When I told some people I make healthy cookies they unanimously expressed their doubt regarding the taste appeal of such sweets. Yet everybody who has ever tried them asked for seconds, and my kids love them, so I can claim with great confidence that these chocolate chip cookies are truly heavenly, in every way.
The sugar issue
A Google search for “is sugar bad for you” results in 130 million hits. I guess that even without going too much into the topic, one can easily assume that there is enough evidence to support the claim that indeed sugar is bad. But, just in case you have ever wondered why exactly it is so, let me give you a quick walk-through.
Regular sugar is made of nearly equal parts of glucose and fructose. While glucose is present in all life form and every cell in our body is able to make use of it, fructose is found only in plants and can be metabolised, in a limited amount, solely in the liver. Considering that our ancestors didn’t have a lot of access to sweets, except when fruits were in season, our bodies are not adapted to diets high in sugar. Therefore, our liver is not really cut out to process very sweet foods.
Since sugar, as a carbohydrate, is an important source of energy, and given that it wasn’t always readily available for humans to eat in the past, our bodies have developed a survival mechanism that makes its sweet taste trigger a massive dopamine release in the reward center of the brain, producing that well known feel-good effect. Basically, our built-in sweet tooth helped the mankind survive by opting for ripe, and hence more nutritious, over underripe fruits.
But we are not, evolutionarily, created to feed on sugar as much as we do nowadays. Several hundreds years ago sweeteners were a privilege of the very rich. When the New World was conquered the sugar production surged, mostly courtesy of somewhere between 10 and 20 million slaves brought to Americas from Africa, exclusively for work on sugar cane plantations. In 1700 average annual sugar consumption per capita was estimated at 1.8 kg (in England). A hundred years later it went up to 8.1 kg. Today it is somewhere around 67.6 kg, in the US. (source).
And here is where the trouble lies. We are eating too much of it too often and our liver is simply overworked. Sugar is everywhere, from cereals and granola bars to crackers and low-far yogurts, sodas and store-bought fruit juices to salad dressings and ketchup.
When the blood sugar level rises after eating, pancreas releases insulin to help your body absorb sugar from the blood. Sugar is then used for energy and any excess is stored in the liver for future needs.
The problem begins when no such future need occurs because there is constantly an overdose of sugar in the blood. Fructose is turned into fat which gets lodged in the liver. This significantly increases probability of metabolic diseases, as well as obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease and dementia. Insulin spikes can permanently damage pancreas and insulin resistance, which appears when liver no longer recognises insulin in the blood, ultimately leads to cancer.
Apart from these troubles, sugar is known to contribute to cavities, suppress immune system by debilitating white blood cells, produce inflammation, affect behaviour and reduce ability to focus, strip bones of calcium and magnesium causing osteoporosis, trigger leptin resistance, and impair hearing and sight.
Is there an alternative?
Artificial sweeteners, like saccharine, aspartame and sucralose, seem to be the norm for all the sugar-conscious people, yet it has been shown that these additives significantly change the gut flora, which implies that they might actually be rather harmful. Personally, I believe that research on artificial sweeteners is so wildly inconclusive that I prefer to steer clear of them than use my family as guinea pigs.
Then there’s the growingly popular stevia, also an additive with suspect traits that I rather choose to avoid.
Coconut sugar seems alright, which is why I recommend using it in this recipe, but it is most certainly no miracle food, so go easy on it.
Apart from the coconut sugar, I also add a bit of raw carob flour. It is really nutritious and a bit on the sweet side, but with an impressively low glycemic index. And, on top of all that, it tastes great.
As for honey, we do use it a lot, but this particular recipe doesn’t contain it. I will most certainly soon post a piece on another favourite of ours, chocolate muffins, that features honey as one of the few ingredients. Talk about easy, tasty and wholesome.
I guess the best choice would be dried fruits as a sweetener, if it weren’t for my children who don’t really like dates and figs. Let’s say it is still an underexplored field and if I ever come up with a recipe that passes my kids’ litmus test, I will most certainly share it with you.
A few things worth noting
- Carob flour may be the perfect solution for us, but not everybody enjoys its taste, so if it is the first time you are bringing it into play for baking, start by adding it sparingly.
- Instead of chocolate chips I use cacao nibs, but feel free to change that, only bear in mind to put less sugar since chocolate chips are normally sweeter than the nibs.
- The recipe asks for almond flour and coconut flour (yup, it’s grain-free). I make the former by blending almonds for a few minutes. Any food processor will do. The latter is rare and rather expensive in our Mediterranean neck of the woods, which is why I sometimes add shredded coconut to almonds and blend them together. I also cue in baking soda and salt flakes at this stage, because they mix better mechanically than manually.
- The original recipe also requires coconut oil, but being difficult to come by around here I use butter instead.
- My measuring cup is around 250 ml, maybe you would need to adjust the quantities to fit your taste better. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and please let us know which improvements you made, so we can try them out, too.
1 cup of almond flour, or 1 overflowing cup of almonds to put in a blender
1/3 cup coconut flour or flakes
2/3 cup coconut sugar
2 tablespoons carob flour
50 g butter
1/4 teaspoon salt flakes
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 pastured eggs
1/2 cup cacao nibs or chocolate chips
Beat sugar, butter, vanilla and eggs in a bowl. Blend almond, coconut, salt and baking soda in a processor for several minutes until smooth, then transfer it to the bowl with the mixture and continue stirring. Add cacao nibs. Form cookies on a baking sheet and bake at 170°C for 15 minutes.