Dessert Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Do you have a sweet tooth that begs for frequent satisfaction? Many of us do. In fact, scientists tell us we're born with a preference for sweet-tasting foods and a dislike for bitter ones. Sweet, bitter. Think about it. How many people do you know who have recently confessed a need to satisfy their craving for mustard greens? How about cravings for chocolate? The scales definitely tip in favor of sweets (no pun intended)! Chances are, for our ancestors, this preference served as a protective device since sweet-tasting food most likely wasn't poisonous.

Today, our sense of taste is primarily for pleasure. Great tasting food makes us happy. We celebrate holidays and milestones in our lives with foods that taste good to us. It increases our level of enjoyment no matter what the event. And, since the majority of our taste buds are geared towards sweet taste, there is usually some type of dessert involved.

This can lead to a willpower tug of war. We truly want to improve our eating habits and make better food choices to improve our overall health condition, lose weight, increase stamina, etc. And, we also want to experience some decadently good dessert-type food just for the pure pleasure of it.

This desire is so strong that we produce more than 7 million tons of sugar in this country alone, but it's still not enough to supply the demand. We've escalated our annual consumption of sugar from 10 lbs. per person in the 1700s to 164 lbs. in 1999. That's a 1500% increase! According to the USDA, we now consume an average of one cup of sugar per person per day. It sounds like an incredible amount until we begin looking at the ingredients in the foods we eat. Do you like to top off a meal with a piece of pie and love to “a-la-mode” it? An average slice of pie contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and that scoop of ice cream adds another 5. That's 15 teaspoons for only one item in our day's total.

Someone once simplified the whole simple sugar digestion process for me by asking me to think of insulin as little pick up trucks. These trucks pick up the sugar in the blood stream and travel through the arteries to the liver — a type of storage facility. The sugar is dumped off at this storage facility. The pancreas keeps sending out these trucks as needed and they continue transporting the sugar out of the blood into storage. As it's transported out, blood sugar levels plummet.

The storage facility (liver) works hard to convert the sugar into starch for storage. Since space in any storage facility is limited, the liver sends any excess to off-site storage sites such as artery linings, inactive body areas such as stomach, buttocks, thighs, hips, etc. where it's stored as body fat, and to organs such as the heart and kidneys which causes them to begin a process of degeneration. The result is excess body fat, abnormal blood pressure and a decline in cellular structure within the blood. This distribution system takes 1 to 3 hours and, in the end, we crave more sugar! It can become a vicious cycle. What's the solution?

It's unrealistic, and boring, to think about eliminating all sugars from our diets. Eating sweets is essential. The majority of our taste buds are devoted to sweet tastes and we should satisfy this essential flavor in our diets. Sugar serves a variety of functions in foods (mouth feel, texture, balance acidic foods, etc.), it tastes good, and it's a source of quick energy. The key is in the frequency and selection process. Read the ingredients labels on foods. Look for sugars such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn sugar, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, honey, molasses, grain sweeteners, etc. Avoid consuming products that list sugars high on the ingredients list.

Pay attention to how specific foods affect you. If you're hungry two hours after eating, chances are the food was not a good choice. Fortunately there are a number of healthier and more delicious options to satisfy our urge for sweets than resorting to refined sugar. By reducing simple sugars and increasing consumption of complex whole grains, the result is more stable blood sugar levels, a reduction in sweet cravings, an increase in energy and a healthier life. Good information, but there are times when nothing but pure decadent, eye appealing, mouth-watering desserts will do!

And, we have plenty of delicious, healthier selections to choose from. Try a variety of sweeteners including maple syrups and sugar, date sugar, honey, molasses, fructose, fruit butters and juices, amasake, barley malt and rice syrup and see which work best for you. Of all these choices, nutritionally the amasake, barley malt and brown rice syrup are the best choices.

A Glossary of Sweeteners

Amasake: a traditional unrefined, cultured Japanese food with the consistency of a milkshake and can be used as a beverage, cooking sweetener or milk substitute. It's produced through a fermentation process that breaks down whole grains making them more readily digestible and sweeter. The naturally occurring sugar is absorbed slowly into the body, allowing for more sustained energy. Baking with amasake adds a delicious moist texture to the dish. Look for it fresh in the dairy or freezer sections of your natural foods store. Try it as a dessert in itself. Select a flavored variety (Almond is one of my favorite) and thicken it into a pudding by cooking it with some kuzu (1 to 1 1/2 Tbl. per cup of liquid). Chill and enjoy!

