Sugar-free diets are all the rage right now. Sure, many people are eating too much sugar and need to cut down.
(Photo credit: Scott Butner via Flickr).
But cutting down on sugar is different than trying to follow a sugar-free diet. I've written plenty of articles about why cutting out sugar entirely isn't only impossible, but it will drive you nuts. Plus, it doesn't fit with my 80 twenty rule for a healthy, happy life. Who wants to live in a world without cake? Not this dietitian.
With all of the sugar substitutes out there, would you really miss it if it was gone for good?
When most people think about sugar, sweetness is the first thing that comes to mind. Sure, sugar is often added to foods to make them taste good, and does it ever work. But sugar serves other purposes in the food supply, and some of them aren't so easily replaced.
I talked to Chef Claire Tansey about the role sugar plays in cooking and baking.
As Claire explains, "There are functions sugar performs that are irreplaceable." Here are a few examples.
Functions of Sugar in Cooking and Baking
1. In Jams and Jellies:
(Photo credit: Jago Pauwels via Flickr).
There are a few ingredients that can help prevent bacteria from growing. Whether you go with natural preservatives such as sugar, salt, an acid such as vinegar, or with a chemical such as BHT which is used to line cereal boxes, each ingredient comes with its pros and cons. Sugar works well in foods like jams and jellies where extra salt or vinegar wouldn't work from a taste perspective (could you imagine?).
2. In Bread and other Baked Goods:
(Photo credit: Bobbi Bowers via Flickr).
Have you ever wondered why most breads have some sugar in them? The sugar acts as food for the yeast to help the bread rise. The same goes for other fluffy baked goods.
Do you love the beautiful brown colour of bread and baked goods and the unbelievable toasty flavour that develops? That's thanks to a chemical reaction between sugar and proteins in the bread activated by heat during the baking process.
I ask Chef Claire if you can get that brown colour by using something other than sugar. Say, by glazing the outside of your bread with egg whites before baking.
"You could use egg whites, but your bread would turn out too hard and crunchy," she says.
Also, the sugar gives baked goods that golden brown deliciousness. To give baked goods some flavour without creating the Maillard Browning reaction, you'd have to add flavouring agents. My cooking philosophy is to just keep it simple."
Soft and Crumbly Goodness
Sugar in baking helps absorb some of the water and prevents gluten from hardening things up too much during mixing. The result? The perfect tender, moist and sometimes crumbly texture you expect in breads or cakes.
3. In Ice Cream:
I love to make homemade "nice cream" out of blended frozen bananas or my own spin on froyo using Greek yogurt and frozen fruit. The problem? It lacks a certain... scoopability. You either have to eat it right away or put it in the freezer in small amounts like ice cube trays. Otherwise, you're looking at a big frozen block of ice you need a pickaxe to serve.
So why are my healthier ice cream efforts so unscoopable? Apparently adding some additional sugar could help. Sugar lowers the freezing point of ice cream so that it's a little bit melty even at freezer temperatures.
(Photo credit: Cascadian Farm via Flickr).
What happens when you create low sugar or sugar-free versions of foods?
Some functions of sugar have a good substitution and others just don't.
From a nutrition perspective, we can find ways to reduce sugar and put in other sweet-tasting ingredients. If you're using bananas, dried fruit or berries to sweeten up a recipe and reducing the added sugar, that's great -- you're packing in some extra nutrients and fibre. But if you're using artificial sweeteners to replace sugar, this isn't ideal.
Another issue: Trying to create lower-calorie foods but cutting out sugar isn't always achieved. For better structure in sugar-reduced products, companies add other ingredients to bulk up the food. Usually this means more starches or maltodextrin, basically refined carbohydrates that your body uses as sugar anyway.
This is why you'll often see "no added sugar" or sugar-free products that have the same calories and grams of carbohydrate as the regular versions that contain some sugar. All that's happened is the sugar was replaced with a refined starch and you're being charged extra for it!
(Photo credit: Dana Velden via Flickr).
And does it matter if it's raw sugar cane, cane juice or granulated sugar from a nutrition perspective? Absolutely not. You'll be getting the same calories, grams of sugar and blood sugar impact whether it sounds more wholesome or not... so don't be fooled.
Chef Claire feels there is room for sugar in our recipes. "Sugar isn't a bad word. I like cooking and baking with real ingredients. I'm interested in real food. As a mom, recipes have to be easy and simple."
Do you use sugar in your baking or cooking? Join the discussion on Facebook at 80 Twenty Nutrition.
Disclosure: Christy collaborated with the Canadian Sugar Institute in writing this article. All opinions are 100 per cent Christy's own.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST: