Healthy baking alternatives, Part 1: Sweeteners

Cathryn Arndt

It’s evident in stores already: The holidays are almost here. Not only will it soon be time to prepare your décor, it’ll also be time to adjust your menus. From crumble-topped muffins the size of a small toddler’s head (hello, Costco) to decadent layers of mouth-watering goodness, on and on it will go!

Readers showed much interest in learning about healthier baking alternatives. It pays to be prepared, so in this next series of articles, we’ll explore some healthy baking swaps as the holidays unfold.

A “healthy swap” can have different meanings for different people. Typically, they wish to avoid certain foods or ingredients to lose weight, manage blood sugar or consume fewer calories. Sometimes they want to add nutritious boosts to what might otherwise be a little less than healthy. Substituting other sweeteners for white, refined sugar is one of the top swaps.

Excessive sugar, along with other lifestyle factors, undeniably cause myriad health problems. As a dietitian, I encourage people to eat less refined sugar. Two things should be considered before using a white-sugar substitute: what happens in the cooking/baking process and what happens in your body.

Swapping sweeteners in baking is tricky because you can’t exchange just any form of sweetener for another and expect identical results. Some swaps will work in certain recipes and not in others because sugar functions as more than a sweetener. Depending on the cooking method and the ingredients with which it’s paired, sugar contributes to browning (the Maillard reaction), caramelization, tenderness and “crumb” (i.e., “texture”), rise and leavening (especially in yeast breads), gelatinization/gelling in canning, and overall moisture.

If you remove white sugar, significant changes may occur. Although they may not be all bad, you need to be aware of them when considering swaps. If the “rise” is important to you, then it’s best not to use a noncalorie sweetener upon which yeast can’t feed. When making a low-sugar jam with certain low-pectin fruits, be aware that without sugar, your gel won’t set. Substituting honey into a standard cornbread recipe will result in a browner, denser bread.

Using artificial, low-calorie (with sugar alcohols) and natural, no-calorie sweeteners such as Stevia and monk fruit will create changes too. None add moisture or browning, and only about half are heat-stable. Some have a distinct aftertaste, and most are so potent you can’t use them in a 1:1 ratio with white sugar. You will have to follow manufacturers’ guidelines to use appropriately.

Different sweeteners can also have various effects in the body. Calorically speaking, there is no difference in calories between refined, white sugar and “natural sweeteners” (from fruit, maple syrup, honey and agave). If you compare a teaspoon of granulated sugar with that of a natural sweetener – like honey or maple syrup – it would all be the same (16 calories per 4 grams).

So using a natural sweetener instead of sugar doesn’t actually save you on the calories. However, it doesn’t mean they’re bad to use. There can be perks. Local raw honey has benefits for the immune system. Some natural sugars are accompanied by more minerals (i.e., calcium, iron, phosphorus, etc.) than white sugar – not a lot, but some.

While calories might not differ, the effects on your blood sugar and gut might. The sugars we taste are actually larger molecules (disaccharides) consisting of two smaller ones (monosaccharides) that are either glucose, fructose or galactose (the latter is only in dairy).

Different natural sugar varies in the percentages of glucose and fructose. Glucose will raise your “blood-sugar level” while higher-fructose sugars will not affect it as significantly. However, too much fructose at one time remains undigested in the gut and leads to diarrhea. (Ever had a problem when you powered down the mega-smoothie at Jamba Juice?)

Additionally, fructose goes straight to the liver for processing, which means it can easily go toward fat and cholesterol production. In extreme cases, it can cause fatty liver. This is one reason high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is so detrimental to one’s health! The double-edged sword with HFCS is that its pervasiveness makes it difficult to avoid. It’s in snacks, condiments and beverages.

Please understand the fructose isn’t all bad in a whole-food form (fruit) and when eaten in moderation. It can have the effects I mentioned when turned into a concentrated sweetener. Agave nectar is one such popular liquid sugar substitute. It’s touted as healthy, yet it can be up to 97% fructose! It’s essentially HFCS in disguise!

The body can also be affected by other low-calorie sugar substitutes, or sugar alcohol. Erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol are called sugar alcohols due to their chemical structure, not because they contain alcohol. These will not raise blood-sugar levels much. However, they have a low absorption rate, and when consumed in amounts greater than 20 to 50 milligrams, can cause serious gas and diarrhea.

Artificial sweeteners and their effects in the body should be a whole article all by itself. A vast array of information is available about artificial sweeteners’ effects on our appetites, healthy gut bacteria, overall response to blood sugar and more. I never recommend them.

So there you have it: a quick overview of what sugar does in the baking and the body in order to choose swaps to use. Next month, let’s examine in more detail the options for natural and low-calorie sweeteners!

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She lives in Lebanon with her husband and daughters. Find her on Facebook by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”