What About Date Sugar as a Sweetener?

With concerns of the high consumption of sugars or need to eliminate sugar from their diet, consumers are seeking alternatives to sugars, high-fructose syrups, processed and artificial sweeteners.  While there are a variety of alternatives, perhaps it is time to rediscover an ancient fruit, the mighty DATE, as a sweetener.  Besides being a highly sweet fruit, dates provide numerous health benefits, are readily available, available in many forms, versatile, and easily incorporated into recipes as an alternative for granulated sugar or enjoyed on their own or added to food.

Date clusters atop a date palm. Photo source: Canva.com

Dates are an ancient stone fruit with beginnings in the Middle East dating back to BC days.  Dates grow on trees known as date palms (Phoenix Dactylifera) in clusters like bunches of grapes.  The big difference is that the date clusters are some 50-85 feet above the ground and require considerable labor to produce and harvest.  An article by Food and Nutrition gives a brief description of date production and harvest.  While dates continue to be a major crop in the Middle East, they are grown in other regions around the world where conditions are right for them.  In the US, dates are grown in California, Arizona, and Florida with the largest production in California’s Coachella Valley, northeast of San Diego.  Here, 95 percent of US dates are grown due to ideal conditions:  high temperatures, low humidity, and an abundant supply of underground water for their love of wet feet. 1

There are hundreds of date varieties grown around the world.  Twelve varieties are found in the US with the two most common being the Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties.  Dates are classified as soft, semidry, or dry. Dates have a sweet, caramel-honey like flavor.  Fresh picked, they are sweet and succulent becoming sweeter and chewier as they dry.  Each variety has its own flavor profile.

Dates are packed with minerals, vitamins and dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble).  One date (8g) provides 23 calories, 0.2g of protein, 6g of carbohydrates, and 0g of fat. Dates are a rich source of potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper, B Vitamins, Vitamin K and zinc. In addition, dates provide a high amount of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, flavonoids, and carotenoids. Despite their sweetness, dates are considered a low glycemic food and do not spike blood sugar levels.  All of this ‘goodness’ makes them effective at relieving constipation, lowering the risk of chronic disease, lowering LDL cholesterol, improving brain function, boosting bone health, and improving our immune system along with other benefits still being studied. 

Dates are an excellent sugar substitute.   In addition to naturally sweetening food, one gets the added benefits of natural fiber and dense nutrients.  Beyond the whole fruit itself, dates come in other forms or products:  date molasses, syrup, vinegar, sugar (crystals and powder) and paste.  University of Wyoming Extension suggests using these products in the following ways: “Date molasses or syrup tastes like molasses but with a less bitter edge. Use it as a liquid sweetener. Date vinegar, fermented from dates, is dark and fruity and an excellent substitute for balsamic vinegar. Date sugar, date powder, and date crystals are dehydrated ground dates. Use them in baking to replace white or brown sugar. Date paste is a smooth puree of pitted dates. It can replace butter, sugar, or eggs, depending on how it is used.”

Despite its name, date sugar is not really sugar. Date sugar is simply ground dried dates containing all the fruit’s nutrients — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—resulting in a product that is granular but somewhat fibrous.  However, the intensely sweet granules do look a lot like brown sugar made from sugar cane or beet.  It can be used to replace white or brown sugar 1:1 in many recipes for baked good but some experimentation may be necessary to adjust for sweetness or flavor.  Date sugar granules can also be used to sprinkle on cereal, fruit, yogurt, etc., but may not be desirable for liquid beverages as it does not dissolve well; date sugar powder is a better choice for these uses.

Since date sugar is different from sugars made from sugar cane or beet, it is no surprise that it creates a product slightly different than something made with sugar in baking and cooking. There are numerous websites that share tips and recipes for using date sugar in cooking and baking including how to make your own date sugar and paste. It may be necessary to increase liquid or decrease dry ingredients as date sugar is hydroscopic and absorbs moisture.  Date sugar burns easily so lower temperatures may also be needed.  For more specific tips and recipes, visit the PurDate website. Date sugar should not be used for canning. Presently, there are no tested, safe recipes for using date sugar in canning fruit or jams/jellies.2  

Date sugar should be stored in an airtight container.  Being naturally hygroscopic, date sugar readily absorbs moisture and tends to clump together and may even form a solid brick. For this reason, some manufacturers mix other ingredients with the ground dates to prevent clumping.  Bob’s Red Mill uses a small amount of oat flour.  If date sugar does harden, Bob’s Red Mill suggests placing the date sugar in the microwave for a few seconds until it begins to soften.  Because date sugar is dried fruit, watch it for spoilage as it does not have an indefinite shelf life like sugar.

In summary, date sugar is a nutrient-dense sweetener containing beneficial fiber, minerals and antioxidants making it one of the healthiest sweeteners or sugar substitutes on the market.  It is not a highly processed, empty calorie food so it may be perfect for those who are diabetic or are trying to reduce refined sugar intake, add healthy nutrients to their recipes, or eat more natural foods. However, date sugar packs a significant punch of simple carbohydrates and calories, so use it with caution as you would with sugar or other sweeteners.
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Sources (accessed 9 February 2022):

1Russo, Susan.  17 October 2007. Medjool:  A Date to Remember.  NPR.  https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15282847

2McSherry, Edie. CSU Extension. 31 July 2017. Canning with Dates/Date Sugar #417952 – Ask Extension. https://ask2.extension.org/kb/faq.php?id=417952 

Cervoni, Barbie.  31 October 2022.  Date Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits.  Very Well Fit.  https://www.verywellfit.com/dates-nutrition-facts-calories-and-their-health-benefits-4110158

Food Data Central. 30 October 2020.  Date.  USDA.  https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1102631/nutrients

Hayman, Vicki. Discover Delicious Dates. University of Wyoming Extension. https://uwyoextension.org/uwnutrition/newsletters/discover-delicious-dates/

