and VLDL (dangerous cholesterol)
  • Increases appetite

Stevia

The Basics: Obtained from South American shrub yerba dulce, stevia is an herb that has been used for thousands of years for sweetening. It’s nearly calorie-free and is 100 times sweeter than sugar but can have a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Where to Find It: Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, stevia extracts, flavored water, diet soda, yogurts

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The Controversy: In the 1990s, it was rejected by the FDA, Canada and Europe for use as a sweetener because of concerns over reproductive problems in rats and hamsters, but it has been used in South America and Japan for many years. In 2008, the FDA classified stevia as GRAS (“Generally Regarded as Safe”), and the food industry started including it in beverages and marketed it heavily as a natural alternative to artificial sweeteners.

The other compound in stevia has not been linked to tumors or reproductive problems in rats over several generations. However, those studies were funded by the food industry and can be found here and here.

There have been few independently-funded human studies on stevia, but those that have been done have found it does not increase blood sugar more than placebo and lowers blood pressure.

Recommendation

Choose your stevia wisely. As always, read labels, choose organic if possible, avoid additional ingredients (for instance, Truvia contains erythritol and natural flavors and Stevia in the Raw contains dextrose and maltodextrin), and use stevia in moderation until more is known.

Honey

The Basics: Honey is made when bees collect flower nectar, combine it with salivary enzymes, and store it in their hives. Honey has been used as food & medicine in Ayurveda, traditional Chinese Medicine, and by the Greeks for over 5,000 years.

There are many varieties of honey, including clover, buckwheat, manuka, thyme, lavender, etc. The color varies by the nectar of different plant sources. There are also several forms of honey, including liquid, creamed and honeycomb.

Where to Find It: Cereal, granola, yogurt, nut butters, nutrition bars

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What Science Says

Honey has multiple health benefits, including the following:

Reasons for Concern

Recommendations

  • Use in moderation because it’s high in sugar (GI = 50, but relatively high in fructose)
  • Best choice: organic (less exposure to pesticides), local (likely to benefit seasonal allergies), raw honey (more enzymes, nutrients)
  • Darker honey has more nutrients (include buckwheat, honeydew, manuka)
  • Traditional or creamed is not likely to have any health difference but is traditionally easier for teas, and creamed honey is easier for spreading

Other Natural Sweeteners

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Blackstrap Molasses

“Unsulphured” blackstrap molasses has the most antioxidants and potassium of any natural sweetener and come from cane sugar manufacturing. It’s also very high in iron, so it’s sometimes used as a supplement for people who have anemia—Phillips (2009) J Am Diet Assoc. 109(1):64-71. Be aware that, despite its health benefits, it has a GI of 55 and is 30% fructose, so it’s not suitable for diabetics and should be used in moderation, as with all other sweeteners.

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Maple Syrup

This natural sweetener comes from the sap of maple trees. Rich in antioxidants and high polyphenol (protective nutrients in plants) content. Dark maple syrup is high in magnesium, potassium, etc. (Theriault (2006) Food Chem 98:490–501). Its GI is 54, and it is about 35% fructose, so use it in moderation.

Make sure you are buying PURE maple syrup (not Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima, which are usually full of high fructose corn syrup). We prefer Grade B maple syrup, as it’s darker and richer than Grade A.

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Coconut Palm Sugar

With a look similar to brown sugar, coconut palm sugar comes from the flower blossoms growing on palm trees, which produce a liquid nectar. It has a low GI (35) and low fructose content (<30%), so its use is encouraging but does not yet have much supporting science. Also, even though it contains more vitamins and minerals than white sugar, it doesn’t contain any fiber and is essentially pure sugar, so enjoy it in moderation.

I use coconut sugar in my Snickerdoodle bites and this fruit crumble.
Snickerdoodle Bites

Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit)

The plant is native to southwestern China, where it has been known for hundreds of years and used for medicinal purposes. It’s used as a natural, zero-calorie sweetener with a glycemic index of 0, so it’s suitable for diabetics. It’s about 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Here is a site with more info about Monk Fruit.

Yacon Syrup 

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A natural sweetener made from the root of the Yacon plant in South America. It contains fructooligosaccharides, which promote the creation of beneficial bacteria in our digestive system, and helps to “bulk up” our stool to remove waste from the body.

