True confession: I have one kid who seems to think that getting a soda with every single restaurant meal is in the Constitution, and I often just give in. That, in microcosm, captures many parents’ relationship with sugar. We know it’s not great, but we don’t necessarily bolt down our kids’ consumption (or our own). This substance exerts a powerful hold on our culture, palettes, even our economy, and it’s often easiest just to give in to its omnipresence.
That makes Half the Sugar, All the Love, a new cookbook by Jennifer Tyler Lee and Anisha Patel, a wake-up call. Via a series of 100 accessible recipes, the book argues that radical sugar reduction is both possible and absolutely necessary. And with a full-service line-up running from Honey-Peach Breakfast Pops to Shrimp Pad Thai to Chocolate Pudding with Maple-Vanilla Whipped Cream, Half the Sugar makes cutting back sound … not so bad?
Where did this start for you?
Four years ago, I’d been talking with my son about sugar, and how it affects brain health. Halloween was coming up, and all of a sudden I had this eight-year-old telling me, listen, I want to cut out sugar entirely. We agreed that it might be hard, but we also agreed to try for a couple days. And one thing I noticed through that effort is that he started experiencing flavors in different ways.
As it went from an experiment to a project, what did you learn that surprised you?
When you cut to the core facts, they are startling. American kids are consuming their body weight in added sugar each year. It can be three times what the Heart Association recommends. And adults are, too. So let’s start there: We need to reduce the sugar we’re adding to our diets. It’s associated with heart disease and associated illnesses, with fatty liver disease, and all kinds of negative outcomes.
There’s also a lot of misinformation around sugar. Honey is not healthier. Agave or maple syrup—not healthier. Sugar is sugar, really. One type of added sugar is not healthier than another.
On the other hand, people also get confused about the natural sugars in fruit. They get to thinking they should reduce fruit, when in reality, it’s the opposite. In fruit and vegetables, fiber acts like the superpower, basically canceling out the negative effects of sugar. Fiber is the key.
How did those discoveries shape the philosophy and development of the book?
Families need ways to enjoy the foods they love. We’re pointing towards ways to sweeten food with fruits and vegetables, and toward using other spices instead of sugar.
Developing the recipes was hard, there’s no denying that. We had three chefs working on them, one of whom is a James Beard Award winner. I understand now why sugar is so ubiquitous in our cooking. As an ingredient, it is kind of magic, and in so many cases, if you take it out, the recipe just totally fails.
The recipes in the book are my staples. It’s become the way we cook. We worked hard to keep the focus on basic pantry ingredients—in general, regular flour will work. Bananas, yogurt—stuff that’s not hard to find. You want to be able to make this stuff off-the-cuff.
How has working on the books changed how you engage with your kids, both as cooks and eaters?
These recipes have things kids can do all the way through. My kids tested a lot of them, start to finish. And that, really, is the best way to change the way they eat.
My daughter, I would say, does not consider reduced sugar a great feature. But what I’ve found is that when her friends come over and I make the double-chocolate brownies with sweet potatoes that are in the book, they are gone.
The salted nut butter crispy rice treats—I feel great about serving those to kids. And what I’ve noticed across the board is that they tend to be more satisfied after they eat these recipes, because they’re made with better ingredients. You end up wanting these dishes not because they’re low-sugar, but because they’re delicious.
Check out a few more sweet recipes from Jennifer below.