Heal With Food.  Date Sugar – A Healthy Alternative to Regular Sugar?  Heal With Food.  https://www.healwithfood.org/substitute/is-date-sugar-healthy.php

HealthNormal Editorial Team.  11 October 2022.  9 Health Benefits of Dates.  HealthNormal.  https://www.healthnormal.com/dates-benefits/; What Will Happen If You Start Eating 2 Dates Every Day for a Week.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfEAy5n4oYM

Maffei, Yvonne with Chelle Murphy.  27 March 2022.  PurDate from Tunisia and How to Use Date Sugar. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N96d3SFtetg

Murphy, Chelle.  18 October 2022.  How to Use Date Sugar as Your Natural Sugar Substitute.  PurDate.  https://purdate.com/blogs/purdate/how-to-use-date-sugar-as-your-natural-sugar-substitute

Oxender, Bethany.  30 October 2019.  Dates:  An Ancient Fruit Rediscovered.  Food and Nutrition Magazine.  https://foodandnutrition.org/from-the-magazine/dates-an-ancient-fruit-rediscovered/

Stockton, Cassidy.  18 March 2015.  What Is It?  Wednesday:  Date Sugar.  Bob’s Red Mill.  https://www.bobsredmill.com/blog/healthy-living/what-is-it-wednesday-date-sugar/

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Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer. 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Time for Spring-Dug Parsnips

As the days get warmer and the ground thaws, it is time to dig spring-dug parsnips. Characterized by some as ‘the cream of the crop’, spring parsnips come from seeds sown in the spring of the previous year, grown during the summer, allowed to die back in the fall and freeze in the ground over the winter.

Parsnips.

Parsnips can also be dug in the fall after a frost or two, but those left over the winter are sweeter and more flavorful. The extreme cold converts the starches into sugar and allows the flavor to mellow.  The timing is critical for spring-dug parsnips; they need to be dug as soon as you can get into the ground with a shovel or fork and just as their tops start to show new growth.  If they are left in the ground too long in the spring and the tops start to grow out, they become woody. 

Never had parsnips?  Some mistakenly refer to them as white carrots, but while they may be related to carrots distantly, they are actually part of the parsley family.  They are a cream-colored, gnarled, carrot-shaped root vegetable.  They can be eaten raw but are best prepared by roasting, frying, grilling or steaming to bring out their distinct succulent flavor and nutty sweetness.  They have a tan peel that is typically removed before use; peeling also removes their gnarly surface.  The flesh is cream-white.  They are a very versatile vegetable with recipes ranging from roasted side dishes, soups and stews, mashed, turned into fries, and even made into wine.  They pair well with other root vegetables, too.  Like potatoes or an apple, parsnips oxidize when exposed to air after their peelings are removed. If not prepared right away, cut parsnips should be placed in water to reduce the effect.

Being white in color, one would tend to believe that they offer little nutrition.  Quite the opposite is true.  According to the USDA [1], a half-cup serving of parsnips are high in heart-healthy fiber providing 3 grams of fiber and only 55 calories. They are a low-fat food yet a good source of numerous vitamins (especially C and K), minerals (especially folate and manganese), and antioxidants.  (Note that the level of vitamin C is somewhat reduced with the cooking.)

Besides the home garden, parsnips are available at the supermarket and likely can also be found at the late fall and spring farmer’s markets. Spring is the best time to give them a try if you are new to parsnips.  If you are lucky enough to find this once-a-year spring treasure, choose fleshy, fresh, firm, medium-sized and even surfaced roots.  Avoid woody, over-matured, long, thin, and tail-like roots as they are off-flavored and have tough fiber.  Also avoid soft, pitted, shriveled, knobby, or damaged roots. 

Fresh parsnips should be stored in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator where they should last three to four weeks [2]. Use cooked, refrigerated parsnips within three days.  Parsnips can also be frozen [3] for later use by cutting into 1/2-inch cubes, water blanching for 2 minutes, cooling promptly in cold water, draining, and packing and sealing into containers, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Fully cooked parsnip puree may also be frozen for up to 10 months for best quality.  Drying is another method for preserving parsnips as well.

For more information on parsnips, check out Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens by the University of Minnesota Extension [4].

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Sources:
1. FoodData Central. USDA. fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170417/nutrients
2. How Long do Parsnips Last in the Refrigerator? StillTasty.com. stilltasty.com/fooditems/index/17882
3. Freezing Turnips and Parsnips. National Center for Home Food Preservation. https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/turnip.html
4. Growing Carrots and Parsnips in Home Gardens. UMN Extension. extension.umn.edu/vegetables/growing-carrots-and-parsnips-home-gardens

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Let’s Go Maple Syruping!

When you think of Iowa, maple syrup probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind. However, maple syrup is one of the state’s oldest agricultural crops dating back to pioneer times.  Native Americans were the first to tap Iowa’s maple trees followed by early pioneers who also tapped maple trees for their annual supply of sweetener. 

Today, Iowa has a small number of commercial producers mostly located in the northeastern part of the state and several small commercial or home-use only producers scattered across the state. According to the USDA 2017 Agricultural Census, Iowa reported 53 farms with 13,808 taps.[1] Producers use a variety of methods to collect and boil sap into syrup.  However, the methods are much the same today as used by our ancestors.  Small holes are drilled into the tree trunks (taps), sap drips into buckets or tubes below, and evaporators boil the clear sap into delicious maple syrup.  The color of maple syrup varies depending upon when it was tapped.  Late winter tapings yield a light brown syrup with color deepening as spring advances.  Color is not an indicator of quality; maple syrup is graded by color with color affecting flavor.  Grade A syrup is a light amber color, while Grade B is darker and thicker. Grade A is mild in flavor with Grade B syrups having a deeper, more robust maple flavor. 

On the average, it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make 1 gallon of pure maple syrup.  A tree will produce 10-20 gallons of sap per tap on the average.  A tree may have more than one tap depending upon its size/circumference.

