When baking, is it healthier to use sugar or a sugar substitute?

People with diabetes frequently ask me how they can improve their blood sugar levels but still have sweets. Cooking with a sugar substitute could be one way to do that. There are several different kinds out there using various sugar alternatives (sucralose, aspartame, saccharine). But I always remind my patients that, while using a sugar substitute will decrease some of the sugar and calories in desserts, these foods will still have calories, fat, and some sugar which will add up if the patient consumes a lot of the product. So I always urge my patients to continue to monitor portion sizes of desserts and not consider desserts made with sugar substitute “fair game”.

Sugar serves many purposes in desserts. It obviously can add sweetness to the dessert but it also can help with the volume of the dessert. It can help add crispiness, moisture, tenderness and aids in browning the dessert. But, along with sugar’s positive attributes comes many negative, as eating a diet that is too high in sugar can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and can lead to many negative side effects in someone with diabetes.

Personally, I am not much of a baker and have not cooked with a sugar substitute. When talking to other dietitians, I get mixed messages regarding whether they prefer sugar or an alternative. Many of my colleagues did not like sugar substitutes because the dessert possessed an artificial flavor when compared to the dessert prepared with sugar. Some said that various artificial sweeteners could not be added until after the dessert has been heated, which can create recipe issues. One RD told me that there was a “gummy” consistency to the cake that she made using a sugar substitute. I did receive a few “thumbs up” to using sugar substitute over sugar, though, and the dietitians reminded me that someone closely monitoring blood sugars could finally enjoy a sweet treat without much impact on their glucose levels which is a good thing. So, my advice would be to go to a reputable diabetes website and print a few recipes which call for artificial sweetener. Play around with the recipes and test the end result out on your family. I think there may be a role for sugar substitute in baking, but, if you are really looking forward to having dessert (for me it would be cake) I suspect that I won’t be satisfied with anything but cake made with sugar. And let’s face it, if you follow a healthy and well balanced diet, there is room in every diet for a little decadent dessert…in moderation!

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