Several studies have shown Yacon syrup to be effective as a weight loss tool, but it’s very expensive (about 30 times as much as sugar!), so it’s not widely used.

Dates

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Usually dried or in the form of date sugar or date paste. They’re a better option than other sweeteners because they are a whole food and are high in tannin antioxidants. Like most dried fruit, they are high in fructose, so moderate your consumption. I prefer Medjool dates to Deglet dates because they have more of a caramel texture and work better in recipes.

Berries

The best “sweetener” for many health benefits, including fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Enjoy a variety because different berries have different nutrients.

So, there you have it! Those are some of the top natural sweeteners to include in your diet. It’s ideal to eat them in moderation, but food is meant to be enjoyed, and they make food more enjoyable for sure 🙂 Didn’t see a sweetener you’re curious about on the list? Check out this guide or a FULL list.

If you want to go back and check out the previous posts in this series, here they are!

Sweet Tooth Truths Part 3: The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners

In Part 1 of this series, we learned why we can’t get enough of sugar and just how much we’re eating. In Part 2, we talked about the secret to cutting sugar cravings and having all-day energy, something most of us have struggled to do in the past.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at artificial sweeteners, so we can get clear on why so many people are concerned about consuming them.

In the final post (yup, I had to add a Part 4!), we’ll focus on the best options for natural sweeteners. These are the types of sweeteners that I use in sweet treat recipes featured on my blog, so many of them will be familiar to you 🙂

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After I finished my portion of the Sweet Confessions presentation, Dr. Chris D’Adamo, an epidemiologist and nutrition researcher, who serves as the director of research at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, taught us all about the skinny on artificial and natural sweeteners.

He started off his talk explaining that the hormone insulin is secreted by the pancreas soon after the sweet taste is experienced on the tongue, whether the substance contains calories or not.

In other words, the body is fooled.

It expects glucose (energy!) to hit the bloodstream, but it gets none. This may result in increased appetite soon after.

So, despite our best efforts, when we’re ordering diet sodas, teas and juices, we’re not doing ourselves any favors.

As Dr. D’Adamo was presenting information about artificial and natural sweeteners, one of the phrases he said throughout his portion of the talk that I thought was key was this:

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Keep that in mind as you read about these sweeteners.

Our goal is to minimize and, ideally, remove these artificial chemicals from our diet because they don’t support health, but Dr. D’Adamo stressed the importance of not letting an occasional ingestion make you feel like you’re doomed.

That’s not the goal!

He walked us through each of the most common artificial sweeteners and why we want to be aware of and concerned about them. For each sweetener, I’ve included what it is, where we often find it, and why it’s controversial.

Feel free to share this information with anyone you think would benefit!

Acesulfame Potassium (AKA Ace-K)

The Basics: FDA-approved in 1988 and 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Where to Find It: In thousands of products, including sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks, alcoholic beverages, dairy products, ice cream, desserts, gelatins, jams & jellies, baked goods, chewing gums, toothpaste, mouthwash, pharmaceuticals, yogurt, cereals, processed fruits & vegetables, salad dressings & sauces, condiments & relishes

The Controversy: Most safety testing was done in the 1970s but was poor quality. The mice studies haven’t been of sufficient length, and the minimum toxic dose and maximum tolerable dose haven’t been evaluated. Ace-K hasn’t been thoroughly tested in humans.

Two rat studies suggested that it might cause cancer. It was for those reasons that in 1996 the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA to require better testing before permitting ace-K in soft drinks. In addition, large doses of acetoacetamide, a breakdown product of ace-K, have been shown to affect the thyroid in rats, rabbits, and dogs.

Aspartame

The Basics: —Discovered in 1965, it’s nearly calorie-free and about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Where to Find It: —Thousands of foods, including Nutrasweet, Equal, diet soda, “sugar-free” products, cereals, low-calorie drinks, etc.

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The Controversy: The FDA concluded there was no conclusive evidence of human harm and approved it in 1981. Yet 75% of food additive-adverse events (the most common of which is headaches) reported to FDA are linked to aspartame.

The source of the information is super important.  —100% of studies funded by aspartame manufacturers have found aspartame to be “safe” BUT —92% of independently-funded studies found that aspartame has adverse effects.

Yikes!