While maple syrup is a sweetener, the nutritional benefits of maple syrup are numerous.  One tablespoon of maple syrup contains 50 calories along with the following vitamins and minerals:

  • 20 milligrams of calcium
  • 2 milligrams of phosphorous
  • 0.2 milligrams of iron
  • 2 milligrams of sodium
  • 5 milligrams of potassium [2]

Maple syrup can be used as an alternative to sugar in cooking and baking in a 1:1 ratio. When used in baking, decrease the liquid by 3 to 4 tablespoons per 1 cup substitution.  If no liquid is called for in the recipe, add about 1 tablespoon of additional flour for every ¼ cup of maple syrup.  [3]

Iowa’s maple syrup season generally begins in late February or early March and runs 4 to 6 as six weeks. Warm daytime temperatures and cold nights are needed for the sap to flow; the season ends when the trees begin to bud. If you are looking for some early-spring family fun, a number of groups have planned events and demonstrations across the state to allow nature lovers of all ages to take part in this unique agricultural activity. Below is a listing of a few.  Registration and fees may be required and pancakes and maple syrup might be included with some events.

Botna Bend Park, Hancock, March 4, 2023

Hartman Reserve Nature Center, Cedar Falls, March 11-12, 2023

Mahaska County Environmental Learning Center, Oskaloosa, March 30, 2023

Indian Creek Nature Center, Cedar Rapids, March 25-26, 2023

Events are also planned in Minnesota.  For a complete listing, check out the Minnesota DNR website.

Resources:

1 United States Department of Agriculature, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Iowa, Table 40. Woodland Crops Sales: 2017 and 2012.

2 Neff, Michelle, Maple Syrup Nutritional Facts, Michigan State University, MSU Extension

3 Ameden, Kye, Baking with Liquid Sweeteners, King Arthur Baking, 2017

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Safe Frosting for Iowa 4-H Fairs

The recently released Foods for Iowa 4-H Fairs – Quick Reference Guide (2023) lists “traditional vanilla buttercream made with butter, powdered sugar, extract, and milk” as an acceptable homemade frosting for baked goods exhibited or displayed at Iowa 4-H fairs.  Identifying a safe “traditional buttercream frosting” recipe for exhibit has been a source of confusion for 4-H members and their families as well as County Extension Educators and fair judges. Store-bought, commercially prepared frostings that are shelf stable are acceptable for food product exhibits. 

Food products exhibited at 4-H Fairs must be shelf stable or stable (non-perishable) at room temperature and not require refrigeration to be safe.  Due to the various ingredients and quantities that may be incorporated into a homemade frosting, many frostings require refrigeration to be unquestionably safe. Three factors play a role in determining the safety of a frosting: acidity (pH), water activity (Aw), and percent of soluble solids (%Brix).

The acidity (pH) of a frosting is affected by the ingredients used.  Traditional frostings made with dairy or eggs tend to increase pH making them more basic than acidic and susceptible to spoilage.  Therefore, frosting made with cream cheese, whipped cream, or eggs requires refrigeration to inhibit spoilage and molding despite the fact that frostings are laden with sugar, known for its ability to inhibit microbial growth.  

Water activity (Aw) is the measure of available water in a food product that can support microbial growth and affect the quality and safety of food. This differs from moisture content which refers to water bound to ingredients within the food.  The FDA has established that a water activity (Aw) value greater than 0.85 on a scale of 0 (bone dry) – 1.0 (pure water) indicates a high-risk food product capable of facilitating the growth of microorganisms in the product.  Sugar may lower the Aw while water or dairy can increase the Aw; fat has no effect on Aw

Percent soluble solids (%Brix) in a frosting is determined by the amount of sugar available to bind up the available water to reduce bacterial growth.  As %Brix increases, Aw decreases.

Due to these factors, frostings are considered TCS, foods that require either temperature or time control for food safety.  TCS foods may allow pathogens to grow and possibly produce toxins when held at temperatures between 41-135 degrees F. (For additional information see:   Food Safety of Frostings and Fillings by K-State Research and Extension.)  To be considered a non-TCS food, the percent soluble solids (%Brix) must be above 65% and the Aw value less than 0.85.1

There are numerous recipes for buttercream frosting. It is not a given that all buttercream frostings meet the %Brix and Aw requirements to be a non-TCS food or safe without refrigeration.  To determine the safety of a vanilla buttercream frosting for Iowa 4-H exhibits, three members of the AnswerLine team prepared an adapted version of the Simple Buttercream Frosting tested and considered stable at room temperature by K-State Research and Extension1.  Milk (dairy) was substituted for heavy cream in the K-State recipe. The frostings were prepared at the individual homes of the team members using the same butter and powdered sugar; the percent of milk fat and vanilla extract were the two variables.  The three samples were submitted to the Iowa State University Food Quality and Safety Laboratory for analysis of water activity and %Brix with results shown in the table below.

Table 1.  Average water activity and % soluble solids of frostings tested.

SampleWater Activity% Soluble Solids
Sample 1 – Skim milk0.788± 0.00368.60 ± 0.30
Sample 2 – 2% Milk0.812 ± 0.00467.83 ± 0.23
Sample 3 – Whole Milk0.808 ± 0.00667.17 ± 0.35

All three samples met the requirements of a non-TCS food as recommended by K-State Research and Extension1 exhibiting an average Brix of 67.87% and an Aw value of 0.803.

Tested Vanilla Buttercream recipe ingredients. Photo credit: Rachel Sweeney

Tested Vanilla Buttercream Recipe
 Required for use with Iowa 4-H Fair Food Product Exhibits.
(All Iowa 4-Hers must reference and attach this blog to their
write-up for full credit if a homemade frosting is used in the exhibit. Any change or addition of ingredients will be unacceptable and will result in disqualification.)

1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
4 cups powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons dairy milk (skim, 2%, or whole)

Beat the butter, salt, and vanilla together until fully combined on medium speed.  Reduce speed and add the powdered sugar and milk. Add the milk a teaspoon at a time to achieve the right consistency for the way you want to use the frosting.  DO NOT use more than 2 tablespoons of milk.  Slowly increase the speed of the mixer and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy. 