Barley malt syrup: somewhere between honey and molasses in color and sweetness, it's extracted from whole barley that's been roasted. Use it the same way as molasses, honey or maple syrup. It makes great desserts and contains much of the original mineral content of the grain. Also available as a powder (dehydrated malt syrup).

Corn syrup: is made by treating corn with sulfuric or hydrochloric acid then neutralizing it and bleaching it with other chemicals. It's cheaper to produce than sugar so it's used extensively in most processed foods. It has the same effect on the body as white sugar.

Fructose: (fruit sugar) is a simple carbohydrate naturally occurring in fruit. Commercial suppliers produce it by further refining corn syrup. Fructose does not require huge amounts of insulin to be released and is easier to break down and metabolize than sucrose. It's difficult to purchase quality fructose because of inadequate government regulations. Pure fructose, 90% fructose and “high-fructose corn solids” (up to 55% sucrose) all may be legally labeled as fructose. The FDA defines sugar as being at least 96% sucrose. This means that manufacturers can add fructose to its products and legally claim, “no sugar added” on its label. Read the ingredients carefully. Dried fruits: (raisins, dried apples, dates, etc.) useful in sweetening hot and cold cereals, breads, cookies, and muffins as well as savory bean and grain dishes. Look for sun-dried fruits without preservatives or additives to maximize health and flavor benefits.

Fresh fruits: the optimum source of fructose because it contains fiber, vitamins and minerals that allow the sugar to be absorbed slowly into the blood stream. Fruit juice: pure, fresh and concentrated juices can be used to sweeten many dishes. Remember, it's still sugar and the body treats it just like white sugar.

Honey: plant nectar is processed through enzymatic action in the stomachs of bees and is a highly concentrated product. Its sugar content is higher than that of any other natural sweetener. It acts like white sugar in the body by being absorbed quickly into the blood stream and send blood sugar levels soaring. Use it in moderation.

Maple syrup: a highly concentrated sweetener that is less sweet than honey and white sugar and can be a healthier alternative to both. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. It's a concentrated sweetener and will cause a surge in insulin and upset blood sugar level. Caution: Some manufacturers use formaldehyde to prolong a tree's sap flow. This not only contaminates the sap and the resulting syrup, but it also shortens the life of the tree. Opt for organic manufacturers.

Mirin: a sweet rice wine with a low alcohol content that's used for cooking. It's great for glazing meats and desserts, for adding a mild sweetness to stocks, dipping sauces, salad dressings and marinades. It's also good to flavor gravies, broths, and sautéed vegetables. Good quality mirin is made from sweet brown rice that has been naturally brewed and fermented. Watch out for brands that have added sugars, distilled alcohol, dextrose, and other starches. Read the labels to find one that's natural and high quality. Usually the higher the alcohol content (10-14%) the higher the quality. Its sweet flavor is the result of natural fermentation rather than added sweeteners. Mirin that contains sugar and other ingredients typically has an alcohol content of 2-3%.

Molasses: is extracted from sugar cane and high in sugar content. It adds moisture and density to baked goods. When sulfur is used in the process of converting sugar cane into sugar, molasses takes on a bitter, flavor and must be “de-bittered.” Unsulfured molasses, a higher quality product, does not require any chemical processing to eliminate the bitter sulfur taste. Light molasses comes from the first extraction of sugar from the cane and is really sweet. Medium molasses is from the second extraction and its flavor and color are between the light and dark (blackstrap) variety. Blackstrap molasses is the last residue of the cane syrup during the third, and final, extraction. It has such a strong flavor that it's used more to flavor foods than to sweeten them. Barbados molasses is mainly used for making rum, but is occasionally used as a sweetener. While it is made from sugar cane, it is not a by-product of the sugar making. The sugar cane is crushed to extract the juice, which is then filtered and boiled into syrup. Sorghum molasses is made from sweet sorghum and is similar in color and texture to blackstrap and Barbados molasses. It has high iron content and a tart, fruity taste.

