Dirty dates. Oh so addictive. Nature’s candy, for sure. They are my go-to when it comes to a whole food source of sweetness. That and bananas. But not a banana nor a date can always be conducive to a given recipe or flavor panel or consistency or even taste preference, for that matter. That’s why it’s always good to have a repertoire of ‘sweetener’ options, as one will certainly be more suitable than the other in any given case. I try to stick to whole-food sweeteners when applicable – naturally sweeter fresh fruits such as pears or apples or applesauce or unsweetened dried fruits. But there are other good versatile options that are relatively near to their original ‘whole-food’ states such as coconut sugar, date sugar, sorghum, maple syrup, agave syrup (though lowest on my list), raw honey (that is if you do the honey thing), and blackstrap molasses (more on this gem later!), among others.
SO what is it really about ‘unrefined’ sweeteners? Yes, sugar is sugar, is sugar, sort of. (Definitely so if we’re talking about calories, as any of these sources are still 4 kcal/gram, but who cares about these things? Not me.) BUT the form in which it is consumed, the vehicle that the sugar is onboard, affects how our human bodies absorb the sugars or more specifically how quickly they reach our bloodstream.
Sugar high? Yeah, it’s a thing. (And respective crash – Hello lethargy and HI yes I’m hungry again already…)
Sugar addiction? Yeah, it’s also definitely a thing. This can lead to a vicious inflammatory cycle.
Though this ranking system is by no means comprehensive, the rate of absorption of sugar into the bloodstream is in effect the idea of the glycemic index. Long story very short, the faster a particular food source of carbohydrate converts to glucose in the body, otherwise known as the glycemic response, the higher it is on the glycemic index, and visa-versa. Pure glucose then serves as the reference point and therefore provides the highest high on the chart, at 100, whereas white bread (refined grains leave behind only the endosperm, or the simple starch, and are lacking in fat or fiber to slow the absorption of sugars) is around 70 and white sugar 65, in comparison to coconut sugar which scores a 35, for example. This is mainly due to the fact that coconut sugar is made up of at least 70% sucrose, which is a disaccharide, or in other words a sugar made up of two linked monosaccharides, specifically fructose and glucose. It must therefore be broken up into its simple sugars before they are absorbed in the body. Though this happens rapidly, it can still affect how the body receives the sugar.
A likely more significant point though is that these less refined sources of sugars tend to be more nutritionally dense, offering at least a slightly higher health benefit from certain vitamins and minerals and/or fiber in addition to their mere sweetness. They are oftentimes a component of “healthier” food options as well. Think of what types of food bleached white sugar or high fructose corn syrup may be added to versus what may use dates alone as a source of sweetness. Or the fact that a whole pear is obviously more nutritionally dense and beneficial than a quarter cup of white sugar.
Also, it is important to note that these unrefined sweeteners tend to be more sustainably harvested and less chemically treated. For example in this part of the world you can easily find locally sourced maple syrup, which provides a decreased environmental impact option. And better karma, basically.
SO because a lot of the recipes I share are in the sweet-treat-realm (it’s probably silly to call half an avocado with pink salt and a handful of arugula – a typical small meal for me, a ‘recipe’… and treats are more exciting anyways, no?), AND ‘processing’ whole foods in your own kitchen is ideal, I thought I’d try my hand at a date syrup. Easy as pie. Or syrup.
~ 2 c Medjool dates (approximately 20-25 dates after pits are removed – stay away from buying dates that are pre-pitted, you are pretty much guaranteed a far inferior, mushy, deflated product… yuck)
~ 3 c water
/ REMOVE pits from dates
/ ADD dates to water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil
/ SIMMER on medium-low heat
/ STIR often with a wooden spoon, skimming off any foam that gathers on the surface
/ SMASH dates periodically with wooden spoon against the side of the pot
/ REMOVE from heat once dates have basically ‘melted’ into the water, approximately 15-20 minutes
/ LET cool
/ POUR through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth into a jar with a lid
/ SQUEEZE out all excess liquid (gently press back of wooden spoon against cheesecloth)
This process essentially removes the bulk of the fiber that is originally of the dates. You can use the leftover pulp for crusts or baking breads and such as it will still maintain some of its date-ly magic.
This should yield approximately 1.5 to 2 cups of date syrup, which will thicken further the longer it cools. Mine nearly fills an old kombucha bottle (16 oz). If you want your syrup to be closer to honey consistency as opposed to maple syrup-ish, you can put the filtered syrup back into a saucepan on the stovetop and simmer for up to 15 more minutes – more water will evaporate out of the syrup resulting in extra viscous sweetness.
It should last several weeks if sealed well and refrigerated.