What Does This Mean for Iowa 4-H Food Products?

  • It is highly suggested that exhibits be presented without frosting unless the frosting is part of the exhibit goal.

Example 1:  My goal is to bake an angel food cake for exhibit at the fair.
No frosting is needed for this exhibit.  Cake recipe should be included with the exhibit.

Example 2*:  My goal is to bake and frost a chocolate cake for my Dad’s birthday.  I will also exhibit a similar cake and frosting at the fair.
Cake should be frosted with the tested vanilla buttercream frosting or with a commercially prepared frosting to assure that it is not a TCS food. No chocolate, cocoa, or other ingredient should be added to the tested recipe or commerical frosting. Recipe for cake and frosting (if homemade) should be included with the exhibit, along with this blog. 

Example 3*:  My goal is to learn to make a cake and a frosting for exhibit at the fair.
Cake should be frosted with the tested vanilla buttercream frosting; no chocolate, cocoa, or other ingredient should be added to the tested recipe.  Cake and frosting recipes, along with this blog, should be included with exhibit. 

*For examples 2 and 3, another option is to prepare the product using any frosting desired; before serving, take pictures of the frosted product.  Exhibit the product without frosting at the fair and note in the write up that the product is being exhibited without frosting due to food safety concerns.  Add pictures of the frosted product to the write up and include the product recipe with the exhibit.

  • Homemade Cream Cheese, German Chocolate or Coconut-Pecan, Ganache, or 7-Minute frostings or fillings are not to be exhibited at the fair.  They are potential TCS foods due to the range of water activity (Aw) in various recipes and should be stored in the refrigerator.
  • Decorator frostings of any type may be used when the goal is to decorate a cake.  The cake may be food, cardboard, or Styrofoam and will be judged on design, neatness, originality, skill, and technique; the cake will not be tasted or judged on product characteristics. 
  • Fresh or canned fruit, vegetable, or zest should not be used as decoration or garnish on a baked product or decorated cake.
  • When a glaze is desired, it should be made with powdered sugar and water only.  No fruit juice or zest should be added.

Plan ahead for a successful fair experience.  4-H members are encouraged to call or email AnswerLine with questions about their food project prior to exhibit. 

Call:  1-800-262-3804 or 515-296-5883, M-F 9-12, 1-4
Relay Iowa (hearing impaired) 1-800-735-2942
Email:  answer@iastate.edu

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1Blakeslee, Karen, et al. (December 2020). Food Safety of Frostings and Fillings.  MF3544.  K-State Research and Extension.  https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/MF3544.pdf. Date accessed, January 11, 2023.
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By Shannon Coleman, Associate Professor and State Extension Specialist, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University; Terri Boylston, Associate Professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Iowa State University; Marlene Geiger, Beth Marrs, and Rachel Sweeney, Consumer Specialists AnswerLine, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach;  Karen Blakeslee, Extension Associate, Kansas State University Research and Extension.  February 2023.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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2023 Income Tax Preparation and Filing Assistance

“. . . in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. . . .”
Benjamin Franklin, 1789.1

With the IRS announcing January 23 as the first date for accepting 2022 tax returns, the 2023 tax season is now open.  For most Americans, filing deadlines for 2022 taxes are Tuesday, April 18, 2023 and Monday, October 16, 2023 for those filing an extension using Form 4868 and paying all taxes due by April 18.

Many Americans find tax rules and forms complex and confusing and may turn to professionals for help with preparation and filing.  When using a professional is not possible, FREE basic preparation and advice is available to those who qualify through volunteer organizations and the IRS.

Here is a list of tax preparation assistance resources:

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA).  IRS-certified volunteers provide preparation services to older Americans, low- and moderate-income filers, people with disabilities and those with limited English language skills.  Generally, taxpayers must have an annual income below $60,000 to qualify.  Call 800-906-9887 or check the IRS website to find a nearby VITA site using the Locator Tool.  Iowa residents may find VITA locations using the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance website provided by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – Human Sciences.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE).  Tax preparation assistance is available to those 60 and older from IRS-certified volunteers.  For more information and locations, call 888-227-7669 or check the AARP Tax-Aide Locator or the IRS website. 

IRS Free File.  Taxpayers with income below $73,000 are eligible to file federal tax returns online through the IRS Free File.  To browse options and confirm eligibility, visit IRS Free File:  Do Your Taxes for Free.

IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs).  Help is also available at IRS offices that host a Taxpayer Assistance Center.  Check the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center site to find a location offering this service.

MilTax Filing Service.   Mil Tax from Military OneSource and the Department of Defense provide easy-to-use tax preparation and free e-filing software to active duty military personnel and select others, including spouses, dependent children and survivors.  Tax pro consultants are available to provide 24/7 phone assistance at 800-342-9647.  For more information, check the Military OneSource website.

Do-It-Yourself Online Options.  Several for-profit tax software providers, H&R Block, TurboTax, Credit Karma, TaxAct, Free File USA, and TaxSlayer offer free online filing tools for simple returns.  Check their individual websites to see if their offerings fit your needs. 

Additional resources may be found at the 211Iowa website for Iowa residents and at Free Tax Preparation Sites and Resources provided by the University of Minnesota Extension for Minnesota residents;  resources are available in both  in Spanish and English.

Before you GO –

  1. Call for an appointment or request an appointment online.
  2. Check on what to bring to the appointment. Use this list provided by the IRS to get started.
  3. Open a bank account if necessary. If you are without a bank account, visit the FDIC GetBanked website to find a bank where you can open an account (local or online) for paying taxes and/or for direct refund deposit.

