How Sweet It Is
Sugar just doesn't seem as sinister today as it once did. That's in part because people with diabetes have learned that sweet indulgences are OK, in moderation. But just because you're allowed to eat sugar doesn't mean you should blow your carbohydrate allotment on the sweet stuff. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), people following a 2,000-calorie diet should get no more than 40 grams of added sugars daily—the equivalent of 8 to 10 teaspoons of sugar, or the amount in one 12-ounce soda. The problem is that, according to USDA data, most people get more like three or four times that amount. "Even if you don't have diabetes or if you have pre-diabetes, watching the amount of sugar in your diet is prudent," says Marlene Koch, RD, a registered dietitian, cooking instructor, and author of Marlene Koch's Sensational Splenda Recipes: Over 375 Recipes Low in Sugar, Fat and Calories. "Eight teaspoons of sugar may sound like a lot, but a piece of carrot cake with icing has 18 [teaspoons]."
Aside from being a major source of carbs, sugar has zilch nutritional content. By lessening the amount of sugar you get from each food, you can save your allotted carbs for healthier fare, like whole grains and fruits. Case in point: Knock just 3 teaspoons of sugar from your meal and you'll save 12 grams of carbohydrate, the amount in more than a half cup of blueberries.
An easy way to slash sugar is by using sugar substitutes, many of which are calorie free and don't raise blood glucose levels. They pack a wallop when it comes to sweetness, but with far fewer calories than the real deal. Of course, you must still mind your carbs and calories. "Just because we're replacing the sugar doesn't mean it's a free-for-all," says Pauline Williams, MPA, RD, CD, a registered dietitian and the clinical nutrition manager at the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City. "It still has carbohydrates, it still has fat, it's still a treat, [and] it's still a baked good. But maybe you can eat two instead of one."
Still, sugar does more than lend cookies and cupcakes a sweet flavor; it keeps baked goods moist, gives them a golden-brown color, thickens recipes, and helps foods rise. (Drinks, dressings, and cold dishes made with sugar substitutes lose little in the translation because they rely less on sugar's other properties.) "Whenever you're going to replace sugar with sweetener, you're just replacing one trait: the sweetness," not the other factors that make for good baking, says Williams. But there are ways to trick your baked goods into behaving like full-sugar products. To sidestep common cooking quandaries, read on.
Problem: My cake won't rise
Sugar helps batter rise, so cakes and muffins made without it can appear deflated. Stacey Harris, a Pittsburgh pastry chef and caterer who was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes four years ago, often uses a Splenda-and-sugar blend or just lessens the amount of sugar in a recipe without adding artificial sweetener. Her Web site, The Diabetic Pastry Chef, includes tips and suggestions for whipping up low-sugar goodies like angel food cake and pound cake. Williams adds a couple of tablespoons of flour to give volume to cakes, and Koch includes an extra half teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour to give baked goods height. Another trick: Opt for a smaller pan size, which will force the same amount of batter to rise higher.
Problem: My cake is dry and crumbly
"Whenever you take the sugar out, you're always going to have a drier product," says Williams. The solution? Retain a few tablespoons of brown sugar for moistness and then replace all other sugar with sweetener. You can also try agave nectar, a naturally sweet syrup from the agave plant (yes, the same one that gives us tequila; see our guide to sweeteners).
Problem: I want a golden-brown color
That delicate browning is the hallmark of a done-to-perfection baked good, but sugar substitutes can leave even the most perfectly executed pie looking pale. Williams adds a couple of tablespoons of molasses or honey to the recipe to help it brown while Harris spritzes batter with cooking spray before baking to achieve a golden hue.
Problem: My cookies bake into balls
Cookies made with artificial sweeteners won't flatten when heated. A simple solution is to flatten before baking by pressing the back of a spoon into each scoop of dough.
Problem: The taste is off
Cooking with saccharin or aspartame alone can leave a funky aftertaste. To prevent this, Williams suggests combining the two, which allows you to use less sweetener but gain a stronger sugar flavor. So, while a half cup of sugar typically equals about 12 packets of saccharin or aspartame, combining the two allows you to use only six packets—three of each sweetener—for the same half cup of sugar. (Williams uses this trick when making homemade tapioca pudding.) For custards and cookies, Harris adds an extra teaspoon of vanilla extract to impart a real sugar flavor.
Learning to cook with substitutes takes practice and a willingness to experiment. "It was a lot of trial and error at first for me because it was uncharted territory," says Harris, admitting that she was initially put off by the thought of cooking with nonsugar sweeteners. After experimenting, she now serves sugar-free baked goods to friends, who are none the wiser. Once you, too, get the hang of it, you can deftly fool friends and family with your own delicious, healthy treats
Sugar Free Sweets
These treats skip the sugar and stay sweet with Splenda, stevia, and agave nectar.