Chances are, you’ve tried one or more sugar substitutes in an effort to cut calories or control your carbohydrate intake. Maybe you use a sweetener such as sucralose (brand name Splenda) in your morning coffee, or you might reach for a can of diet soda that contains aspartame to help quench your thirst. But you might be wondering about using sugar substitutes when you cook or bake. Can you use them, and, if so, what works best?
Sugar substitutes 101
Sugar substitutes, which are also called artificial sweeteners, nonnutritive sweeteners, or noncaloric sweeteners, are sweeteners that contain virtually no calories and no carbohydrate. These sweeteners are chemicals or plant-based substances that are hundreds of times sweeter than regular sugar (sucrose) and that have little or no effect on blood sugar levels. Sugar substitutes are very popular among people who have diabetes, as well as the general population. Given that a can of regular cola contains 143 calories and 40 grams of carb (all of them from sugar), it’s easy to understand why one would reach for a can of diet soda with 0 calories and 0 grams of carb.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved eight sugar substitutes.
• Acesulfame-K (brand names Sunett and Sweet One)
• Aspartame (brand names Equal and Nutrasweet)
• Monk fruit extract (brand names Pure Fruit, Monk Fruit in the Raw, Fruit Sweetness)
• Neotame (brand name Newtame)
• Saccharin (brand names Sweet’N Low and Sugar Twin)
• Steviol glycosides, or rebiana (brand names PureVia, Truvia, SweetLeaf, Zing)
• Sucralose (brand name Splenda)
Another class of sweeteners called sugar alcohols also are used as sugar substitutes. These sweeteners contain about half the calories and carbohydrate as sugar (for reference, a teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories and 4 grams of carb). Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, and xylitol. Common side effects of sugar alcohol are gassiness, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea, although small amounts generally are well-tolerated. While sugar alcohols are available for use in cooking or baking, they more commonly are used as additives by food manufacturers for products such as sugar-free candy and no-sugar-added ice cream, for example.
The role of sugar in baking and cooking
Regular or table sugar is known for its sweetness — and its calories and carbs. Sugar gets a bad rap and is blamed for many major health problems such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes. But all cooks and bakers know that sugar is an invaluable ingredient in helping to ensure foods not only taste good, but also have the right texture, color, and volume. Sugar does more than just make foods and beverages taste good. In baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, and brownies, sugar creates a light, tender product and adds volume. It also helps trap and hold moisture so that those chewy chocolate chip cookies don’t immediately turn into hockey pucks. Sugar also helps with browning (picture a golden crust on a loaf of banana bread) and can crystalize to add crunch or texture to baked goods. If you’re a bread baker, you probably know that sugar helps to feed the yeast that provides leavening. When sugar is heated, it caramelizes, forming the basis for caramel sauce or flan. And who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a flaming baked Alaska dessert or lemon meringue pie with its frosty white peaks, formed by egg whites beaten with — you guessed it — sugar!
Sugar also plays a role in cooked dishes to help smooth out bitterness and tartness. For example, spaghetti sauce, barbeque sauce, and some salad dressing recipes often call for a little bit of sugar to help tame sharp flavors.
Using sugar substitutes in cooking and baking
Sugar substitutes can be used in both cooked items and baked goods, but it’s important to realize that the end result may not be identical to the same product made with sugar. Sugar substitutes, while very sweet, don’t have the same properties or chemical composition as table sugar. For these reasons, be prepared for the following issues.
• A lighter color. Baked goods made with sugar substitutes tend to be light in color. Sugar substitutes don’t provide the same browning effect as sugar.
• Flatter products. Cakes, quick breads, and muffins may not have the same volume when prepared with sugar substitutes.
• Texture differences. Baked goods made with these sweeteners tend to be drier and denser (almost like a biscuit) than those made with sugar because the sweeteners don’t hold moisture. Besides being drier, products may become stale more quickly.
• Taste differences. Sugar substitutes can impart an aftertaste; some people find this more noticeable than others.
• Cooking time. You may need to adjust the time required to bake a cake or cookies made with sugar substitutes.
To prevent your grandmother’s spice cake from turning out like a pancake (and tasting like cardboard), it’s generally recommended not to use a sugar substitute in a baked goods recipe for all the sugar called for. Depending on the sweetener you are using, the proportions of sugar may vary. Check the product’s package or website for specific information on how to bake with a sugar substitute.
Despite some of the issues that can occur when using sugar substitutes, they can still be useful in helping you and your family cut down on sugar while enjoying sweet treats. However, not all sugar substitutes are well-suited for cooking and baking, so choose wisely. Here are the sugar substitutes best suited for cooking and/or baking.
• Sucralose: This sweetener is 600 times sweeter than sugar. One teaspoon contains one calorie and 0 grams of carb, and one cup contains 48 calories and 12 grams of carb. This sweetener is heat stable and therefore great for baking, cooking, and canning. It’s also available in a brown sugar version. Splenda’s website provides helpful tips for baking and cooking with Splenda.
For example, when baking cookies, it advises substituting only the white sugar in the recipe with Splenda, not the brown sugar. Doing so will retain a cookie’s characteristic chewy or crunchy texture. To ensure cakes and quick breads rise to their full height, Splenda advises using small pans and adding nonfat dry milk powder and baking soda for every one cup of granulated Splenda used. For more helpful hints, visit www.splenda.com.
