Healthy plate: Utilize sugar substitutes this holiday season

Chicago TribuneDecember 8, 2010 

It’s high season for baking, so expect to see cooks prowling supermarket aisles for ingredients to sweeten holiday cookies, cakes and pastries.

Also expect to see an increasing number of sugar substitutes nudging the traditionals -- granulated sugar, brown sugar and confectioners’ sugar -- on grocery store shelves.

Some promise “zero” or “no” calories, or “natural” or “organic” ingredients. Some are based on substances found in nature; some aren’t. Still others mix the sugar substitute with granulated sugar for a “blend” to take advantage of sugar’s ability to brown and bulk up foods.

The front of some labels may tout their attributes: “Excellent for Cooking and Baking.” “Great for Cooking and Baking.”

Elsewhere on the label, you may find a caveat, such as “you may need to modify your recipes” or “reduce the pan size and baking temperature by 25 percent” or “try adding 1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder.” Some baking tips are offered on their websites, which can get confusing. We wondered how well a few sugar substitutes would bake up in a basic recipe without tweaking and fussing.

Could they deliver the flavor, color and texture that come with granulated sugar? And how much can they really cut calories in a product made with flour, butter, maybe chocolate, maybe nuts?

“It really depends on what kind of food you’re talking about,” said Stephanie Dunbar, director of nutrition and medical affairs at the American Diabetes Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “With some things, you can easily reduce the carbohydrates in it.

“Let’s say you’re making an apple cobbler -- something that doesn’t have a pie crust, but a little oatmeal topping. If you used one of the baking blends, then you would significantly reduce the amount of carbohydrates because it doesn’t have the flour in it. You can adjust, you can use a little less fat.

“If you’re talking about foods that have a lot of white flour and butter, you have to take into consideration all those things,” added Dunbar, who’s also a registered dietitian. “I think using the artificial sweeteners for baking doesn’t give you a license to just eat as much as you want because you’ve still got the fat in it, you still have the carbohydrate from the white flour.”

Isn’t it just easier to eat a small piece of a dessert or just one or two chocolate chip cookies made with regular cane sugar?

“If someone really wanted to have a small piece of something with regular sugar in it, they can fit that in. But they have to consider all the things that are in it and how it would fit in,” said Dunbar.

We decided to bake basic butter cakes with four of the sweet products -- each label suggested they would work in baked goods -- and a fifth with granulated sugar. A blind tasting was held with the five cakes. While comments varied, most tasters tapped the cake baked with Splenda Blend as the one they would make of those prepared with a sugar substitute.

A few tips

Look at the label. “If you’re buying something like a sugar-free pie,” said Stephanie Dunbar, director of nutrition and medical affairs at the American Diabetes Association, “you can compare it to a regular. A lot of time the fat is higher and there’s not much difference in the calories.”

Go to diabetes.org for more information, including “Using Sugar Substitutes in the Kitchen.”

Compare recipes. Go to the diabetes website, then “My Food Advisor.” “You can see how substituting different things will make a difference in the recipe.”

If you indulge this holiday season, “then don’t take (leftovers) home with you. Send it away with somebody else.”

Remember portions. “Portion size is one of the most important factors for desserts, for stuffing and for turkey. If you eat a little less, there are fewer calories, there’s less carbohydrates, there’s less fat and there’s less sodium because you’re just eating less.”

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