No Sugar? No Problem! Cooking Sugar-Free: A Live Event with Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

Satisfy your sweet tooth -- without extra sugar!

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic's resident 'Recipe Doctor,' Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, specializes in turning no-no recipes into healthy and delicious options for those with special diets. On April 27, Elaine joined us to talk about satisfying your sweet tooth with sugar-free recipes and to unveil a tasty new creation using sugar-free chocolate.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

This class was sponsored by Hershey's Sugar-Free Chocolates.

Moderator: Welcome, Elaine. As Americans, we eat an awful lot of sugar, don't we?

Magee: The average American consumes around 150 pounds of sugar per year, so we literally eat our weight in sugar each year.

Moderator: That can't be healthy.

Magee: Recently we've seen some research showing possible links of higher sugar diets to some of our greatest health problems. One of the biggest issues with high-sugar foods is that it often puts us in double jeopardy. Along with getting high amounts of sugar, we can get high amounts of fat, and the worst fat, as well -- animal fats and trans fats. Think about our favorite high-sugar foods: ice cream, chocolate, cakes, cookies. These rich sweets are just as high in extra fat as they are in sugar. So that's just one thing to keep in mind when we're talking just about sugar and disease risk. 

High levels of sugar don't necessarily lead to obesity. But it certainly doesn't help us beat the battle of the bulge, either. A recent review of international research concluded that a high-fat diet is the most important single cause for overweight. But that a high-sugar intake could not be excluded as a contributing factor. 

Then there's colon cancer. One of the most recent and largest studies on women found sugar-containing foods and drinks along with sugar intake, to be risk factors for colon cancer after adjusting for age, energy intake, and other known risk factors. This makes sense to me, because we know that a high-sugar diet appears to increase the time food waste stays in the colon. And it tends to increase the concentration of bile acids in our feces. Both of these are thought to increase the risk of colon cancer. So we need more studies on this, clearly, but it makes sense to avoid eating a high-sugar diet. 

Some other diseases that may be associated with higher-sugar diets are gall stone disease, insulin resistance, and possibly heart disease, although we need to know more, obviously, about all of these.

The one thing that tends to happen with higher-sugar intake is you tend to have a lower-fiber intake. I see sugar as being one piece of a puzzle. When we eat a higher-sugar diet, it tends to create an unhealthy diet from other aspects, as well.

Moderator: Where do we get most of our sugar from -- the sugar bowl, or added sugars in processed foods?

Magee: Added foods in processed foods. That's the short answer. Let me tell you the top five sugar traps for women, in particular.

  • The No. 1 source of sugar, and I don't think you'll be surprised, is soda and sweetened beverages. We get around 9 teaspoons in every 12 ounces of every regular soda, and around 12 teaspoons of sugar in every 12 ounces of fruit drinks, fruit aids, lemonades, and sweetened teas. To me, if we just got a handle on this one food item, it could have huge positive effects across this country. I personally think regular soda is way too sweet. That's just my own personal preference. So a long time ago I made it one of my rules to drink one caffeine-free, diet soda a day. I try not to go more than that, but I really like my caffeine-free, diet cola right after lunch. It's just a rule that's worked for my family. My kids have gotten used to it from day one, and I have one child that prefers regular and one that prefers diet. Either way, we don't have more than one a day.
  • The second sugar trap is sort of the bakery category, which includes cakes, cookies, danishes, pastries, and pie. They have about 6 teaspoons per 1/16 of a cake and 6 teaspoons per 1/6 of an 8-inch pie. So this kind of shows the magnitude of the sugar from soda and pastries, because remember back in the soda and sweetened beverages we got 9 to 12 teaspoons per one drink.
  • The third sugar trap is what our moderator called the sugar bowl. It's sugar and sugar substitute blends. It includes syrups, honey, sweet toppings, and we get about 3 teaspoons of sugar in every tablespoon of syrup and honey.
  • The fourth sugar trap is my personal favorite, and that's candy, which includes chocolate, which is my favorite. We get about 3 teaspoons of sugar in every ounce of chocolate bar.
  • The fifth sugar trap is sort of the frozen milk-dessert category, which includes ice cream and frozen yogurt. Here we get about 3 teaspoons of sugar in a ½-cup serving.