Rice syrup: a mildly flavored, delicious sweetener that looks like dark honey and is used in the same way. The best type is made from brown rice; it produces flavorful syrup containing the B vitamins and minerals found in the outer layers of rice grains. Rice syrup makes great sweet and sour sauce, salad dressings, and desserts. It's also excellent at flavoring beans and breads. It is digested slowly and steadily over a two-hour period, keeping insulin at consistent levels. It contains no glucose, fructose or sucrose and is 50% complex carbohydrate. The “Sweet Cloud” brand of organic brown rice syrup is of highest quality.

Sugar: white, brown, and turbinado (raw sugar) — no nutritional differences between them. These are strictly energy foods without any of the fiber necessary to regulate the pace at which the body absorbs it. Most sugar cane is grown with pesticides. White sugar is what remains after turbinado sugar (96% pure) is bleached and further processed. The sugar is separated from the plant (sugar beets or sugar cane) using a variety of chemicals and vitamin destroying processes. Additional chemicals are used to purify, bleach and filter the sugar. It's made into brown sugar by adding a small amount of molasses or “caramel coloring” (burnt white sugar) to the white sugar.


Vanilla Pudding

No need for milk and cream to make a creamy vanilla pudding. This is great on its own or paired with bananas or other fruit as a parfait.


  • 1 quart vanilla soy milk
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 4 Tablespoons Agar flakes (a natural gelatin made from sea vegetables)
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla
  • Dash of nutmeg


Whisk together the soy milk, maple syrup, agar and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and nutmeg. Place in serving bowl and chill for 2 hours or more.

Totally Awesome Cookies

Now this is what a cookie should be! They're big, crunchy, chewy and just sweet enough. Plus, they're loaded with healthful seeds, grains and just enough fat to qualify as a “real” dessert. Keep a stash in the freezer and pull out as needed.


  • 1 cup raisins
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds
  • 2 Tablespoons flax seeds
  • 4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 cup dairy free, grain sweetened chocolate chips
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 cup corn oil
  • 1 cup brown rice syrup


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the hot water until plump, 10-15 minutes.
  2. While raisins soak, combine the seeds in a small, dry skillet and heat over a low heat until they begin to pop and brown lightly. Remove from heat and place in a large bowl. Add the remaining dry ingredients and mix with a wooden spoon to combine.
  3. Drain the raisins, reserving 1 cup of the water. Add the raisins to the dry mixture, along with the oil and brown rice syrup. Mix well to combine. Add enough of the water to make a moist, but stiff dough.
  4. Using a large spoon, scoop the dough into balls spaced several inches apart on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Bake for 14 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack.

Ice Box Cake

Are you ready for a childhood flash back? Try this easy recipe. You'll have people thinking you spent hours in the kitchen. It practically makes itself, and the best part is that the kids can help.


  • 1 box graham crackers
  • 1 recipe Chocolate Fudge pudding
  • 1 recipe Vanilla pudding
  • 1 loaf pan


  1. Make the Chocolate Fudge pudding and the Vanilla pudding.
  2. Open the box of graham crackers and let the kids place a single layer of crackers at the bottom of the loaf pan. Spread a thin layer chocolate pudding. Place another layer of graham crackers on top of the chocolate pudding. Add a thin layer of vanilla pudding. Continue alternating layers of pudding and crackers until it's used up or you've reached the top of the pan.
  3. Cover pan with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, slice cake and serve. It looks like thick cake layers surrounded by luscious creamy filling.

Chocolate Fudge Pudding

This recipe is too good. It's easy to overindulge. If you're making this, make sure you have enough people around to help eat it! It's creamy, smooth and simple to make. I wish it was a bit more complex — it wouldn't be so tempting to make frequently.


  • 2 cups non-dairy, grain sweetened chocolate chips
  • 1 lb. silken tofu
  • 1 cup cashew nut butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 Tablespoon Cocoa powder


  1. Melt the chocolate chips slowly in a double boiler over medium heat. Once they're soft, pour them into a food processor. Add the tofu, cashew butter, vanilla and cocoa. Puree until very smooth.
  2. Pour the pudding into small dessert dishes and chill for 2 hours or more before serving. This is also great as a pie filling.

Michelle Hirsch lives in southern New Hampshire and teaches whole foods cooking classes throughout New England. She is a graduate of the world renowned Kushi Institute where she currently works on curriculum development. Michelle can be contacted at