This One Trick Could Make Your Dessert Healthier

And it's way easier than you think.

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What would the holidays be without cake, cookies and baked goods galore? Not as sweet, that’s for sure! It turns out that desserts browned during baking may be a little better for you than some of the other sugary treats out there.

The chemical reaction that happens during the browning process could reduce the sugar content and calories of a baked good, shows a recent study in Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences. That’s great news for those of us with sweet tooths!

Now, let’s back up a sec. What exactly is browning? “There’s something called the Maillard reaction, which occurs when heat interacts with and breaks down protein, sugar, and water in a food — eventually resulting in that appealing brownness,” explains Jackie Newgent, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in New York City and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “There’s also caramelization, which is when heat interacts with and breaks down just sugar and water, ultimately causing a sweet brownness. Both can lend deliciousness to baked goods.” In a nutshell, when a cake comes out of the oven with a darkened top and slight crust, it’s undergone the browning process.

In the study, cake made with invert sugar lost about 20 percent of its sugar content after baking. Invert sugar is a type of sugar often used in commercial kitchens because it’s less likely to crystallize and more likely to yield a smoother product texture. In our own kitchens, simple syrup made from heated water and sugar contains some level of invert sugar. On the other hand, cake containing sucrose (aka table sugar) lost about 6 percent of its sugar content in the study. “The amount of added sugars in the nutrition facts table may not accurately reflect the actual calories available from sugars that are added,” says Ningjian Liang, PhD, lead study author in Vancouver, Canada.

A calorie is at its core a unit of heat energy. So when baked good products made with invert sugar are browned, your body isn’t able to use all of its potential calories for energy. At least that’s the working theory of this study, notes Newgent. More research in this area needs to be done to firm up how factors such as ingredients, baking time, and temperature play into browning and calorie loss, adds Sara Haas, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in Chicago, IL and author of Taco! Taco! Taco!

The takeaway? “I do not suggest baking everything longer, because we do not want to burn our cakes,” says Liang. And cakes baked for longer may lose moisture and taste overly dry, notes Newgent. But if you have a choice, say, between a banana cream pie and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert with about equal calories, the cookie might be the better choice because it’s naturally browned during the baking process.

And can play around with your recipes for different browning results. “There are no set rules for adjusting recipes for browning,” says Newgent. “But if you’d like to get a browner top crust on a quick bread, like banana bread, or a more caramelized chocolate chip cookie, one simple way to do so can be to increase the baking temperature and decrease the baking time.” She suggests raising the temperature by 50 degrees F and decreasing the baking time by up to 10 percent so the inside of the baked good doesn’t over bake.

Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. She’s a regular contributor to many publications, including EverydayHealth.com, NBCNews.com, Runner’s World, and more. She also pens a recipe-focused blog, Amy’s Eat List.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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