Embracing Natural Sugar Changed How I Think About Dessert

My Family’s Fruit Crisp Recipe Is Good for All Seasons

fruit crisp

Claire Bugos

Summer in California means fruit crisp season. It looks like heaping bags of vibrant apricots, nectarines, and plums crowding the kitchen countertops. It requires tubs of crumbly, nutty crisp topping ready to go in the freezer for whenever someone craves dessert.

One of the greatest privileges of my California childhood was the access to an abundance of sweet fresh fruit. Farmers market berries became a Saturday staple and we purchased oranges in 10-pound bags. My father always kept a big fruit bowl in the kitchen, which was lovingly refilled before dinner.

Naturally, fruit is the epicenter of one of our most beloved family recipes. On summer nights, we fill my great-grandmother’s enormous pie pan with chopped peaches, apples, apricots—whatever is in season—and cloak it in a cookie-like mixture of butter, nuts, and oats. The finished product is a behemoth of steaming fruit with buttery topping. It’s done when the fruit juices ooze around the edges and become sticky and caramelized on the pan.

In high school, eating was sometimes difficult for me. I went through waves of tracking calories obsessively. As I learned through logging my eating on MyFitnessPal, desserts were often disproportionately caloric, and I would go through periods of purging all sweets from my diet.

Unlike a packaged cookie or scoop of ice cream, a hefty portion of homemade fruit crisp was nearly impossible to log in the calorie counting app.

Despite my worry about the health harms of sugary foods, I would sit at the table with my family as they loaded up bowls with heaping portions of the fruit crisp and allow myself to indulge, recalling nutrition lessons on the relative goodness of natural sugar. On nights when the conversation flowed freely, which was most nights in my family, we’d go back for seconds and pick at the fruit for hours.

My love for the fruit crisp outweighed my fear of sugar, and ultimately, it was mostly just fruit, right?

How Natural Sugar and Refined Sugar Compare

Sugar has gotten a bad rap in the world of nutrition science. Fruit, with its naturally occurring sweetness, sometimes goes down with it.

Refined table sugar, which is often used in candy and a whole host of sweets, is called sucrose. Fructose, or fruit sugar, is naturally present in fruits and vegetables.

Unlike other types of sugar, fructose is metabolized by the liver. Eating too much fruit can overtime overwhelm the liver, causing it to turn the excess into fat and lead to obesity and liver disease. These fat cells can send out disruptive hormones that have been linked to diseases like stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

But not all fructose is created equal. Drinking a can of soda sweetened with high fructose corn syrup introduces far more sugar than a similar quantity of fruit. Besides, fruit is less sugar-dense: A bite of apple contains less sugar than a bite of taffy. Certain fibers found in whole fruit also mitigate how the sugar is absorbed in the intestines, keeping the blood sugar from spiking dramatically.

Fruit is not only a relatively healthier source of sugar—it typically contains nutrients that are key to overall health. For instance, peaches are heavy in antioxidants like vitamin C. Apples are a good source of potassium and beta carotene. The anthocyanin that gives blackberries their color likely slow or prevent several aging-related diseases.

Juices can also be a healthy way to intake these vitamins and minerals. In the MyPlate recommendations for healthy eating, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says women should consume 1.5-2 cups of fruit per day, and men should consume 2-2.5 cups. Half of that could be from 100% fruit juice.

Some beverages marketed as “fruit drinks” may contain low amounts of fruit juice and lots of added sugars, which don’t have the same nutritional properties. These added sugars often come in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is a highly concentrated and caloric form of the sugar that has been linked to health outcomes like obesity and diabetes.

But while 100% fruit juice contains many of the same nutrients as the fruit it comes from, it lacks fiber found in the flesh.

This dietary fiber is an important prebiotic which, along with probiotics, are key to a healthy gut microbiome. Adequate intake of fruit has also been linked to health benefits like minimizing constipation and irritable bowel syndrome, reducing the risk of heart disease, aiding in successful aging, and even promoting long-term weight management.

