(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

Ah, summer. The warm, bright sun, birds chirping, bees buzzing, and the sound of ice cream trucks in the air.  We crave cold, sweet things like lemonade, ice cream, popsicles, and gelato. Somehow the specialness of summer convinces us to let ourselves and our kids indulge a bit more in the sugar. But summer treats don’t have to be full of refined sugar in order to be yummy and refreshing. Try these healthier variations on summer staples. You’ll feel in the spirit of the season, but don’t have to worry about putting on extra weight at a time of year when you may feel self-conscious of your body in skimpy summer attire.

In Chinese nutritional theory, sour foods are considered to help generate fluids in the body. When we’re hot and thirsty, the sourness of lemonade often feels even more refreshing than plain water. But the sugar just adds tons of extra calories (Minute Maid has about 12 teaspoons of sugar per 16 ounce glass) and makes you feel full if you drink too much. Your first healthier option is simply lemony water. A squirt of lemon (or lime) juice makes me much more enthusiastic about drinking enough water throughout the day. If you’re accustomed to drinking fruit juice daily, you can easily make the switch to lemony water and lose the extra sugar. If you don’t want to bring a lemon to work with you, try getting one of those lemon-shaped squeeze bottles of juice. If you have access to a juicer or juice bar, another excellent substitute for more sugary juices is cucumber juice. It’s wonderfully cooling in the summer. I like it with a squeeze of lemon and/or some fresh mint.

If you really want the sweetness of lemonade, try some stevia powder. It comes from the leaf of the stevia plant, it has no calories, and it’s much sweeter than sugar. You can also use it to sweeten your iced tea. (Bottled, sweetened iced tea, like lemonade, is full of sugar.) Also, you may wish to try a virgin mojito. Crush ice over fresh mint, add lime juice, stevia powder, and sparkling water. Very refreshing. Stevia powder varies a bit in quality. The lower quality stuff often has a bitter aftertaste. Generally, the 100% pure kind (which is also more expensive) tastes the best. A bottle will last you a very long time, because you only need minuscule amounts. You can find it at Trader Joes and natural food stores. It’s not quite as good as sugar, I’ll admit it, but you can get used to it.

Next are popsicles. The least healthy ones are made with high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and artificial flavors. Slightly better are the fruit juice sweetened kinds, but keep in mind that they’re made with concentrated fruit juice so as to maximize the sugar content. Better still are homemade popsicles made with just plain juice, though they still have a decent amount of sugar. If you want a sugar-free version, I’ve come up with a good recipe that we make at home:

Brew several cups of fruity herbal tea. I like to use Lemon Zinger or Red Zinger (Celestial Seasonings) though there are many other options. Then add some lemon juice and stevia powder until it tastes right and freeze it using popsicle forms (or an ice cube tray with foil or plastic wrap over it and tooth picks poked through). I you really dislike stevia (first, I’d encourage you to try a few different kinds, including both a powdered one and a liquid one), a second healthier option is xylitol crystals, a plant-derived “sugar alcohol.” It tastes more like sugar than stevia, and it’s also somewhat more expensive. However, it’s not calorie-free – xylitol has about 40% fewer calories than sugar. But it doesn’t raise our blood sugar the same way that normal sugar does, so it’s a safe substitute for diabetics. Xylitol has some other interesting properties, such as helping to prevent tooth decay and treating allergies and upper respiratory infections (usually used in nasal spray or gum form for this). While it’s quite safe, consumption of very large quantities can cause gas and/or diarrhea. Another promising sugar alcohol called erythritol has fewer calories than xylitol, the same health benefits, and less potential to disrupt the digestion. You may be able to find it at your health food store.

One other easy popsicle substitute is simply frozen berries. Blueberries are the most popsicle-like to me, and because they take longer to eat, you won’t eat a whole box at once. We always have some bags of frozen blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, and blackberries in our freezer. They are my daughter’s dessert of choice.

When you really want ice cream, frozen bananas can be a surprisingly close substitute. Break them into small pieces before freezing them. Once frozen, put them in a food processor or a strong blender with a dash of vanilla extract, and puree them. You may need to open the blender a few times and push the banana back down into the blades (I recommend turning it off before doing this) in order to get all the lumps blended. In the end, you should end up with something that has the consistency of sherbet or soft serve ice cream. Kids love it. You can also add other kinds of frozen fruit to change the flavor. Another option is the addition of raw, organic cocoa powder. Usually, the sweetness of the bananas is enough to offset the bitterness of the chocolate, but if not, let the bananas get extra ripe (brown) before you freeze them, or try adding some stevia extract. If it’s not creamy (fatty) enough for you, you can add some coconut milk or pureed cashews and re-chill it for a while to help it thicken.