In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens's 1843 holiday classic, Mrs. Cratchit's plum pudding is the epitome of a holiday dessert-a highly anticipated once-a-year treat prepared with love and attention by a doting parent. For centuries, sweet treats were reserved for only the most special of occasions because they relied on a rare and expensive ingredient: sugar. It wasn't until modern technology facilitated the production of refined sugars (pure sucrose extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets and most often taking the form of sugar crystals) and corn syrup (pure fructose and glucose extracted from corn) that desserts became the ubiquitous everyday treats they are today.
Our annual sugar consumption has ballooned from an average of 10 pounds per person in the early 19th century to more than 70 belly-busting pounds today. Researchers suggest our bodies need only about a teaspoon of sugar daily for basic metabolic functions-and that teaspoon can be found easily in fruits and whole grains. In reality, most of us take in more than 20 teaspoons a day, in the form of snacks, soft drinks, and "hidden" sugars like corn syrup in breads and salad dressings. These empty calories—offering no nutrients other than carbohydrates—spike blood sugar, leech minerals from the body, and weaken the immune system. Research also suggests ingesting simple sugars such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose can decrease the body's sensitivity to insulin and boost the production of triglycerides and bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
So how do you satisfy a holiday sweet tooth without sabotaging your health? Say hello to natural sweeteners: honey, maple syrup, molasses, and other potent ingredients derived from fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Experiment with these all-natural, unrefined alternatives—see "Naturally Sweet," for nine suggestions—and you'll be reconnected to a time when sweetness came from the field, not the factory. Many of these sweeteners, such as birch sugar and agave nectar, contain fewer calories per serving than refined white sugar and score much lower on the glycemic index, which ranks carbohydrates according to their effects on blood sugar and insulin. Others, like honey and date sugar, are complete foods that offer vitamins and minerals.
These six holiday desserts, all made with natural sweeteners, are delicious ways to celebrate the season without going into sugar shock. Of course, while natural sweeteners are free of refined sugar and corn syrup, they are still forms of sugar, so moderation is key: Each dish is intended to serve about eight people, so if you find yourself grabbing more than your share, it might be time to move away from the dessert table.