Resources used in this blog in order of citation:

Free Tax Return Preparation for Qualifying Taxpayers.  https://www.irs.gov/individuals/free-tax-return-preparation-for-qualifying-taxpayers

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Iowa. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – Human Science. https://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/vita

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Locator.   https://www.aarp.org/money/taxes/aarp_taxaide/locations.html

IRS Free File:  Do Your Taxes for Free. https://www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free

Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs).  Contact Your Local IRS Office. https://www.irs.gov/help/contact-your-local-irs-office

Military OneSource.  https://www.militaryonesource.mil/financial-legal/taxes/miltax-military-tax-services/

211Iowa. https://www.211iowa.org/search/?taxonomyCode=in:DT-8800

Free tax preparation sites and resources.  University of Minnesota Extension.  https://extension.umn.edu/taxes/free-tax-preparation

What to Bring to Your Local VITAs or TCE Site
. https://www.irs.gov/individuals/checklist-for-free-tax-return-preparation

FDIC #GetBanked. https://www.fdic.gov/getbanked/index.html

Source:
1 Sparks, Jared (1856). The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. X (1789-1790). Macmillan. p. 410.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Monk Fruit Sweeteners – Q&A

Monk fruit sweetener is currently trending as a popular consumer choice as an alternative to sugar.  Accordingly to market analysis by Data Bridge, the monk fruit sweetener market is expected to witness market growth at a rate of 5.40% in the forecast period of 2021 to 2028 and is expected to reach USD of 0.30 billion by 2028. The market is driven largely by health conscious consumers’ demand for a naturally derived sweetener, diabetic patients, and the awareness of negative health effects of sugar: obesity and diabetes. The added functional properties—anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic—are also driving the growing popularity of monk fruit sweeteners [1].

Monk fruit- whole, halved, and extracted powder. Source: Canva.com

What is Monk Fruit Sweetener?

Monk fruit sweetener is derived from monk fruit, a small, green melon, actually a gourd, known as luo hang gu; it is native to southern China. Growing as a vine, monk fruit is an ancient fruit thought to have been cultivated by monks as early as the 13th century in the misty mountains of Guilin and used as a medicinal herb in traditional Chinese medicine. The fruit itself is unpleasant to eat. Instead, it is dried and used to make extract, granulated sweetener, powdered sweetener, and syrup [2].  Monk fruit is marketed under a variety of labels ranging from pure sweetener to added ingredients such as erythritol which may cause digestive issues for sensitive individuals.

The sweetness of monk fruit does not come from glucose or fructose; rather it is from mogrosides, an antioxidant extract of the fruit. Containing zero calories, zero carbs, and paleo-safe, monk fruit sweeteners are approximately 100-250 times sweeter than traditional table sugar. Monk fruit sweetener is less sweet than stevia which is approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar [3].  When added to foods and beverages, a little goes a long ways.

Are Monk Fruit Sweeteners Safe?

Monk fruit was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA in 2010 for use in food and beverages.  While no human studies have been done, monk fruit is said to be safe for diabetics, children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women [4]. Monk fruit sweeteners have not been studied for weight-loss.

What are the Benefits or Drawbacks of Monk Fruit Sweetener?

In addition to the aforementioned benefits, monk fruit is said to be more palatable as it does not have the aftertaste that many users detect in other sweeteners.  Further, it does not raise blood glucose levels or have side effects like gas or bloating that are often associated with some sweeteners.

Monk fruit sweetener is pricey due to the expense of processing and importing from China.  The price, however, may be offset by the fact that only a small amount is used.  For example, only a pinch of pure monk fruit sweetener may be needed for sweetening beverages and smoothies and if used for baking, 1-2 teaspoons may be equivalent to 1 cup of sugar.  While it is not readily available at many supermarkets, it can be ordered from various websites. Some consumers have noted that it does not dissolve easily and they do detect a slight aftertaste.  The sweetener tends to become sticky when exposed to air so storing in an airtight container avoids this problem.

How is Monk Fruit Sweetener Used in Cooking, Baking, and Preserving?

Monk fruit sweeteners should not be substituted 1:1 for sugar unless the manufacturer indicates so. Some monk fruit sweeteners are made with a mix of sugar alternatives and/or fillers, so be sure to read the label.  Recipes and tips for cooking and baking can be found on the website of some of the monk fruit sweetener labels.  Available as a granular, powder, and syrup, each type works best in different applications.  Stable at high temperatures, the sweetener does not burn or give a sour taste when used for baking and cooking.

Baked products made with a sugar substitute may have different characteristics than those made with sugar.  Using a sugar substitute may affect the texture, color, volume, structure, flavor, and keeping qualities. Sugar, like every ingredient, serves a purpose in baked goods beyond adding sweetness and flavor. Sugar contributes to moistness by binding water, provides structure and leavening, aids in browning and crispness via the maillard reaction, and acts as a preservative by slowing bacterial growth.  While some functions and characteristics can be replaced by sugar substitutes, others are unique to sugar. 

When used for baking, pure monk fruit sweetener may be less desirable as it does not have the bulk that sugar provides to a recipe. When mixed with erythritol, baking is more successful as erythritol adds bulk to the recipe resulting in a product that looks and tastes more like a product made with sugar.

Monk fruit sweetener should not be used for canning.  To date, there has been no testing with monk fruit sweeteners to determine their effects on pH in home canned foods [5]. Utah State Extension [6] offers this explanation:  “The sweetness of monk fruit does not come from the traditional fructose sugar molecule in the fruit. The monk fruit sweetener chemicals are extracted from the monk fruit and then blended with something to bulk it up. Each product might be different regarding pH and what is called the pH buffering capacity.” For this reason, canning with monk fruit sweeteners is currently not recommended.

Freezer jams and jellies can be successfully made with monk fruit sweeteners along with a freezer pectin.  Monk fruit can also be added to fruits prior to freezing.

Monk fruit sweetener is a safe alternative to sugar and one way to reduce consumption of added sugars and/or manage caloric intake.  It is important to do your research and know what you are buying for your intended use.  Be sure to read the label and use the product correctly.

