Naturally sweetened Maple Walnut Cookie Bars with Raisins. Whole-grain nut crust topped with walnuts and naturally sweet raisins with pure maple syrup and vanilla. Only 8 grams of added sugars per cookie.Lets talk about sugars for a moment. I still agree with what I said about limiting sugar two years ago. But recently I have been thinking about sugar more and more. It is a hot topic. We have a lot of recurring conversations in this house about nutrition, and I am working on teaching my kids about added sugars. So I feel like it is worth re-visiting the conversation here too.
I recently explained to my kids that there is a difference between naturally occurring sugars like those that are found in dairy (lactose) and fruit (fructose) and those that are added in the form of added-sugars in the kitchen or in processing. Added sugars take on many names. Here is a list of the names added sugars come in.
Right now there seems to be a crush of interest in moving from refined sugar (white sugar and corn syrup) to less refined sugars (honey, maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar and even turbinado would be examples of those.) I’ve been wondering, and maybe you have too: Are less-refined sugars healthier?
Phone a Friend
So I asked Rachel K Johnson PhD, MPH and RD point blank, “Is it healthier to eat less refined sugars? Like maple syrup.” Her response was, “We use the term added sugar, and yes maple is one of them.” In terms of amounts we should be eating of these sugars, she said that her recommendation is to look at the limits set by the American Heart Association. They say women should get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugars and only 150 for men. [I’ll do the math for you: that gives women a 25 gram budget to work within every day or two tablespoons of white table sugar or honey or agave or molasses or corn syrup…] Which I am interpreting to mean is that she is saying, uh, nice try, but sugar is sugar. Same thing I said two years ago.
Read More About it
Still feeling a bit unsure about it, I re-read this article “Solving the Sugar Puzzle” by Rachael Moeller Gorman which is an awesomesauce piece of journalism and deservedly won the James Beard Award for Journalism in Health and Well-Being in 2013. It addresses Robert Lustig MD’s viral video “Sugar: the Bitter Truth” vilifying fructose. Rachael’s article is fantastic and worth the read. This is a more nuanced approach to the conversation. Though, my take away from it is that I should be eating less sugars overall.
Then this week, Andrew passed on this article. It is written by a heart surgeon about the American diet. The doc states that this typical diet, which is high in refined carbohydrate (aka sugar rich) and coupled with too many omega-6 fatty acids to too few omega-3 fatty acids, will cause inflammation. Inflammation causes heart disease. Again sign points to eating less sugars. Ugh.
You’ll hear a lot of people argue that you should choose natural sweeteners because they are high in micro-nutrients or antioxidants. Like molasses is “high” in iron. And a lot of these natural sweeteners do have these nutrients. ie They aren’t empty calories the way table sugar is empty calories. But when I hear this talk I’d like to steer the convo back to the AHA’s recommendations for added sugar limits. In order to get a significant amount of antioxidants from maple syrup for example, I’d have to eat more than twice of my daily sugar maximum and staple 200 calories to my butt in doing so. I am much better off getting my antioxidants from a carrot at 35 calories a piece. Need iron? Eat a big sexy steak. Don’t try to get it from molasses.
Swearing off Sugar
I don’t believe in swearing off any food (except maybe Cheese Wiz… ‘cuz that stuff just ain’t right) and I don’t really think unrealistic dietary restriction is a long-term fix. I believe in intuitive eating. My thoughts on moderation and not-dieting are best summed up in this post. So swearing off sugar isn’t an option for me. Personally, doing that would tip my balance toward wanting to binge on…everything. [More on restriction leading to binge behavior.] Maybe you’re different… Seriously, my degrees are in studio and culinary arts, don’t listen to me. But for me, when I have a culinary itch… I scratch that shiz. With sugars my thinking is that it comes down to choosing the lesser of two (or twenty) evils.
My two cents on Sugar
Right, so where does that leave us? What if we want a little something sweet to eat? What do I tell my kids? It seems like we should be eating less sugar, that is obvious. But what if I have a hankering for something sweet, and an apple just won’t cut it?