• Saccharin: Years ago, saccharin was pretty much the only sweetener in town. Tab, one of the first diet sodas to hit the market, was sweetened with saccharin. This sweetener is 300 times sweeter than sugar. It’s available in packets, in bulk, and in a liquid form. One packet contains 2 calories and 0.5 grams of carb. The Sweet’N Low website states that saccharin is heat-stable, making it suitable for baking, cooking, and canning. While you can substitute saccharin for all the sugar in a recipe, the website advises keeping some of the sugar in baked goods recipes to maintain proper volume and texture. A substitution chart is provided to determine the right amount of saccharin to use in a recipe.
To enhance volume and texture, other helpful baking hints are provided on Sweet’N Low’s website, including increasing the amount of liquid ingredients and adding an extra egg or two egg whites. To learn how to best use saccharin in recipes, visit www.sweetnlow.com or www.sugartwin.com.
• Stevia (steviol glycosides): Some of the newer sweeteners to enter the market are the stevia-based sweeteners. These sweeteners contain an extract from the stevia leaf called rebaudioside-A. The term “stevia” refers to the entire stevia plant, which is not the same as stevia-based sweeteners. Stevia-based sweeteners are 200 times sweeter than sugar. One packet contains between zero and one calorie and one to four grams of carb, depending on the brand.
One brand, Truvia, contains erythritol, a sugar alcohol that is added to provide bulk and texture. Pure Via contains dextrose, a type of sugar. Stevia-based sweeteners are suitable for baking; however, they can’t replace sugar cup for cup in recipes. It’s best to leave at least 1/4 cup of sugar in the recipe to help with browning and provide texture. You likely will need to use a lower baking temperature and increase the baking time. Find more tips and recipes at the manufacturers’ websites: www.truvia.com, www.purevia.com, www.sweetleaf.com, www.zingstevia.com.
• Monk fruit extract (luo han guo): Monk fruit extract is another newcomer to the sweetener scene. This sugar substitute is derived from the monk fruit, a gourd native to southern China and Thailand. The fruit itself has been used for centuries as a medicinal remedy to treat ailments ranging from sore throats to diabetes. Monk fruit extract’s sweetness comes from antioxidants called mogrosides that are 200 times sweeter than sugar. One packet of the sweetener has 0 calories and less than 1 gram of carb. The FDA gave monk fruit extract GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in 2009; at this point, this sugar substitute doesn’t have rigorous scientific evidence behind it.
However, that being said, there is no evidence to suggest this sweetener has any side effects or could be harmful. Monk fruit extract is heat stable, so it’s suitable for cooking and baking. This sweetener can be substituted for sugar in recipes for sauces, dressings and beverages. However, when it comes to baked goods, one of the manufacturers, Monk Fruit in the Raw, recommends substituting monk fruit extract for half the sugar in a recipe. To learn more, visit www.intheraw.com/products/monk-fruit-in-the-raw.
• Sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol are sugar substitutes that are used to sweeten many foods, such as sugar-free candies and no-sugar-added cookies and ice cream products. Unlike nonnutritive sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and stevia, sugar alcohols do contain some calories and carbohydrate but in amounts less than those found in sugar. If consumed in large amounts, sugar alcohols may have an effect on blood sugar levels; they also can cause stomach upset and diarrhea in some people because they are not completely digested.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that can be using in baking. It can be used, cup for cup, in place of all of the sugar in a recipe. Xylitol is heat stable and even provides some volume and texture, unlike other types of sweeteners. However, one brand of xylitol called XyloSweet recommends not using xylitol for making bread or pastries as they won’t rise enough. Also, because xylitol absorbs moisture, baked products may be dry; you may need to increase the amount of liquid ingredients in the recipe to compensate. Erythritol, another sugar alcohol, may be used for baking as well. Sold under the name ZSweet, erythritol has less effect on the digestive tract than other sugar alcohols, making it suitable for people who may suffer from bloating, cramps, or diarrhea from ingesting sugar alcohols. For more information on baking with sugar alcohols, visit www.xlear.com and www.zsweet.com.
Sugar substitute blends
While sugar substitutes can help reduce calorie and carb intake, they don’t possess all the properties of sugar, which means they either may not be suitable for baking at all, or the final product may not have the same texture, volume, or appearance as a baked good made with sugar. For this reason, many of the sugar substitute manufacturers also produce “sugar blends,” which combine a particular sugar substitute with sugar. If you decide to bake with a sugar blend, be sure to read the instructions. When replacing sugar with a sugar blend, you’ll generally use half as much — for example, 1/2 cup of sugar blend instead of 1 cup of sugar. Available sugar blends include:
• Splenda Sugar Blend and Splenda Brown Sugar Blend;
• Pure Via Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar and Stevia Blend;
• Truvia Baking Blend and Truvia Brown Sugar Blend;
• SweetLeaf SugarLeaf; and
• Zing Baking Blend.
Remember, too, that sugar blends do contain calories and carbohydrate, so be sure to account for these in your eating plan.