It's high season for baking, so expect to see cooks prowling supermarket aisles for ingredients to sweeten holiday cookies, cakes and pastries.
Also expect to see an increasing number of sugar substitutes nudging the traditionals -- granulated sugar, brown sugar and confectioners' sugar -- on grocery store shelves.
Some promise "zero" or "no" calories or "natural" or "organic" ingredients. Some are based on substances found in nature; some aren't. Still others mix the sugar substitute with granulated sugar for a "blend" to take advantage of sugar's ability to brown and bulk up foods.
Which can get confusing. We wondered how well a few sugar substitutes would bake up in a basic recipe without tweaking and fussing. Could they deliver the flavor, color and texture that come with granulated sugar? And how much can they really cut calories in a product made with flour, butter, maybe chocolate, maybe nuts?
We decided to bake basic butter cakes with four of the sweet products -- each label suggested they would work in baked goods -- and a fifth with granulated sugar. A blind tasting was held with the five cakes. While comments varied, most tasters tapped the cake baked with Splenda Blend as the one they would make of those prepared with a sugar substitute.
> Products tested
Name: Granulated Sugar
Label says: "Sugar, the Natural Sweetener"
Small print: "Sugar is a 100% natural simple carbohydrate. ... Sugar contains no fat or cholesterol."
How it looks: "Nicely browned." "Great rise." "Good, even color."
Tasters say: "Tender crumb, moist." "A bit gummy." "Hint of vanilla." "Lovely, sort of buttery."
Calories: 15 calories per 1 teaspoon
Name: Splenda Granulated
Ingredients: Maltodextrin, Sucralose
Label says: "Measures Cup for Cup Like Sugar."
Small print: "You may need to modify your recipes ... for those recipes that require the sugar to do more than sweeten, such as browning and adding volume."
How it looks: "No color, very flat." "Looks like a pancake."
Tasters say: "Dry, dense." "Very compact." "No sweetness followed by acrid aftertaste." "Barely sweet."
Ingredients: Maltodextrin, Stevia extract (Rebiana)
Label says: "Cup for cup measures just like sugar." "100% natural zero calorie granulated sweetener."
Small print: "Each serving contains less than 2 calories, which the FDA considers dietetically zero."
How it looks: "Fine." "A little too pale."
Tasters say: "Nice texture." "A bit dense, but not awful." "Not much sweetness, more salty." "A brawny cake."
Name: Splenda Sugar Blend
Ingredients: Sugar, Sucralose
Label says: "A Mix of Splenda Brand Sweetener & Sugar." "Half the Sugar." "Use half a cup in place of 1 cup of sugar."
Small print: "Sugar reduced from 4 g to 2 g per serving."
How it looks: "Very yellow." "Crumbly, but rises nicely." "Good color, golden."
Tasters say: "Good crumb." "Fluffy, hint of vanilla." "Chemical aftertaste." "Too sugary at end." "Tastes fine."
Calories: 10 calories per 1/2 teaspoon
Name: Organic Zero
Ingredients: Organic erythritol
Label says: "Zero Calories. Zero Glycemic Index. Zero Artificial."
Small print: "Organic Zero is produced from Organic Sugar Cane Juice ... Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar that is found in our bodies, as well as fruits ..."
How it looks: "Decent." "Not too even."
Tasters say: "Decent crumb, not moist." "Good crumb." "Not too moist, strong aftertaste." "Dull." "Better than some."