These Healthy Vegan Caramels Are Secretly Great for Gut Health

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Photo: Linda Pugliese

help yourself cookbook cover
Photo: Linda Pugliese

When you think of foods that promote gut health, your first thought probably goes to yogurt or sauerkraut—not caramel. Even a few years ago, the words "healthy" and "caramel" together would have felt like something your weird macrobiotic-loving aunt would bring to a family gathering and force everyone to try while she watched. But these vegan caramels from Lindsay Maitland Hunt’s new cookbook Help Yourself: A Guide to Gut Health For People Who Love Delicious Food ($28) happen to be both delectable *and* good for your gut.

No, it's not witchcraft—although some cooking alchemy is involved. The caramels have lots of fiber and natural sweetness thanks to the strategic use of dates (Hunt specifically recommends these ones). There's even a surprise fermented food thrown into the mix, which we'll get into in a bit.

Hunt's new cookbook focuses on gut health because of her personal experience with gut issues. "I was having a lot of health issues, which started now seven years ago," she says, with a host of escalating symptoms from frequent headaches to heartburn and inflammation. But for years her doctors treated the symptoms rather than tackling the root cause. Finally, she got an answer from an MD who was also trained in functional medicine: It was a gut issue. He recommended cutting out gluten, dairy, and eggs to start healing her gut.

"I followed his recommendations and I didn't feel better," Hunt says. She did her own research by studying scientific papers and books written by actual microbiota researchers, and found that many elimination diets commonly recommended for gut health aren't fully supported by the science. Instead, she found that most research suggested that gut health was about feeding the health-promoting microbes in your gut than elimination.

Her cookbook came to be because she couldn't find a cookbook with delicious, practical recipes that also talks about the science about the way the gut microbiota functions and how it connects to the body in a straightforward way. "If I had just been able to buy this book, I would have felt better a lot sooner. Hopefully it helps people recognize that it's not so much cutting out it's actually about adding in," she says.

The vegan caramels recipe from her cookbook is high in fiber, as it contains dates, chia seeds, and flaxseed meal. But the ingredient we were most curious about—the miso—brings active cultures to the recipe, along with "adding a sophisticated balance to the caramel," Hunt says.

Hungry yet? Here's her recipe for these fiber-packed, vegan caramels that are good for your gut.

Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter, Miso, and Date Caramels

I love to serve these caramels without announcing their healthful status. They’re pretty enough to entice almost anyone, and it’s always fun to reveal that there are a generous amount of seeds and miso packed into the “caramel” center. If it’s important to you that these are 100 percent plant-based, make sure to buy vegan chocolate.

Makes 36 caramels


1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted, plus more for brushing

1-1/2 cups tightly packed pitted soft

Medjool dates (14 ounces)

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

2 tablespoons chia seeds

1/4 cup flaxseed meal

2 tablespoons white miso paste

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3.5 ounces 85% dark chocolate, broken into chunks

1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

1. Brush an 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan with oil and line it with a sheet of parchment paper that hangs over each side by 1 inch.

2. In a food processor or blender, combine the dates, peanut butter, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, miso, nutmeg, and vanilla. Process on high until you have a smooth paste and the mixture forms a ball.

3. Scrape the date paste into the prepared pan and pat until smooth. Fold the overhanging parchment down and press down with a second loaf pan. (If you don’t have one, no worries—the caramels will turn out fine!) Freeze for 1 hour.

4. Brush a wire rack with coconut oil and set it over a rimmed baking sheet. Line a cutting board with parchment. Turn the caramels out of the pan onto the cutting board so the bottom is face up. Top with the parchment from the pan and roll out to 1/2 inch thick. Cut the caramels into 36 (1-inch) squares.

5. Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 15-second bursts, stirring after each, until melted. Stir in the melted coconut oil. Use a fork to dip a caramel into the melted chocolate. Place it on the prepared rack, let set for 5 seconds, then sprinkle with sea salt. Repeat to coat the remaining caramels, re-melting the chocolate if needed. Freeze for 1 hour before serving.

Excerpted from Help Yourself © 2020 by Lindsay Maitland Hunt. Photography © 2020 by Linda Pugliese. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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