Salubrious Sweets

Published in FSD Update

Indulgent desserts don’t have to be unhealthy.

It’s no surprise that customers are looking for healthier options these days. But when it comes to dessert, a decidedly decadent course, what are your choices?

Drew Patterson, culinary director at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, in Columbus, has turned to housemade sorbets in fruit flavors like strawberry and orange, and berry parfaits made with low-fat yogurt. “The parfaits are very well received because they can be customized, and yogurt and granola are really hot right now,” says Patterson, noting that sorbets hold well frozen (up to three months), so they’re made ahead of time. 

Joy Kimmel, director in Douglass Dining Hall with Aramark at the University of Rochester, in New York, has opted for vegan desserts, like brownies, cookies and even a vegan cheesecake. “Since you can’t use eggs, milk or butter, vegan options are inherently healthier because it removes lots of fat and cholesterol,” Kimmel says. 

Savvy substitutions

Of course, decreasing portion size is the easiest way to make a dish healthier. But if you still want to offer the same amount of food, finding the right substitutes is key. Kelly Holmes, catering manager at Berkshire Health System’s Fairview Hospital, in Pittsfield, Mass., has found applesauce to be a great substitute for heavier, more traditional binding agents. 

Similarly, coconut milk subs well for heavy cream. “Another good option is to sub a fat out for a nut butter,” says Erik Mack-Davis, chef/manager at the University of Rochester’s Danforth Dining Center, where peanut butter chocolate chip cookies are big sellers. “Peanuts have the good kind of fat, so even if there’s not much of a calorie difference, subbing good fats for bad ones is healthier.” 

By the same token, using whole-wheat flour and oats is another healthy swap, Holmes adds. 

Patterson warns, “If you take something away, you generally have to add something back to keep the balance of flavor.” He recommends using higher quality ingredients, like cocoa powder and fresh, in-season fruit. Sunil Beri, executive chef for LMU Hospitality by Sodexo, at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, agrees: “In our panna cotta, I use Splenda and 2% milk, but it can become bland, so I go heavy on the fresh fruit compote to boost flavor.”

When swapping out ingredients, the conversions aren’t always 1-to-1. “A lot of the alternative sweeteners are sweeter than white sugar, so typically you have to use less,” Kimmel says. Or add sweetness in different ways, like with fruit, she adds.

If you can’t find the right substitute, decreasing portion size is always an option. But don’t just slice a smaller piece of cake. “Give somebody a complete plate with a garnish on it to fill the plate, which will make the portion size seem larger,” Mack-Davis suggests. 

Nourishing sales

A word of caution: Advertising your desserts as healthy can work against you. “When I put out the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with a label, nobody touched them, but when I put the same cookies out without the signage, they sold out multiple times,” Mack-Davis says. Instead, try suggestive selling, Patterson says. “Simply start by suggesting the sorbets over a piece of cake.”