I repeat, I am a trained chef and an artist. I am not a dietitian or a doctor, please don’t listen to me. I am just saying this is what I have decided for myself on the matter. And here’s where I wish I could say that I discovered that less refined added sugars are healthier than refined added sugars. As of now the RDs that I’ve talked to say, they’re not. I can’t say that it is okay for me or anyone to go above the 100/150 cal per day limit either. What I can say is that if I choose to add sugar [and I personally say you should have some sugar when you crave it so that you don’t drive yourself crazy and binge on other things and then end up eating the sugar anyway] ..If I must, I should eat a bit of awesome dark chocolate (even better a fair trade or organic dark chocolate) or make something from scratch and know/choose exactly what goes into that recipe. Best yet is when I can choose an environmentally friendly and sustainable sweetener like local honey or maple syrup. Here is a great post about why natural sweeteners are better, that has no health claims.
Add Naturally Sweet Fruit
In addition to being a sustainable choice, maple and honey also have the added benefit of adding flavor, so they will enhance the overall flavor of a recipe while giving it a sweet taste. Table sugar just adds sweetness. I’d argue that you’ll end up needing less sweetener, teaspoon for teaspoon, overall.
What I do then is that I like to boost sweetness by pairing these sustainable sweeteners with naturally sweet fruit. For example, I added prunes to this gluten-free chocolate cake or I sweetened up this zucchini oatmeal bread with dates.
Today I added fiber-and-iron-rich-raisins to these Walnut Maple Cookie Bars and they are plenty sweet for me with only 9 tablespoons of added sugars for 16 servings. That works out to 8 grams of added sugar per bar, about a third of my daily limit. FYI, 8 grams is less than many “healthy” brands of cereal or granola bars.
These bars also have the added benefit of the omega threes from the walnuts and canola (which has a desirable balance of omega 3s and 6s) which help with combating inflammation. Read more on why I choose to cook and bake with canola here. Plus they are made with whole-grain flour, which gives you fiber, which will help you feel full and satisfied and is good for digestive health.
No cookie is health food, and these are cookie. But if you have a sugary itch that you need to scratch. And you just need a cookie… these are the ones to choose.
Maple Walnut Cookie Bars with whole-grain nut crust, naturally sweet raisins and only 8 grams of added sugar from maple syrup.
- 2 cups walnut halves, divided
- 1 tablespoon maple sugar or sugar
- ¾ cup whole-wheat pastry flour
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 ½ teaspoon all-purpose flour, divided
- ½ teaspoon salt, divided
- 2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk, divided
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, divided
- 3 tablespoons canola oil, preferably organic
- 3 tablespoons cold water
- ½ cup pure maple syrup, dark or amber
- 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup raisins
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Coat an 8 x 8 baking dish with cooking spray.
- Place ½ cup walnuts and maple sugar or sugar in a food processor fitted with steel blade attachment. Process until the walnuts are the consistency of rough meal. Add whole-wheat pastry flour, 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour and ¼ teaspoon salt and pulse until combined. Stir 1 egg yolk, 1 tablespoon melted butter and canola oil in a small bowl. With the food processor motor running, drizzle yolk mixture through the feed tube and process until completely mixed in. Drizzle in water with the motor running and then pulse just until mixture clumps together.
- Turn mixture out into the prepared pan; spread evenly and press firmly into the bottom to form a crust. Prick all over with a fork and transfer to the oven. Bake, pressing down with the back of a fork only if it starts to puff, until dry and slightly golden along the edges, 13 to 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, whisk maple syrup, vinegar, vanilla, the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt, the remaining 2 eggs and the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a medium bowl. Set aside ¼ cup of the maple mixture for glazing the walnuts for the top of the tart. Chop 1/2 cup of the walnuts halves and add to the medium bowl with the larger amount of maple mixture. Stir in the raisins. Mix the reserved ¼ cup maple mixture in a small bowl with the remaining 1 cup of the walnut halves for the walnuts for the top of the bar cookies.
- Remove the crust from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. While the crust is hot, brush the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons flour over the crust with a pastry brush to fill in any holes or cracks. Spread the raisin and chopped walnut mixture in the baked crust. Arrange walnut halves decoratively over the top. Drizzle any remaining maple mixture over top. Bake until the center no longer jiggles when gently shaken, the top is lightly crackled and the filling is set-up, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely, at least 1 hour. Cut into 16 squares.
DISCLAIMER: I am a total idiot, don’t listen to me. And if you do please realize that all opinions expressed here are my own. This post is in no way sponsored by any third party element. This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you click on a link and purchase an item, I may receive a small commission which helps to support me in bringing you content like the above.