Sources:

1Global Monk Fruit Sweetener-Industry Trends and Forecast to 2028. (March 2021).  Data Bridge Market Research. https://www.databridgemarketresearch.com/reports/global-monk-fruit-sweetener-market

2Smith. Kat. What is Monk Fruit, And How To Cook With It.  Live Kindly. https://www.livekindly.com/what-is-monk-fruit-how-to-cook-with-it/

3Anderson, Elisabeth. (21 October 2021). Sweeteners – Stevia and Monk Fruit.  Michigan State University. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/sweetener-stevia-monk-fruit-sweeteners

4Food Insight. (27 October 2021). Everything You Need to Know About Monk Fruit Sweeteners. https://foodinsight.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-monk-fruit-sweeteners/

5UCCE Master Food Preservers of El Dorado County. (June 2022) Monk Fruit Sweetener. https://ucanr.edu/sites/mfp_of_cs/files/368658.pdf

6Utah State University Extension. (24 August 2021).  Facebook.  Monk fruit pH for canning. https://www.facebook.com/page/62906617837/search/?q=monk%20fruit

Food Insight. (20 April 2021).  Everything You Need to Know About Stevia Sweetener. https://foodinsight.org/everything-you-need-to-know-about-stevia-sweeteners/

Monk Fruit. Specialty Produce. https://specialtyproduce.com/produce/Monk_fruit_8824.php

Science of Cooking. What is the Mallard Reaction? https://www.scienceofcooking.com/maillard_reaction.htm

Solid. Ken. (30 January 2019). What is Erythritol? Food Insight. https://foodinsight.org/what-is-erythritol/

US Food and Drug Administration.  Additional Information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for Use in the United Stateshttps://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/additional-information-about-high-intensity-sweeteners-permitted-use-food-united-states

US Food and Drug Administration. Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/generally-recognized-safe-gras

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Reference to any commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporate name is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement, recommendation, or certification of any kind. Persons using such products assume responsibility for their use and should make their own assessment of the information and whether it is suitable for their intended use in accordance with current directions of the manufacturer. 

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tis the Season to PLAN Your Garden

With the arrival of seed catalogs, the next garden season begins.  Before you place an order from catalogs or online sources featuring beautiful photos and enticing descriptions or purchase plants in the spring from garden centers, get your garden PLAN in place.

Two Garden Types. Left – flower and shrub garden planned to attract butterflies and pollinators.
Right – small vegetable garden with tomato and pepper plants. Photo sources: M Geiger.

It may seem that gardening is merely picking out some seed or plants, putting them in the ground, and watching them grow. Seasoned gardeners will tell you that growing a successful garden is also an investment of time, patience, and hard work and begins with a PLAN, whether it be flowers, herbs, fruits, or vegetables.  There is no need to be a master gardener to create a PLAN that brings joy or an abundant harvest.  Here are a few tips to help get your garden PLAN started or improved upon. 

P – Ponder your project.

Before getting carried away with ordering or buying seeds, plants, or stock, ask yourself some important questions.  What kind of garden do I want?  What do I like?  What piques my interest?  How much space do I have?  How much space is needed for the individual plants?  How much time can I commit to seed starting, planting, weeding, mulching, watering, maintaining, pruning, or harvesting?  What will I do with the produce?  Which plants will thrive in my plant hardiness zone? Will I plant from seed or transplants? Is there a location where a garden can be placed or would containers be a better option? How will I control weeds? Answers to these questions will help develop a plan for your location and lifestyle. 

L – Location and layout.  

Once you have decided what you want to grow, consider the location of the garden.  How will it fit into your outdoor space?  Do the plants require sun or shade? Most vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowering plants grow best with at least six hours of sun so a sunny location is needed unless you are considering a shade garden. How level is the ground?  Should the beds be raised? How close is a convenient water source?  Avoid locations near trees or shrubs, north-facing slopes, and low areas.  These locations pose potential problems with shading and roots robbing nutrients and moisture, cooler temperatures and less sun, and extended periods of wetness nurturing disease and rot, respectively.

Once the location has been determined, sketch a layout of the garden site on graph paper or use a computer program. If growing a vegetable garden for your own food, calculate how much to plant per person using this K-State guide.  Determine the distance needed between rows and plants. The recommended spacing is usually given on the seed packet or plant tag; it is also important to allow enough space between the rows or plantings for cultivation and access. A north to south layout is ideal according to Michigan State University. If a garden has been previously grown in the location, plan to rotate the plant families by moving them to a different location within the garden to increase soil fertility and crop yield as well as to cut down on common plant diseases that overwinter in soil.

A – Analyze the soil.

A soil test is the only way to determine soil pH (acid or alkaline) and what nutrients are needed to amend the soil to maximize plant potential.  Most garden plants grow best when the soil pH is between 6.0 and 6.8.  Once the analysis has been made, you will know what is needed to amend your soil and prevent over fertilization and some plant diseases.   To get an accurate soil test, sample collection needs to be done carefully.  University of Minnesota has an excellent ‘how to’ YouTube video to correctly collect a soil sample. Soil testing is done by private and state laboratories.  A list of certified labs in Iowa can be found on the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship website. Most labs do not test for nitrogen because nitrogen is not retained in soil making it necessary to replenish it annually.  After getting the results, you may want to contact your local Extension Office for help in understanding the results.

N – Notes.

Keeping good records, notes or a garden journal is imperative to learning from previous garden experiences.  Notes should include sources of seeds or plants, where and how planted, time of planting, yields or outcomes.  One should also record the layout, number of plants, spacing, soil test results, inputs added prior to planting and during the growing season along with any chemicals that were applied during the season for insect control, fungus, or disease.  At the end of the season, notes should include “to dos” for the next growing season such as pruning, transplanting, or anything else that would improve the health and wellbeing of plants in the next garden.  Pictures, seed packets or plant tags, and chemical labels are also great keepers.  And it doesn’t hurt to add a “wish list” for the next growing season as well—books, tools, plants to try, resources, tours, workshops or webinars, podcasts, etc.