Only about 12% of U.S. adults meet the fruit intake recommendations. Perhaps satisfying a sweet tooth with a dessert made mostly of fruit isn’t so bad after all.

Dessert Nourishes Body and Soul

These days, making crisp in my small Brooklyn apartment reminds me of the joys of those summer nights with my family. When made with thawed frozen fruit or apples turning mealy, the dessert can bring a spot of summer to a frozen winter.

You may use just about whatever produce is in season. Frozen and canned fruit (especially those without added sugars) can work just as well. Loading up on oats and nuts in the topping adds even more dietary fiber. The leftovers are wonderful with a hefty scoop of Greek yogurt for breakfast or snack rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

The food writer Michael Pollan says the key to healthy eating is to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” This recipe can satisfy all three goals. Sometimes, on leisurely nights enjoying a home meal with loved ones, the “not too much” rule gets tossed out the window. And that’s just how it should be.

Recipe: Fruit Crisp for All Seasons

This recipe is infinitely adjustable. A dash of cardamom pairs wonderfully with apples needing some pizzazz. Go heavy on the almonds for a peach crisp (they’re in the same family!). Mix blackberries with stone fruit for extra brightness. When fresh fruit is hard to come by, you can use frozen. If you have leftover topping, stash it in an airtight container in the freezer to be enjoyed later, or bake it on a lined baking sheet and enjoy as a cookie.

fruit crisp ingredients

Claire Bugos

Time: 1 Hour
Yield: 8 Servings

Ingredients

Filling

  • 3 to 4 cups of fruit (peaches, Granny Smith apples, apricots, and berries)
  • Half a lemon
  • 1 tbsp of tapioca starch or cornstarch

Topping

  • 2/3 cup of nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts)
  • 3/4 cup of dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup (112g) of all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup of rolled oats
  • 1 stick of cold, unsalted butter

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Wash and chop your fruit into 1-inch pieces. In a large bowl, add the fruit, cornstarch, and juice and zest half a lemon.
  3. Grease a large pie pan or 10-inch cast-iron skillet, add the fruit mixture and set aside.
  4. Add the nuts to a food processor. Pulse 5 to 10 times to chop the nuts into pea-sized pieces. Set aside the nuts in a bowl.*
  5. Without cleaning the food processor, add the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt. Pulse a few times until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Add the oats and pulse a few more times.
  6. Roughly chop the butter into 1-inch chunks and sprinkle over the dry ingredients in the processor. Pulse 10–15 times until the butter and oat mixture come together. Using a spoon or spatula, mix in the nuts. The topping should be well incorporated but easily crumble.
  7. Using your hands, scatter the topping over the fruit mixture. You’ll likely have some left over.
  8. Bake crisp on the middle rack for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating it halfway through. It’s done when the topping is a deep golden brown, the fruit is soft, and the juices bubble around the edges.
  9. Let cool for 15 minutes and serve with a scoop of ice cream, Greek yogurt, or a drizzle of cream.

*If you don’t own a food processor, you can do this by hand. Whisk together the dry ingredients, chop the nuts with a knife, and use a pastry cutter or two butter knives to cut in the butter. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Todoric J, Di Caro G, Reibe S, et al. Fructose stimulated de novo lipogenesis is promoted by inflammationNat Metab. 2020;2(10):1034-1045. doi:10.1038/s42255-020-0261-2

  3. Ng SW, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(11):1828-34.e346. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.07.009

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  5. Khoo HE, Azlan A, Tang ST, Lim SM. Anthocyanidins and anthocyanins: colored pigments as food, pharmaceutical ingredients, and the potential health benefitsFood Nutr Res. 2017;61(1):1361779. doi:10.1080/16546628.2017.1361779

  6. Malik VS, Hu FB. Fructose and cardiometabolic health. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015;66(14):1615-1624. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2015.08.025

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By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.