Sweet Substitutes

Published in FSD Update

Operators use fruit, natural sweeteners to cut sugar in recipes.

Bates College’s chocolate raspberry cake.

The average American eats more than twice the recommended limit of six to nine teaspoons per day of added sugar. Here’s how non-commercial operators are helping their diners cut down on sugar intake by creating low- and no-sugar dishes that retain the same flavors and textures as the originals.

When swapping out sugar, many operators rely on fruit to add sweetness and moisture to baked goods. At the request of diabetic students at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, Executive Manager of Bakery Operations Ginger Miller developed banana scones with chocolate chips, which get their sweet flavor from mashed ripe bananas instead of sugar. Miller sometimes replaces the chocolate chips with walnuts to cut sugar levels even further, a tactic that Nutrition Specialist Angie Gaszak, R.D., has also used for the banana chocolate chip muffins served in the Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. 

“Our breakfast muffins utilize natural sweeteners like banana purée, applesauce, raisins, carrot and lemon to supplement and minimize the amount of added sugar,” she says. Even the meat sauce served in the district is made with shredded carrots instead of sugar, which has the added benefit of providing extra vitamins and fiber.

Complementing sugar with flavors that are often associated with sweet foods can make baked goods taste like they contain more sugar than they actually do. That’s a tactic Gaszak uses to her advantage. “We use warming spices and extracts like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and vanilla to highlight the natural flavors and aromas of our items and to add taste without additional sweeteners,” she says.

Natural alternative sweeteners like maple syrup, honey or agave nectar are often perceived to be more nutritious than granulated sugar by many health-conscious eaters. At Miami University, Miller serves a fruit and nut trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried cherries that’s sweetened only with a small amount of pure maple syrup. “We were all impressed by how flavorful it is,” she says. 

For diabetics needing to avoid added sugar completely, non-nutritive sweeteners are often the top choice. Sugar-free desserts made with Komplet sugar-free baking mixes are available daily at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine, including maple walnut cookies, raspberry peach oatmeal bars, chocolate raspberry cake and sweet potato pie. Splenda, too, is a popular choice. Cheryl Lacey, director of dining services, uses it to sweeten the crumb topping for sugar-free baked apples. “We’ve been offering a sugar-free dessert option for 15 years, and they’re still popular,” Lacey says. 

As for savory dishes, the best way to cut back on sugar might be cooking from scratch rather than relying on premade foods or ingredients, which tend to contain more added sweeteners. “Our menus contain primarily homemade dishes, allowing us total control over the ingredients that go into our sauces, dressings, pizza crusts and French bread,” Gaszak says.