Along with notes, one should also take stock of any seed that may have been left from planting a previous garden or collected.   When stored in cool, dry, and dark conditions, seed may remain viable for one to five years or longer.  Charts indicating the average viability of properly stored seed can be found on several internet sites; some seed catalogs also have charts.  Clear Creek Seed is one source for vegetables, flowers, and herbs; UNL Extension has a more extensive guide for vegetables.  If you are uncertain about whether seeds will germinate, an easy germination test will be beneficial to determine viability.

Let the season begin!  Make your PLAN now and put it into action to achieve your best garden yet. 

Happy Gardening!

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Sources:
Collecting Soil Samples for Testing. (May 2018).  Purdue Extension.  https://extension.purdue.edu/news/county/marion/2021/09/Soil-Testing-Information.html

Eilers, Steven.  Soil Testing.  Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.  https://www.extension.iastate.edu/blackhawk/soil-testing

How to Take a Soil Sample from Your Lawn or Garden.  (8 June 2020). University of Minnesota Extension.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeK4Eg9Dzr8 

Last, Rob and Robert Polomski. (12 February 2021 revised).  Planning a Garden, Fact Sheet HGIC 1256. Clemson Cooperative Extension.  https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/planning-a-garden/

Lindgren, Dale T. and Sarah J Browning. (June 2011) Neb Guide G2090.  Vegetable Garden Seed Storage and Germination Requirements. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.  https://go.unl.edu/seedstorage

Marr, Charles W. (October 2017). Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. MF 315. K-State Research and Extension. https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf315.pdf

Planning a Garden.  Seed Savers Exchange.  https://www.seedsavers.org/planning-a-garden

Schirtzinger, Sabrina. (13 May 2020). Checking the Germination Rate of Old Seed.  Ohio State University Extension.  https://bygl.osu.edu/node/1564

Taylor, Lee and Gretchen Voyle. (26 August 2016). How to Plan Your Garden Tip Sheet.  Michigan State University Extension.  https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/how_to_plan_your_garden_tip_sheet

Upham, Ward and Charles W. Marr. (October 2017). Vegetable Garden Planting Guide.  K-State Extension. https://bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/mf315.pdf

USDA. Plant hardiness Zone Map. https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Royal Icing Made Safe

Cookie decorating is one of the most beloved holiday traditions.  Royal Icing is the traditional icing used for glazing cookies, piping decorations, or assembling the walls of gingerbread houses. It dries and hardens quickly and is easy for nearly anyone to achieve decorating success! Made traditionally from egg whites and powdered (confectioners’) sugar, it is an easy icing to prepare. However, if raw egg whites are used, the icing may be a health risk.

It is a well-known fact that eggs may contain the bacteria, Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), that can cause foodborne illness. Researchers say that if present, the SE is usually found in the yolk, but the possibility of SE in egg whites cannot be ruled out. To eliminate risk and be certain of a safe frosting, raw egg whites should be replaced with lightly cooked egg whites, meringue powder or dried egg whites, or pasteurized egg whites when making Royal Icing.

Lightly Cooked Egg Whites. Use the following method provided by South Dakota State University which can be used for Royal Icing and other frosting recipes calling for raw egg whites. In a heavy saucepan, the top of a double boiler, or a metal bowl placed over water in a saucepan, stir together the egg whites and sugar from the recipe (at least 2 tablespoons sugar per white), water (1 teaspoon per white) and cream of tartar (1/8 teaspoon per each 2 whites). Cook over low heat or simmering water, beating constantly with a portable mixer at low speed, until the whites reach 160° F. Pour into a large bowl. Beat on high speed until the whites stand in soft peaks. Proceed with the recipe. Note that you must use sugar to keep the whites from coagulating too rapidly. Test with a thermometer as there is no visual clue to doneness. If you use an unlined aluminum saucepan, eliminate the cream of tartar or the two will react and create an unattractive gray meringue.

Meringue Powder or Dried Egg Whites. Meringue powder is available in specialty stores wherever cake decorating supplies are sold. Meringue powder is composed of cornstarch, dried egg whites, sugar, citric acid and some stabilizers. It’s perfect for making royal icing. Follow the instructions on the package to rehydrate and use. Dried egg whites are just that, 100 percent powdered egg white; they require no refrigeration. Dried whites are pasteurized by heating to the required safe temperature. Like meringue poweder, the egg white powder can be reconstituted by mixing with water. The reconstituted powder whips like fresh egg white and, because it is pasteurized, can be used safely without cooking or baking.

Pasteurized Egg Whites. Pasteurized egg whites are of two types—pasteurized in-shell eggs or liquid pasteurized egg whites. Pasteurized in-shell eggs are available at some grocery stores. Shells of such eggs are stamped with a red or blue “P” in a circle. Whites of pasteurized shell eggs may appear slightly cloudy compared to fresh eggs. Liquid pasteurized egg whites are found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store in a milk-like carton usually near the regular eggs. According to the FDA, both of these products are safe to consume raw. Use these two products like raw whites in the recipe.

Keep unused icing covered at all times with a damp cloth or tightly wrapped to prevent drying and caking. For longer keeping time, store in the refrigerator for up to three days or freezer for up to three months. In addition to preventing food borne illnesses, refrigeration seems to help with separating. (If separation occurs–yellowish liquid on the bottom—just remix.).

Make sure that your holiday cookies or gingerbread houses bring nothing but joy! Avoid raw egg whites when making your decorating frosting.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Homemade Eggnog Made Safe

Eggnog and holidays seem to go hand in hand.  While prepared eggnog is readily available at the supermarket, there is nothing like homemade eggnog.  Since eggs are a main ingredient of homemade eggnog, homemade eggnog has the potential to spoil holiday fun and cause Salmonella poisoning from the use of raw or undercooked eggs.  Salmonella bacteria is a potential risk even when refrigerated eggs with clean, uncracked shells are used.