So hopefully that gives you an idea of where we're getting some of this 150 pounds of sugar in a year.

Member Question: Does diet soda have lot less sugar Elaine?

Magee: It has no sugar, in most cases. Diet sodas generally use the sugar substitute called NutraSweet and aspartame.

Moderator: We have many people asking about various sugar substitutes. Can you explain the pros and cons of the different sugar substitutes? Which are good for cooking and baking?

Magee: Let me answer the cooking and baking first, then I'll move into some of the artificial sweeteners. For baking, I have two options for you: You can simply use less real sugar in the recipe. I've experimented around in this in the recipes I've developed for my books and WebMD, and it does work well. Generally I take it down a third. I cut the sugar by a third and it still works well.

The other option is to use half Splenda, half sugar. In other words, if a recipe calls for a cup of white sugar, you could get away with half a cup of Splenda and half a cup of white sugar. The reason I suggest half Splenda is because it does alter the texture and it does alter sort of the taste or aftertaste. Most people find it acceptable with half and half.

Here's a big tip, though. If a recipe calls for a cup of white and a cup of brown sugar, let the Splenda replace the white sugar and keep the brown sugar, because the brown sugar is going to contribute a depth of flavor, a caramelized flavor that you won't get with Splenda. The other reason Splenda works best in baking, is because you use it cup for cup, like you would sugar. Some of the other sweeteners such as Equal, you would use far less an amount for the same amount of sweetness, so it just doesn't translate in a recipe easily. And some of them don't do well with heat or in a liquid medium.

Which brings us to the pros and cons. I recently did a review of some of the more common artificial sweeteners. So let me go through them each one by one and list the pros and cons. Let's start with Splenda. Basically, Splenda is the artificial sweetener sucralose along with maltodextrin, which is added for bulking. This is what gives it the 1-cup to 1-cup substitution factor. Sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar, and they make it by taking cane sugar molecules and substituting three hydrogen atoms with three chlorine atoms. So the pros of Splenda are that sucralose has no calories, but the maltodextrin they add has about 10 calories per tablespoon. It doesn't have any effect on blood sugar levels.

Another pro, you can bake with Splenda. Heat doesn't take away from its sweet taste. The other pro is when it comes to baking and cooking Splenda seems to be the best artificial sweetener for the job. In terms of safety, after more than 110 studies, animal and human, the FDA concluded that sucralose (or Splenda) was shown to have no toxic or carcinogenic effects, no DNA altering, and does not pose reproductive or neurological risks to humans.

"The FDA set the acceptable daily intake for aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram body weight."

Here are the cons: Splenda can contribute 10 calories or so per tablespoon. Another con, Splenda can change the texture in baking and add an artificial taste when used 100% in the recipe. There are some critics that say preliminary animal research has shown organ damage.

Let's move on to probably the most common artificial sweetener, because it's used in diet sodas, aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal). Aspartame is the combination of two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, which are then combined with methanol. It is around 200 times sweeter than sugar. Seventy percent of the aspartame we consume comes directly from soft drinks. I certainly contribute with my one diet cola per day. The FDA set the acceptable daily intake for aspartame at 50 milligrams per kilogram body weight, which translates to around four cans of diet soda a day. The acceptable daily intake is estimated to be the amount a person can safely consume every day over a lifetime without risk. The pros: Each gram of aspartame contains four calories, but almost no calories are added to foods or drinks, since we only need a tiny amount to mimic the sweetness of sugar. Another pro: In 1985, the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association concluded, "available evidence suggests consumption of aspartame by normal humans is safe and is not associated with serious adverse health effects." The last pro: The use of aspartame within FDA guidelines which goes back to the four cans of diet soda a day appears safe for pregnant women and that is from the Journal of the Dietetic Association, their position statement on sweeteners.

But there are some cons. People born with PKU are unable to metabolize one of the amino acids in aspartame, and a warning label is on aspartame-containing products for people with PKU. Second con: Aspartame breaks down and loses its sweetness in liquids exposed to heat, so we really can't bake or cook with it. Also, some people claim that they have allergic reactions to aspartame. It's been difficult to confirm or reproduce these allergic reactions in studies. But I think it's quite real to the people who have experienced them. It can be anything from skin reactions, respiratory problems, maybe even headache. The last con is some consumers report central nervous system side effects from aspartame consumption (headache, dizziness, mood changes). Bottom line to the possible side effects is that it looks like the Centers for Disease Control is leaving open the possibility that a small group of people is especially sensitive to aspartame.

