The artificial-sweetener market is savoring the taste of success. During 2004, Splenda became the No. 1 branded sweetener in the U.S., outselling all other brands of both faux and real sugar. The wrinkle: many folks have long flavored their coffee with artificial sweeteners, but sugar substitutes have proved disappointing in cooking situations, particularly in baked goods. That's because sugar does more than sweeten. It also helps batter rise, providing volume and texture; it caramelizes and thus produces that glorious oven-fresh golden-brown color; and it works as a preservative to keep baked goods fresh longer. In contrast, artificial sweeteners have been a recipe for pale, flat, crumbly treats that quickly go stale--and often go uneaten.
But now, to help holiday bakers who want to make their favorite goodies with fewer carbohydrates and less sugar (and for people, like diabetics, who have to watch their sugar intake for health reasons), Splenda and Equal have introduced baking blends. Equal Sugar Lite--a mix of sugar, maltodextrin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (a common no-cal sweetener) and artificial flavor--can be substituted for real sugar on a cup-for-cup basis in recipes; the result is foodstuffs with half the calories and carbs. Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking is part granulated sugar and part no-calorie sweetener sucralose. You need only half as much of the product as you would need of sugar, saving half the calories. The big question: Can these new sweeteners seamlessly replace sugar in the baked holiday goods we know and love? Do they pass the taste test?
The answer is ... almost. In our varied testing of basic cooking and saucemaking, both Equal Sugar Lite and Splenda Sugar Blend for Baking performed admirably, dissolving and sweetening just as well as sugar, with no detectable change in taste.
In baking, the results were mixed. Cakes made with substitutes didn't rise quite as high as cakes made with sugar, but the taste was good, and the substitutes whipped up into frosting just fine. (There was no discernible difference between the Equal and Splenda products.) Chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies were less brown and slightly more crumbly when baked with either substitute than when sugar was used. The taste was authentic, but the Equal and Splenda cookies left a very slight diet-soda-like aftertaste. It's not necessarily unpleasant, but a little startling coming from a cookie.