How to convert a special family eggnog recipe into a safe recipe

Use a cooked egg base.  FoodSafety.gov  recommends a cooked egg base for eggnog. This is especially important if you are serving people at high risk for foodborne infections: young children and pregnant women (non-alcoholic eggnog), older adults, and those with weakened immune systems.  Eggs must be cooked to 160 °F to kill bacteria that may be present such as Salmonella.   A cooked egg base or custard is made by heating half of the the milk and/or cream to almost boiling and ever so slowly adding the beaten egg yolks (or sometimes the whole egg) and sugar (or any sugar substitute).  Continue to cook and stir the mixture gently until an internal temperature of 160 °F is reached.  At this temperature, the mixture will firmly coat a metal spoon and remain separated when a finger is drawn through it. Do not let the mixture go beyond 160 °F as above that temperature, the eggs are likely to curdle.  (If curdling occurs, put the mixture in a blend and blend until smooth.)   Place the mixture in a bowl of  ice water to stop the cooking action and prevent curdling or further curdling and then refrigerate.

Use pasteurized eggs yolks. Eggnog may be safely by using whole, liquid or pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes in place of raw eggs. Pasteurized eggs are found next to regular eggs at the store.  Commercial pasteurization of eggs is a heat process at low temperatures that destroys any Salmonella that might be present without having a noticeable effect on flavor or nutritional content. Even if you are using pasteurized eggs for your eggnog, both the FDA and the USDA recommend starting with a cooked egg base for optimal safety.  When egg substitute products are used, some experimentation might be needed to figure out the right amount to add for the best flavor.

Use alcohol to inhibit bacterial growth.  While alcohol will inhibit bacterial growth, adding alcohol (in amounts recommended by most recipes) will not be sufficient to kill bacteria.  However, if one wants to use alcohol, Cooks Illustrated suggests that 1 1/2 ounces of 80 proof liquor per egg and three weeks of aging in the refrigerator is sufficient to kill bacteria when dairy is omitted until ready to serve. Such was conclusively proven by microbiologists at Rockefeller University where salmonella bacteria was purposely added  to eggnog and analyzed over a three-week period. By the three-week mark, the alcohol had rendered the eggnog completely sterile.

Substitute egg whites.  If a recipe calls for adding beaten egg whites to the hot egg/milk custard, use pasteurized egg whites.  While pasteurized egg whites do not whip to the same volume as raw egg, they are safe.  It has not been proven that raw egg whites are free of Salmonella bacteria; NOR has it been shown that when adding them to the hot milk/egg custard, the custard remains hot enough to kill any bacteria.  Another good substitute is whipping cream whipped to soft peaks added at the time of serving.

Here’s to a safe and worry-free holiday!  Follow these suggestions for your favorite eggnog recipe to ensure everyone can enjoy delicious, creamy homemade eggnog without worry of a foodborne illness.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Holiday Exchange and Return Tips

It’s an unavoidable fact of the holiday season—gift returns.  Billions of dollars in gifts are returned each holiday season. Consumers rush back to the store or flock to online retailers to return or exchange gifts that they do not want for a variety of reasons–wrong size, duplicate, don’t like it, can’t use it, defective.

Recent retail news indicates that the traditional return or exchange may not be as easy as it’s been in past years; 60% of retailers are said to be rolling out stricter policies for 2022.  Due to rising transportation and other inflationary costs, companies have been updating their return policies in an effort to curb the costs and hassles of returns. Updates may include a shorter return window, required receipt or proof of purchase, and shipping or restocking fees.

To avoid surprises no matter where you shop, read the fine print or ask questions to familiarize yourself with the return or exchange options before purchase and include a gift receipt with your gifts to reduce hassles for the recipient. Consumer Reports has outlined the current (2022) return guidelines of popular retailers categorizing them as the “best and worst return policies.” 

Make your holiday returns go more smoothly with these tips:
  • Know the retailer’s policies before making a purchase. What is the return policy and how does it work?  Restocking fee?  Cash refunds?  Exchanges only?  Store credit?  Return shipping?  Can online purchase be returned to local store?  Be aware of third-party sellers who may have a different return policy than the retailer (i.e., Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, eBay, and Newegg). 
  • Understand product warranty. Most electronics and home appliances come with warranties that are to be fulfilled by the manufacturer, not the retailer. How are returns and repairs handled if an item does not work, stops working or needs replacement parts?
  • Keep your receipts and packaging. Most retailers will only accept returns and exchanges with a receipt and in original packaging making it important to keep receipts or give gift receipts. Without a receipt, a retailer may refuse a return or offer store credit at the most recent lowest price of the item. Cash for a returned item is usually only offered with the original receipt and when cash was used at the time of sale.  Original packaging means keeping all tags in place; if the tag includes a price, mark it out or remove at the perforation.  Also, it is best to not open the original package until you are sure you will be keeping the gift.  Personalized gifts are usually nonreturnable.
  • Bring your ID. To avoid holiday return scams, many stores ask to see your ID when you return an item. Some chains use computerized return authorization systems to detect abuse and track your return history. Without a receipt, retailers may deny a return or exchange if history shows you are a frequent returner without receipt.
  • Return or exchange in a timely fashion.  The window for returns or exchanges varies by retailer.  Some retailers are expanding their window while others are shortening it. Time is of the essence for ensuring that the chance to exchange or return an item is not missed.  
  • Practice kindness and patience.  Waiting a few days after the holidays will reduce crowds at the return counter and clerks will be less frazzled.  If you are not satisfied with the way the return or exchange was handled by the clerk, ask to speak to a manager and deal with the problem in a congenial manner—keep your cool!

For additional tips and to protect yourself from holiday scams and theft, visit the BBB Holiday Tips page.

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Jessica Dickler.  25 November 2022.  Don’t bank on free returns:  60% of retailers roll out stricter policies. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/11/25/retailers-roll-out-stricter-return-policies-ahead-of-the-holidays.html

Gordon, Samantha B.  8 November 2022. Guide to Returning Gifts: Retailers with the Best and Worst Return Policies. Consumer Reports.  https://www.consumerreports.org/returns-refunds-exchanges/guide-to-returning-gifts-a8582928649/

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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