If you’re looking to cut back on calories and avoid a carb overload this holiday season, then you’re probably considering baking some of your favorite dishes with artificial sweeteners. Luckily, there are a host of sugar substitutes to choose from to make every baked good as delicious as its original sugar-filled recipe.
Artificial sweeteners are commonplace in grocery stores today and are marketed in sugar-free or diet products like sodas, candies, chewing gums, fruit juice, yogurt, ice cream, and baked goods. The type of sugar substitute used in each food varies vastly in flavor and composition.
Some alternatives are several thousand times sweeter than regular sugar, and some, like sugar alcohols, may even cause gastrointestinal (GI) problems in people with sensitive tummies.
Sugar substitutes are typically sought out by those who are diabetic or who have weight management/weight loss in mind. However, we tend to consume an excess of carbohydrates in our day-to-day, particularly during the holidays. So opting for sugar substitutes in everyday foods and special dishes can be beneficial for your health and weight.
A diet with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is a surefire way to reduce the risk of – and even prevent – some chronic diseases.
The Basics of Sugar
When someone says they want to cut back on carbs, this usually means cutting back on sugar and starchy foods. Glucose, which is broken down from sugar during digestion, is what our body uses for energy. It’s found in carbohydrates like starchy vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and grains. Glucose powers the brain, major organs, and our muscles!
In fact, the brain alone requires some 130 grams of glucose to sustain basic energy needs. Carbs are not bad; we need them to function!
It’s when we consume an excess of sugar-containing foods that our body has to figure out where to store all that extra glucose or unneeded energy. So where does it go? Well, right into our fat cells of course.
As our fat cells grow larger, we grow larger. Consuming more carbs that you need doesn’t just cause weight gain, it can significantly increase the risk for long-term chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes.
That’s why portion control is key.
Sugars goes by many names. There is sucrose which we recognize as table sugar. This sugar is found in most vegetables and fruits and is made up of glucose and fructose. Sucrose, the plain white sugar we all love – and hate – is extracted from sugarcane or sugar beet, and then refined for consumer use.
There is also lactose which is found in milk and dairy products. This milk sugar is made up of galactose and glucose.
Interesting fact: if you or someone you know is lactose intolerant, it’s because the body does not have the enzyme to metabolize this sugar.
Last, but not least, maltose is the sugar you’d find in malted drinks and beer; it is made up of two glucose molecules.
Sucrose is broken down in the body in exactly the same way, no matter the origin of the sugar. Whether you eat a spoonful of sugar, or drink a glass of orange juice, your body will metabolize the sugar into glucose for energy. The most common sugars you’ll find in a kitchen pantry, however, are all forms of sucrose. Here’s a list of commonly used sucrose products:
- Granulated sugar – regular white sugar.
- Caster sugar – slightly finer than regular sugar that is ideal for baking cakes
- Icing sugar/Confectioners’ sugar – powdered for dusting pastries
- Light brown sugar – regular sugar with molasses added for a fuller flavor and texture
- Demerara – type of brown sugar that is more coarse and ideal for toppings
- Muscovado – dark and flavorful sugar typically used in gingerbread
What’s in a Sweetener?
If you can’t shake that sweet tooth but you want a low-calorie option, look for alternative sweeteners to flavor your favorite treats. Contrary to some warnings about alternative sweeteners, they do not bring about detrimental health problems. In fact, high intensity sweeteners used in the United States must be approved for safe consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or be considered generally recognized as safe (GRAS). There are four categories that alternative or substitute sugars fall into:
Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin)
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
Acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One)
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate
Stevia (Pure Via, Truvia)
Fruit juice concentrate
Artificial Sweeteners are zero-calorie, synthetically-produced food additives. While they provide the sweetness –many times over – and no calories, they do not provide you with any energy. They’ll pass through the body undigested, minimizing GI distress. You’ll often see dextrose or maltodextrin fillers added to artificial sweeteners because of their intense sweetness. Despite a unique aftertaste these sugars are widely accepted by consumers. In fact, most people are staunch supporters of artificial sweetener brands.
Keep in mind that these sugars do not act the same as regular sugar in baking. They don’t have a 1:1 ratio for substitution and they lack the bulk and melting properties that regular sugar has. Luckily, sucralose manufacturers have formulated granulated versions of the sweetener that can be used in baking in direct proportions. If you’re looking for easy conversion and don’t feel like experimenting with textures in baking, sucralose is your best bet for making desserts this holiday season.
Sugar Alcohols contain about half the calories and carbs of regular sugar. If you have a delicate stomach, be warned, these sweeteners can cause issues like gassiness, bloating, and cramps if consumed in large amounts. While consumers can purchase sugar alcohols for baking, they are generally used as additives by food manufacturers in sugar-free products. Xylitol and erythritol are most commonly used in baking, but you may have to compensate in some other ingredients to have a comparable end product.
Novel Sweeteners are actually a combination of various types of substitute sweeteners. Stevia is the most well-known in this category and can be up to 300 times sweeter than regular sugar. Tagatose is a naturally-occurring, low-carb option, and is about 95% more potent than sugar. Trehalose is derived from fungi like mushrooms and is about 45% sweeter than sugar.
Natural Sweeteners are thought to be a healthier option to conventional sugar, but they often go through as much processing. They’re used to sweeten a variety of foods like desserts, cereals, and tea. These are not low-calorie alternatives, so they wouldn’t help with weight management. Honey, like sugar, breaks down into glucose and fructose. Natural sweeteners are great alternatives in baking, but it comes down to you preference in taste, texture, ingredient amount, and timing.
Check out this website that discusses the best artificial sweeteners to use in baking or cooking and what the substitution factor is compared to sugar. Click here. As with everything in life, key is moderation. If you have no history of health problems, don’t assume that cutting out all regular sugar and carbs from your life is the answer to weight management or weight loss. Make compromises and explore various sugar alternatives to find the right balance for you.