A. Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, managing editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, answers. “The added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats in baked goods like muffins, cakes, and cookies are associated with numerous chronic health problems, and nutrition experts universally recommend cutting back on their intake (see A Report Card on the American Diet on page 6). For those who want to bake a treat, reducing the amount of sugar in the recipe (and adding fruit and whole-grain ingredients) improves the nutritional content.
“Sugar plays many roles in baked goods beyond providing sweetness. Cutting sugar can make baked goods less moist and blander. Their shelf-life will be shorter and brownness will not be as good an indicator of doneness. Cookies made with less than the recommended amount of sugar will not spread as much, and they will be cakier and less crunchy. It will take some trial and error to adjust recipes to your liking.
“One popular way to cut back on sugar is to substitute fruit. Fruit provides sweetness along with fiber and other bioactive compounds. One-quarter cup of applesauce or puree of banana, figs, or other fruits can be used to replace one cup of sugar in a recipe, although this may result in changes to texture and rising. Sprinkling in chopped dried fruit can also replace a few tablespoons of sugar (and add beneficial fiber).
“Sugar substitutes can be used: for example, one teaspoon of a Stevia replaces one cup of white sugar (or 1/8 teaspoon Stevia for every Tablespoon of sugar). So-called ‘baking blends’ that mix sugar with a sugar substitute are available in many markets. See product packages for substitution details.
“Sprinkling sugar on top of a baked good or drizzling on a glaze of confectioners’ sugar mixed with milk or water can provide a strong sugary taste with less sugar overall.
“Remember, while making adjustments to recipes is fine, cutting back on portion sizes and overall intake of sweets and baked goods (and choosing sweet fruits when the craving hits) is considerably better.”