Sweet and healthful treats

By Samantha Tucker samantha@prairiepress.net
Posted 11/18/19

The phrase healthy dessert feels like an oxymoron, especially in a culinary culture emphasizing bigger portions and increasing amounts of sugar. A giant cookie from the deli counter surely cannot be …

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Sweet and healthful treats


The phrase healthy dessert feels like an oxymoron, especially in a culinary culture emphasizing bigger portions and increasing amounts of sugar. A giant cookie from the deli counter surely cannot be made harmless, can it?

Well, no, according to Mary Liz Wright at her University of Illinois Extension program on healthy desserts. But that hypothetical cookie has a lot of room for nutritional improvement in its ingredients and portion size. Food science and psychology have shown that when people change the way they approach dessert, the result is a more fulfilling version of classic treats.

“You can have your cake and eat it too if you’re careful, pay attention to the ingredients you use and make substitutions,” said Wright.

One of the first things anyone can do to reduce calories is substituting butter using oil, margarine or fruit. Any soft fruit like mashed bananas, avocadoes, unsweetened applesauce and soaked baby prunes can replace up to half of the butter in baking. Some of these stand-ins bring their own taste to the dish, but Wright noted this is often a good thing – she recently applied baby prunes to a brownie recipe, and the result tasted like a Lil’ Debbie Cosmic Brownie. She advise attendees not to make more than three substitutions at a time, and to keep reference notes when substituting.

Another trick is using healthier versions of ingredients, like skim milk in place of whole or mixing whole wheat flour in with white flour. And unless baking a dish with yeast, it is usually safe to reduce a recipe’s salt by half. Sugar can be cut by up to a third without sacrificing flavor, especially when bakers take their flavors up a notch with spices.

Using more spices always amplifies taste. Sometimes it can even trick the brain into perceiving something as sweeter than it is. Nuts are also packed with taste and the best way to release it is by toasting them. This also reduces the amount of nuts needed to achieve the desired flavor. In chocolatey recipes, bakers can add more cocoa or use dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.

A teaspoon of espresso powder or instant coffee adds another rich cocoa boost.

Aesthetic components such as icings, double pie crusts and nuts add extraneous calories and can sometimes be omitted entirely. In the case of pies, healthy home cooks might even opt for a lighter cobbler or crisp instead.

There is much ado about sugar, and plenty of confusion about different kinds of sugars such as brown sugar, cane sugar and sugar in the raw. Ultimately, Wright says, this subdivision is mostly a marketing strategy.

“According to our digestive system, sugar is sugar,” she said, and any advantage to a non-white sugar lies in its flavor. Brown sugar brings a deeper taste than granulated sugar because of its molasses content, and more flavor means less is needed. The same is true for honey.

One of the most popular sugar substitutes is sucralose, more commonly known by the brand name Splenda. Sucralose is an inert sugar product that retains sugar’s sweetness. It is low-calorie and carbohydrate-free because the digestive system does not break it down for energy or fat. It is not a perfect replacement in all baked goods – it lacks sugar’s leavening properties and does not experience the Maillard reaction (that signature browning and caramelization in many desserts). When cooking with sucralose, it is best to seek out recipes specifically developed for it.

Wright next piece of advice was to simply reduce portion sizes. The three-bite rule popular in France says the first bite awakens the taste buds to the flavors and sensations of the dessert, the second confirms what the first told you, then after the third bite a diner is simply eating and not savoring. Science backs this up, as studies have shown humans get all their information about a food in the first three bites.

Finally, people should think of the dessert as part of the whole meal, rather than a sweet add-on without nutrition. This opens up the possibility of incorporating fruits, nuts and even veggies to desserts to satisfy both taste buds and body.