By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Greens & Beans: What's a snacker to do?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Coprid##
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Coprid##

I’ve been obsessed with popcorn lately, partly because we make excellent popcorn, and partly because sugar has unpleasant enough effects on my system that I eat very little of it. But the urge to snack remains, so snacks that are either very low in sugar or sugar-free are important.  

It took me more than 20 years to work out a system that I could stick with, but over those years, I learned a lot and developed some useful tactics and recipes. I also changed my tastes over time. Just as you can, I hear, grow accustomed to and even enjoy saltless food, you can learn to greatly reduce your taste for sugar. I have no intention of giving up salt in the foreseeable future, though avoiding most processed foods keeps our intake down, but reducing my taste for sugar was a health necessity.

Citrus blueberry muffins

Reduce, not eliminate. I have a sweet tooth, and while it has been largely retrained, it refuses to simply go away. I accommodate it with stevia extract. This could be a mistake, according to some theories out there, but at least for now, it’s staying. Being able to drink sweet cocoa or chai is a daily pleasure I don’t wish to give up.

Another strategy is to greatly reduce the level of sugar in homemade baked goods. This can be tricky, since sugar has a considerable effect on texture, but it can be done, and you can still enjoy excellent results.

Greens & Beans

Nicole Montesano is a mostly vegetarian who likes to eat, cook and garden.

> See her column

I calculate sugar grams obsessively, and have developed recipes for oatmeal cookies that contain just 2.5 grams of sugar each, muffins with 5 grams, even pumpkin pie with 8 grams per slice. Most recipes contain more than 20. Part of the trick to this one is to bake your own pumpkin, choosing a sweet variety.

Some of these recipes do not taste sweet to people accustomed to larger amounts of sugar, but they do to me because of that retraining in taste. Some are enjoyed even by people who are generally not on the low-sugar train, such as my spouse.

To put things in perspective, a teaspoon of table sugar contains 4 grams of sugar. A tablespoon contains 12.

I find this sort of math useful, because it allows you to visualize exactly how much sugar is contained in, say, a cup of fruit yogurt, or a muffin. Do you really want to ingest two tablespoons — a coffee scoop — of sugar every time you eat a snack?

Americans consume an astounding amount of sugar, much of it hidden in things we don’t necessarily think of as sweet. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average American eats 22 teaspoons of added sugars per day — close to half a cup.

Here’s how.

A standard blueberry muffin recipe calls for a cup of sugar, resulting in 16 grams of sugar per muffin — four teaspoons of sugar. Add the 2 tablespoons of sugar many recipes call for as a topping and you’re up to 18 grams per muffin.

So, say you’re trying to be healthy and dutifully avoiding sweets.

Eat a homemade muffin for breakfast, and you’re already over a tablespoon of sugar for the day.

Add a cup of fruit yogurt at mid-morning, say a 6-ounce cup of Yoplait (now with 25 percent less sugar!); that adds 18 grams. Or maybe you prefer Dannon, which contains 24 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce cup of blueberry yogurt. Tillamook has 12 grams in 5.3 ounces.

For the sake of comparison, let’s go with the Yoplait. You’re at 8 1/2 teaspoons of added sugars for the day, and it’s only 10 a.m.

If the muffins were too delicious to resist a second one, you’re at 1/4 cup (12 teaspoons) of sugar for the day.

One regular soft drink will provide you with about 10 teaspoons of sugar, and right there, you’ve hit that 22 teaspoons.

Let’s say you forgo the soda and opt for a healthy and delicious lunch of spaghetti with garlic toast. Depending on the brand, a cup of canned spaghetti sauce may provide you with 8 to 10 grams of sugar. Let’s go with 8; that’s 2 teaspoons.

So now it’s midday, you’ve eaten nothing but foods you thought were reasonably healthy, and you’ve consumed 10 1/2 teaspoons of sugar. Frustrated yet? This is one of the reasons I cook. Plus, I like homemade food better, although, as the blueberry muffin recipe indicates, you still have to watch what you’re doing.

You can, incidentally, make truly delicious blueberry muffins with whole-wheat flour and less than half a cup of sugar.

What all the emphasis on sugar in processed foods makes us forget is that even foods intended to be sweet don’t need to be drowned in sugar. They taste delicious at much more modest levels. Things like tomato sauce should not contain any sugar — and don’t need to if you’re working with flavorful, fully ripe tomatoes.

It takes time to retrain your taste buds, but it’s well worth doing, not just to control your sugar intake, but also to be more aware of food flavors generally.

The World Health Organization recommends consuming no more than a quarter cup (4 tablespoons) of sugar per day and notes that consuming less than 2 tablespoons would be better.

By sugar, it means added sugar: table sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice and so on. It does not mean the sugar that is naturally present in whole fruits and vegetables, or in milk, because, according to its press release, “There is no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars.”

The quest to eat less sugar brings us back to the starting point: what to eat instead, and that brings us back to popcorn. I’ll leave the debate over butter vs. none for another day. We butter ours after popping it in a hot air popper. Then we sprinkle it with generous amounts of nutritional yeast, which adds a delicious cheesy flavor. It’s also high in protein, fiber and B vitamins.

Popcorn itself is a whole grain, which also adds fiber to your diet. In addition to the yeast, we sprinkle it lightly with homemade herb garlic salt. The result is divine, and good enough to eat cold in a brown bag lunch.

Happy snacking.

Nicole Montesano can be reached at


Citrus blueberry muffins

Makes 12 muffins, containing 7 grams of sugar each. 

Make sure you stir the blueberries into the flour mixture and get them coated; this is what prevents them from sinking to the bottom.

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup butter, melted

Zest and juice of one lemon

1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

1 egg

1 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, salt and lemon zest. Stir in blueberries.

In a smaller bowl, beat together butter, egg and juices. Fold into dry mixture, quickly and gently. Spoon into prepared muffin tin, and bake about 15 to 18 minutes, or until done.


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