Date Sugar and Blackstrap Molasses
(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the perils of added sugar. Be sure to check out the third article, “The Truth About Fruit Sugar on a Plant-Based Diet.”)
By now we’ve all heard of refined sugars being referred to negatively as “empty calories” – and that’s entirely the case! The fact is that the majority of sweeteners, from honey and maple syrup to brown rice syrup, agave nectar and sugar alcohols such as erythritol, xylitol, and sorbitol, are lacking in significant nutritional value if they have any nutritional value at all. But I’ve got some good news for you, and those who have a sweet tooth (or two!) can take heart. According to the video “Which Sweetener Is Best for Health?” by plant-based pioneer Dr. Michael Greger, there are in fact two natural sweeteners that you need to know about, namely date sugar and blackstrap molasses.
Sweet and good for you is, of course, the upside, but, as you’ll soon see, both have some significant culinary downsides which limit their potential applicability and use as well. However, if you’re looking for whole foods plant-based sweeteners, these should be your go-to sweeteners of choice when they are appropriate.
Whole Food & Nutrient Dense: Date Sugar
Of these two plant-based sweeteners, only date sugar is a whole food, consisting of finely-ground dehydrated pitted dates, perhaps making date sugar comparable to applesauce, which is also sometimes used as a whole foods sweetener. When it comes to taste, date sugar has been described as having a subtle butterscotch or caramel flavor, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when using it.
Those flavor notes might work well with some recipes but not so well with others. Date sugar is often sweeter than regular brown or white sugar. When it comes to health, the good news is that dates are rich in potassium, iron, B vitamins, and fiber. Since date sugar is made from whole fruit, the fiber is retained and gives the sugar a bit of a gritty quality. But unfortunately, unlike other sweeteners, because of that whole food fiber content, date sugar doesn’t dissolve – a significant drawback that limits its use.
While date sugar can be used as a one-to-one equivalent substitute for table sugar in baking and cooking, albeit one with a bit of a gritty texture. Some experts recommended substituting 2/3 of a cup of date sugar for one cup of conventional sugar, because of the extra sweetness of date sugar. You might need to figure out the exact substitution on your own through a process of trial and error. Sweetness may also vary depending on what type of dates the sugar is made from, for instance, Medjool dates are intensely sweet, but Bob’s Red Mill date sugar made from Deglet Noor dates is described as “lightly sweet.”
Date sugar can work particularly well in cookies that already have a coarse or gritty texture. It also works well as a sweetener for oatmeal and other cereals, as a muffin topping or to add a caramel color to the tops of pies. Date sugar is perhaps less useful when it comes to sweetening hot or cold beverages or other liquids such as soups.
Another drawback is that, like many alternative sweeteners, date sugar tends to run on the pricey side. Online, a pound of Bob’s Red Mill non-organic date sugar retails for $7.59 and a pound of NOW Foods date sugar sells for $12.90, much more than traditional and oh-so-unhealthy white sugar. (But sometimes you really do get what you pay for!)
If you want to avoid the gritty texture issue, try date syrup or date paste instead. Both are available commercially and can be made at home either cooked or raw. Raw date syrup or paste may still have a somewhat gritty texture, but the commercially-prepared and home-cooked versions should take care of that. You can use syrup and paste in the same way you might use honey, maple syrup or molasses.
If you want to make raw date syrup or date paste at home from fresh raw dates you’ll ideally need a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix or Blendtec. There’s many recipes online for making date syrup or paste by boiling and pureeing dates, such as this one at Kichn.com. Homemade date syrup should keep for several weeks in the refrigerator. Use 2/3 of a cup of date syrup for every cup of sugar in a recipe. For liquid sweeteners such as honey, molasses or maple syrup, it’s a one-to-one date syrup substitution.
Since date sugar is not commercially refined, you can, with some practice, learn to make it at home as well. Basically, you dehydrate, bake or allow raw dates to dry out, and then grind them in a food processor or blender until they’re their powdered to the consistency of sugar. There are lots of recipes for homemade date sugar available online as well.
(Please note: Not to be confused with date sugar is date palm sugar, or palm sugar, made from the sugar palm tree. Date palm sugar is not a whole food. It’s made by boiling down the sugar palm tree sap until it’s dry and crystallized, similar to the process of making granulated sugar from the sugar cane plant.)
Mineral-Rich: Blackstrap Molasses
Blackstrap molasses, on the other hand, is not a whole food, but a mineral-rich thick, syrupy by-product of the cane sugar milling process. First, the sugar cane juice is separated from the pulp, and then the sugar (mostly sucrose) is extracted from the juice. Molasses is what’s left over after the sugar is extracted from the juice. It’s not easy to extract the sugar from the juice and multiple rounds of extraction are needed. The extraction process involves spinning the juice in a centrifuge and boiling it.
Light molasses is what results from the first round of this process, dark molasses from the second round, and blackstrap molasses is created from the third round of extraction. Blackstrap molasses has the highest concentration of minerals of all three types of molasses and is dark in color because the remaining, unextracted sugars have carmelized from repeated heating.
Blackstrap molasses has significant amounts of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium and vitamin B6. In fact, one tablespoon of blackstrap has 19 percent of the recommended daily allowance of iron. Blackstrap molasses also has the lowest sugar content of any sugar cane product, at 12g per tablespoon.
All of that processing does give blackstrap molasses a very strong flavor, which some people describe as bitter. Blackstrap molasses works well in baked goods such as gingerbread and spice cookies, bread and cakes. Blackstrap can also be used as a glaze for roasted vegetables, in marinades, dressings, sauces, and gravies, as a topping for oatmeal, granola, and nondairy yogurt, in energy balls, and as a sweetener for coffee and tea.
It tends to go well with baked goods or dishes containing cinnamon, raisins, almonds, pecans, and dates. You’ll need to see for yourself if you like the flavor of blackstrap molasses and how it fits into your plant-based diet. You could always combine it with date syrup to obtain a broader nutrient profile.
There’s a long history of claims of blackstrap molasses being a “cure-all” for conditions such as arthritis, constipation and menstrual issues, or as we like to call it today, a “superfood.” You’ll have to check that out for yourself as well!
Dates and Blackstrap: Just the Beginning
Well, I hope you learned something new from reading this article – I know I did from researching and writing it. I’ll have more information on alternative sweeteners in future articles. I’m finding this to be a broad, fascinating and at times a somewhat controversial topic. Stay tuned for future installments on the sweetener journey, and please let me know how date sugar, syrup and paste, and blackstrap molasses are working for you!