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Load up for holidays with healthy baking alternatives: Sweeteners (part 1)

It is evident in the stores already – the holidays are almost here.

Not only will it soon be time to prepare your décor for the festivities, it will also be time to adjust your menu. From the crumble-topped muffins the size of a small toddler’s head (hello, Costco) to the decadent layers of mouth-watering goodness, on and on it will go!

Last year around this time, readers showed much interest in learning about healthier baking alternatives. It pays to be prepared, so in the next series of articles as the holidays unfold, we will explore some healthy baking swaps.

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

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

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

If you remove white sugar, significant changes might occur – though they may not be all bad. However, you do need to be aware of them when you consider what swap you want to make.

If the “rise” is important to you, then you’d best not use a non-calorie sweetener that yeast can’t feed on.

When making a low-sugar jam with certain fruits that are naturally low in pectin, be aware that without it your gel won’t set. Substituting honey into a standard cornbread recipe will result in a browner, denser bread.

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

Unless you are an experienced cook (or rather adventurous), you may want to start with recipes that already call for a substitute for white sugar.

Different sweeteners can have various effects in the body too.

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 and with that of a natural sweetener, 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.

There may benefits in using one of these, however, despite the similarity in caloric content.

Local raw honey has benefits for the immune system. Some natural sugars contain more minerals (i.e. calcium, iron, phosphorus, etc.) than white sugar – not a lot, but some (you would do better eating a banana or liver if you really wanted more of those).

While calories might not differ, the effects on your blood sugar and your gut might. The sugars we taste with our tongue are actually bigger molecules (di-saccharides) made up of two smaller ones (mono-saccharides). Those two smaller molecules are either glucose, fructose or galactose (the latter only in dairy substances).

Different natural sugars vary in 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 can remain undigested in the gut and lead to diarrhea. (Ever had a problem when you powered down the mega smoothie at Jamba Juice?)

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

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

The body can also be affected by other low-calorie sugar substitutes, called sugar alcohol. These include Erythritol, Xylitol, sorbitol and Mannitol and are called sugar alcohols due to their chemical structure,  NOT because they contain alcohol. These will not raise a person’s blood sugar levels much. However, they have a low rate of absorption and when consumed in amounts of more than 20 to 50 mg., can cause serious gas and diarrhea.

Artificial sweeteners and their effect in the body should be a whole article all by itself. A vast array of information is out about the effect artificial sweeteners can have on our appetite, healthy gut bacteria, our overall response to blood sugar and more. I never recommend artificial sweeteners.

So there you have it, a quick overview of what sugar does in the baking and the body in order to choose what swaps you may want to use.

Next month, we’ll look in more detail at options for natural sweeteners and low-calorie sweeteners!

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and baby daughter. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com