Burlingame mom develops low-sugar recipes for every meal of the day
For Jennifer Tyler Lee of Burlingame, it all started with a family table game she invented when her daughter Catherine, now 15, was in kindergarten.
“She was a picky eater, and she was particularly fierce. So we came up with this little game,” she said. “You could earn color cards and points as you ate your fruits and vegetables.”
In 2011, she and her kids turned the homegrown idea into a product. By the end of that year, her “Crunch a Color: The Healthy Eating Game” had spread nationwide through Pottery Barn Kids.
“That's how the food adventure started for me,” said Tyler Lee, who has a certificate in Nutrition and Healthy Living from Cornell University.
“At the beginning of 2012, we started a challenge on my blog - to try one new food a week - and Jamie Oliver promoted it throughout the year.
“That turned into my first book (‘The 52 New Food Challenges'), which was published in 2014.”
With her newest cookbook, “Half the Sugar, All the Love,” Tyler Lee continues her food odyssey, leading families away from the sugar highs of “Candy Land” and closer to the USDA's healthy “My Plate” guidelines.
The new cookbook grew out of a project she worked on with pediatrician Anisha Patel, a mother of two and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford who has studied how to help children and families reduce daily sugar intake, especially from sugary drinks.
“Sugar-sweetened beverages represent about half of our added sugar intake,” Tyler Lee said.
“If you can make that change, you are going to make a huge impact. I did a video series on making water fun and flavorful, so I added all sorts of fruits and vegetables.”
But the healthy eating advocate still wasn't satisfied. Her next goal was to cut sugar that is added to food during cooking or right before eating.
While Patel provided evidence-based science on why sugar is a problem, Tyler Lee researched recipes to show families how to cook with more fiber-rich fruits and veggies and less sugar.
“What's really insidious is the sneaky sugars, which show up in savory foods like dressings and condiments and sauces and soups,” she said.
“That's why our consumption is three times the recommended daily limit. ... Kids are consuming their weight in added sugar every year - 64 pounds.”
Researching popular dishes
First, Tyler Lee looked at what people's favorite dishes were, analyzing recipe searches on Google and sales data from grocery stores.
“I took an analytical approach to what is it that people want to eat right now,” she said.
“Then I remastered those things with at least 50 percent less sugar, and sometimes no sugar at all. Banana bread comes up really high on searches. ... So I remastered the banana bread recipe in the book to have zero added sugar. I sweeten with dates, and it is so incredibly moist.”
The fiber in fruits and vegetables is key to eliminating sugar, she said, because it helps you feel more full and satisfied and changes the way sugar is processed in the body.
“Fiber is really the key in that story, because it slows the absorption of the sugar, making it easier for your body to process,” she said.
Along with spices, Tyler Lee uses nuts and seeds to add flavor to her low-sugar recipes, providing nut substitutions for those with food allergies.
“I have a healthier version of Nutella that I make with toasted hazelnuts,” she said.
“But if you have a nut allergy, I have a nut-free version that's made with pumpkin and sunflower seeds.”
One thing she is adamant about is making all of her food delicious. So she enlisted three chefs to help her develop recipes that would not skimp on flavor, plus a registered dietician from UCSF to make sure the nutrition targets were still sound, without too much sodium or fat added.
“If it doesn't taste great, nobody is going to get on board.”
Busting the sugar myths
One of the myths the book tries to bust is that some sweeteners - such as honey, maple syrup and agave syrup - are considered healthier than others. Not so.
“Honey is a sweetener that is added, so it still counts,” she said. “A teaspoon of honey has 5.8 grams (of sugar) per teaspoon, more than the 4.2 grams in granulated sugar. ... So you definitely can't swap them one for one.”
The book also explains how to read a nutrition label to figure out how much added sugar is in a product.
To find out the added sugar in a yogurt, for example, take a single serving of plain, unsweetened yogurt and subtract the amount of sugar in it from the amount in a sweetened vanilla yogurt.
The number will be in grams, and if you divide by four, you'll find out roughly how many teaspoons of added sugar are in the vanilla yogurt.