Last weekend I had the honour to make cupcakes for a mom-to-be who was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. To help accommodate her taste buds and that of the party guests, I did a bit of research in using sugar alternatives for the cakes. With GD, it is important for the mom-to-be to be watching her sugar intake and spikes in insulin levels, but most importantly carbohydrates consumption. Luckily, GD goes always after the baby is born, but being a GD mom requires extra vigilance with your diet.*
*You should always seek health advice from a medical professional. Since I have an asterisk here, I might as well note that in the above picture, fondant decorations were used and fondant is 100% not sugar-free.
There are many natural options to sweeten baked goods from the use of apple sauce, dates, agave and sugar derived from palm or coconut. Stevia (derived from the leaves of a plant with the same name) is becoming a popular choice also. You cannot bake cakes without some form of it being sweet. I would usually cut down the amount of sugar which the recipe calls for by about 20%. Sugar not only adds to the flavours, but also to the tenderness and volume of the cake as it bakes. The opposite of natural would be synthetic such as sucrulose (sold as Splenda), saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) or asparatame (Equal).
What was important for me as I looked for a sugar-substitute was for something that would not change my end results to much in terms of mouth-feel, structure and flavour, which led me to xylitol. Xylitol can be found in fine grocery such as Sobeys and IGA with the brand name of Xyla. I bought mine from Choices Market. Xyla derives xylitol from North American hardwood, and is GMO-free. It is marketed as “Sweet without the Guilt”, and comes with low carb and low calorie. There are also no after taste. 1 cup of Xyla is a straight replacement for 1 cup of sugar, which makes it a lot easier for me to use my regular recipe without playing around with adjusting ratios with the other ingredients. The xylitol grains are also much coarser than sugar, but lighter. 1 teaspoon of xylitol weighs 4 grams, whereas 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams.
Some precautions when using xylitol (as marked on the package) includes not using xylitol excessively as it may cause a mild laxative effect and also to keep it away from your family pets. Xyla as an ingredient is not cheap, the cost of 1 cup of xylitol for me was 10 times the cost of using 1 cup of sugar.
On to the baking part!
I made two versions of lemon cakes – a regular version with eggs and dairy, and a vegan version without eggs or dairy. For both versions of the cupcakes I used the exact amount of sugar that the recipes called for. Both cakes baked perfectly. The results were fluffy cupcakes which you could not tell that a sugar substitute was used.
For the frosting, I made a Swiss meringue buttercream for the regular cupcakes and a vegan frosting using the flour method for the vegan cupcakes. Both of these methods uses granulated sugar rather than icing sugar and both recipes worked well with xylitol. There were no issues to pipe the frosting and tasted smooth. In the Swiss meringue, you would dissolve the sugar in with the egg whites as you whisk it over boiling water and xylitol had no trouble incorporating into the egg whites. Again, you could not taste the sugar alternative in the swiss meringue buttercream. For the flour method frosting I did have some concerns due to the larger size of the xylitol grains since the granulated sugar is beat into submission in a thick paste of cooked flour and milk. This frosting did spend a bit longer in my mixer but the xylitol grains did dissolved into it eventually. (For next time, I’ll choose to melt the sugar in with the flour and milk as it cooks).
Taste test results from my two little testers gave the cupcakes thumbs up although both did not like the flour method frosting (they were only allowed to try the vegan versions) due to it not being as sweet as the American buttercream (made with icing sugar) which they would prefer. But for the more sophisticated palettes who are taller than 4 feet, the flour method works fine.
Xylitol is a great alternative when a sugar-free substitute is needed.