The health concerns linked to aspartame consumption are pretty unsettling:

Because consumers have caught on to the dangers of aspartame, the food industry has been renaming it, so make sure you read your labels!

  • “Neotame”: FDA-approved in 2002 and 13,000 times sweeter than sugar
  • “Advantame”: —FDA-approved in 2014 and —20,000 times sweeter than sugar (!)

For more info about aspartame and its impact on our health (so important to share with anyone drinking diet sodas or juices!), check out this free documentary on YouTube:

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

The Basics: There’s a lot of controversy around this man-made liquid sweetener extracted from corn stalks that has been added to our food since the 1970s. Many have identified HFCS as one of the drivers of the obesity epidemic. It’s a very economic sweetener, about half the price of sugar. It tastes just like sugar, browns when heated and provides color in baked foods, thickens and stabilizes processed food and extends shelf life. It’s great for the food industry, but not so great for us.

Where to Find It: Soda, juices, salad dressings, bread, candy, ketchup, syrup, snack foods

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The Controversy: The debate includes one group of people who advocate for banning HFCS entirely because of concerns about it being a poison to the body. The Corn Refiner’s Association argues that HFCS is “natural,” since it is originally derived from corn and, therefore, safe. But Robert Lustig and other researchers say, “It’s terrible, but so is all added sugar.”

HFCS consumption is concerning for the following reasons:

Fructose is also the primary sugar in fruit, but, unlike HFCS, the fructose in fruit is packaged in the presence of other nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals, and water, so our body responds to eating a handful of berries differently than drinking a can of Coke. Fructose is more concentrated in dried fruit, so pick fresh fruit as often as possible, especially berries, stone fruits (apricots, peaches, cherries), and citrus as your preferred fruits.

Are you concerned you might be consuming too much fructose? Ask your doctor to order a serum uric acid test. If you’re above 300 µmol/L (5 mg/dL), consider lowering fructose intake and retest. This test is also used to diagnose gout.

Saccharin

The Basics: Discovered in 1878 as a coal tar derivative (serious yuck), it’s nearly calorie-free and 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Where To Find It: Sweet ‘N Low, cookies and baked products (heat-stable), diet soda, jams and jellies, —toothpaste

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The Controversy: It’s been under scrutiny since it was introduced in the early 1900s. The main controversy was in 1972, when a study linked it to causing cancer in lab animals. The FDA removed the warning label in 2000 and removed it from the U.S. carcinogen list in 2010, but saccharin is still banned in Canada.

Other reasons for concern include:

Sucralose

The Basics: FDA-approved in 1998 and 600 times sweeter than sugar. Its claim is that it’s “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” It’s often used interchangeably with “Splenda,” but they’re not the same thing. Sucralose itself is essentially calorie-free, but —99% of Splenda packets contain dextrose and maltodextrin, which are sugars that negatively impact our blood sugar. So, technically, Splenda is not calorie-free or sugar-free.

Where to Find It: Splenda, foods with Splenda label, baked goods, sugar-free candy, chewing gum, diet soda, low-sugar nutrition/snack bars, pharmaceuticals

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The Controversy: Since it’s one of the newer sweeteners to hit the market, it doesn’t have many human studies and there are no long-term human studies. In a Splenda-manufacturer-funded study, which reviewed over 100 studies, the FDA determined no conclusive evidence of human harm.

Here are some of the reasons you may want to think twice about that yellow packet:

Sugar Alcohols

The Basics: Occur naturally in some fruits. On the label as maltitol, erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, etc.

Where to Find Them: Sugar-free candies, chewing gum, low-carb & diabetic-marketed foods, baked goods, toothpaste, etc.

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The Controversy: Overall, they are less risky than artificial sweeteners, but often have laxative effects. Most increase blood sugar and may damage gut bacteria that’s essential for optimal health.

The best options for sugar alcohols are erythritol (no impact on blood sugar and only 60% as sweet as sugar) and xylitol (inhibits oral bacteria growth, protects against cavities BUT is lethal to dogs in small amounts). Make sure you check labels because they are often combined with other more harmful artificial sweeteners.

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In the fourth and final post of this series, we’ll take a look at natural sweeteners, which ones are the best choices, and why. I learned a lot and know you will, too 🙂

Resources to Learn More About Artificial Sweeteners

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