Dates are a great way to add sweetness to a recipe—without adding refined sugars. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Craving something sweet? It may be tempting to gobble up old favorites like candy, chocolate, cookies and cupcakes.

But where does that get you? Lots of calories. Refined sugar. Virtually no nutritional value.

As an alternative, it may be time for you to consider one of nature’s sweet treats: dates.

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Roasted Cauliflower Salad

Ingredients
2 cauliflower heads; cut into florets
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups dates; pitted, sliced thin
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup flat leaf parsley; finely chopped
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper; ground

Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Toss cauliflower with olive oil and roast until a bit brown and crispy, about 30 minutes.
3. Remove from oven and drizzle vinegar on hot cauliflower.
4. Let cool; then toss with dates, raisins, parsley, salt, pepper and a bit more olive oil if needed.

Yield: 8 servings

Along with its caramel-like sweetness, this delectable fruit delivers a healthy dose of antioxidants, fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, plant-based iron and an array of other vitamins and minerals.

And it’s hard to go wrong with a natural food.

“There are a multitude of naturally delicious fresh and dried fruits, such as dates, that provide sweetness with fiber, lowering the glycemic load impact,” Spectrum Health dietitian Caren Dobreff said.

Dates vary by size and weight, so the nutrient information can vary widely. Larger dates can weigh up to 24 grams—and pack about half a gram of protein and just under 1.6 grams of fiber. Smaller dates can weigh about 8 grams and provide 6 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of natural sugars and less than 1 gram of fiber.

Dobreff said those smaller dates may be a better fit for those needing to watch their daily total sugar intake, even if it is natural sugar.

Dates work as a sweet treat on their own, but there are many ways to incorporate them into your cooking and baking, Dobreff said.

It’s one of the tricks she teaches in the Spectrum Health Culinary Medicine program.

“We take a recipe and we give it some interest and a little bit of sweetness, but not off the charts,” she said.

Eliminating refined sugars and replacing them with natural sugar, as found in dates, can help you recalibrate your taste buds to what nature intended for sweetness.

“I want people to have a real idea of what sweet is supposed to taste like,” Dobreff said. “All the added sugars, syrups and artificial sweeteners have given us an unrealistic idea of what sweet is supposed to be like.”

When using dates, Dobreff recommends using the whole date as opposed to products such as date sugar, which is made from dehydrated dates ground into a granulated sugar, or date syrup, which is made by boiling the dates and reducing the liquid to a honey-like consistency.

“The whole food is going to have higher fiber content, which is incredibly important when it comes to regulating your blood sugar level,” Dobreff said. “Added sugars and syrups have virtually no fiber, which has a stronger impact on our blood glucose level.

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Coconut Pecan Date Rolls

Ingredients
1 cup dates, pitted
¼ cup pecans
½ cup coconut, dried, shredded, unsweetened

Instructions
1. In a food processor, blend dates, pecans and half of the coconut, until a paste forms.
2. Scoop out 1 tablespoon at a time and form into a ball. Roll ball into the remaining coconut.

Yield: 8 servings

“And, as we all know, what goes up must come down—and then we have a sugar crash.”

Here are Dobreff’s tips for incorporating dates into your diet:

  1. Use them in baking to replace chocolate chips or candies. If you’re making homemade protein bars or energy bites, add dates for something different.
  2. Add dates to a leafy green salad or to a whole grain salad, such as farro or quinoa.
  3. For a finger-food snack, cut the date open butterfly-style and put peanut butter or almond butter inside. Kids love this one.
  4. Chop them and add them to roasted vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, tossed in balsamic vinegar. “It makes for a wonderful, healthy comfort food,” Dobreff said.
  5. Instead of raisins, add chopped dates to your hot cereal or oatmeal. Go a step further and add apples and cinnamon.
  6. Try these recipes from Spectrum Health’s culinary medicine classes: coconut pecan date rolls and roasted cauliflower salad with dates and golden raisins.

When shopping in the grocery store, you’ll find dates in the baking or produce section near the dried fruits and nuts. They’re usually offered as organic, too, if you desire.

Remember to remove the pits when you prepare them, Dobreff said.

Dates are a great way we can add nature’s sweetness to our cooking, all while avoiding refined sugars.

“I am hoping that people will think more about, ‘How can I make this dish taste good and use more of a whole food natural ingredient?’” Dobreff said.

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