Personally, I think these people know who they are. Note if you have side effects. If you don't have these side effects, then you may not be sensitive.

Member Question: Elaine do you know or recommend any sugar-free chocolate available in the market right now?

Magee: I've tasted almost all of the new Hershey's Sugar-Free chocolates, and they all taste remarkably good. You need to eat them, though in the same portions that you would other chocolate, because even though they don't use sugar, they still will contribute calories and fat grams.

Moderator: Here is Elaine's brownie recipe using the new Hershey's Sugar-Free chocolate.

Magee: They're an excellent alternative for people with diabetes, because the sugar alcohols they use instead of sugar have a much lower effect on blood sugar. The other reason you want to keep to a reasonable serving size is because sugar alcohols can have laxative effects, including stomach pain, and stomach aches in larger amounts.

The peppermint patty, in particular, has a higher amount of sugar alcohol because of the mint filling. So enjoy them, but stick to the serving size. They taste fantastic. I personally did not notice any aftertaste. It did taste almost like the regular candies. And you can bake with them and they bake like other chocolate chunks that you would use. In the brownie recipe that you're all looking at right now, it looks and tastes just like a to-die-for brownie. It's a little bit more cakey than chewy, but because we're adding the peppermint patties; it creates this ooey-gooey element.

Moderator: Let's take a look at the cookie recipe too.

Magee: This is a great cookie recipe, because it's got some soluble fiber from the oats. We've reduced the sugar in the cookie dough with some Splenda, and the chocolate chunks are from the new Hershey Sugar-Free chocolates.

Moderator: I love dark chocolate.

Magee: I suggest making a batch of the cookie dough and even scooping out with a cookie scoop, freezing them on a piece of wax paper and freezing them in your freezer in a Ziploc bag. That way you only bake that day what you want fresh from the oven.

Member Comment: Yummy, Elaine! I wish I had everything to make it with.

Member Question: Is there a powdered-sugar substitute out there that tastes very similar?

Magee: That's a really good question, one I have wrestled with myself lately. I think you could get away with half Splenda, half powdered sugar, although I haven't personally tried it yet. To date, that appears to be your only alternative. You could use less powdered sugar and not replace it with anything, if appropriate in a particular recipe. If not, like in a frosting, you definitely need every single tablespoon of powdered sugar in a frosting recipe. In that situation, I would simply make half the amount of frosting and either spread it thinly or frost the top of the cake and not the middle as a way of cutting the sugar in half.

Moderator: Would it work to simply melt some of the sugar-free chocolate and drizzle it on a cake?

Magee: That would work, as well, because they do melt similarly to regular chocolate. Sometimes you might need to add a teaspoon of canola oil when you melt the chocolate, just to make it the right drizzling consistency.

Member Question: Where can I find those sugar-free Hershey's? 

Magee: They come in 3 ½-ounce bags with about 10 pieces per bag and I believe they're at drugstores and supermarkets.

Moderator: We are almost out of time. Elaine, do you have any final words for us?

Magee: Check out my Tell Me What to Eat if I Have Diabetes book. My next book is The Change of Life Diet Cookbook; it comes out in bookstores in July.

Moderator: Our thanks to Elaine Magee for being our instructor today. For more information about diabetes and diet, please read Elaine's book, "Tell Me What to Eat If I Have Diabetes."

Thanks to all of you for being here today and for participating.

Elaine Magee is an anti-dieting dietitian who believes we should all eat and exercise for "the health of it" and let the pounds fall where they may. Elaine describes herself as "fit, fabulous, and fourteen (size 14, that is). Her popular column, "The Recipe Doctor" is now available to newspapers across the country through Knight Ridder Tribune Information Services. Her style is "reader-friendly," and Elaine believes if there is a shortcut in the kitchen, take it. What readers like about her recipes is that they don't taste like they're good for you. Readers refer to her as the "Dear Abby" of lightening recipes.

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According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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