America’sTest Kitchen has been publishing a lot of new cookbooks lately. In fact, there seems to be a new one every week. Naturally Sweet: Bake all your Favorites with 30% to 50% Less Sugar is one of the most recent, and it is chock full of sweet and tasty desserts. As the editors of Naturally Sweet acknowledge, sugar may be bad for you, but would life be worth living without birthday cake?
But let’s be perfectly clear: In Naturally Sweet, less sugar does not mean fewer calories, less fat, or that these desserts are healthier. It means less sugar. Period. In fact the word “calories” does not appear in the book except in a nutritional information chart in the back. Naturally Sweet makes no medical claims and offers no medical advice. They leave that to the M.D.s and the R.D.s. If you want to cut down on sugar, the recipes work well and taste good. The results are definitely less tooth-achingly sweet than standard recipes with tons of sugar. As a general rule, Mr. Darcy found them sweet enough to his sweet-tooth taste, and I found them less sugary and more flavorful.
There are many good reasons to be concerned about the consumption of sugar — tooth decay, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes come to mind. There is also the addictive nature of sugar. It’s a thing. The more sugar you eat, the more you crave. Unlike fat and sodium consumption, which, experts agree, should be monitored for general good health, or, which, in some cases, must be restricted for medical reasons, there is no modern-day existential need for sugar. (Unless you count the existential emotional need for chocolate!) But humans like sugar, and, there are adaptive and evolutionary reason for that: for one thing, sweetness signaled to our ancestors that a strange substance was not poison, and, therefore, was safe to eat.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is 4 times more than what the World Health Organization recommends. What is most worrisome to nutritionists is that most of that sugar is consumed passively. If you want to reduce sugar, it’s obvious: eat fewer cookies, less ice cream and candy, and drink less soda pop. But, have you ever taken a close look at your box of breakfast cereal, your milk carton, your yogurt container, or your bread wrapper? If you want or need to reduce your sugar intake, the first thing you should do is start reading and comparing labels. Talk about sticker shock!
To make matters worse, whenever a food product is advertised as low-fat or non-fat, what is not advertised is how much sugar has been added to boost flavor. “Fat carries the flavor,” as they say, so reduced-fat products have to find another vehicle to carry the flavor load — and that’s where sugar comes in.
You’d think that, if sugar is added when fat is reduced, then fat would be added when sugar is reduced. Not necessarily. In Naturally Sweet, most recipes call for more liquid and more leaveners rather than more fat. The book discusses the science of sugar, the various processes of sugar production, and exlains why the ATK staff chose certain sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, sucanat, coconut sugar, for example) and not others (artificial sweeteners, agave nectar) . Happily, each recipe carries ATK’s signature “Why this recipe works” introduction, which is usually the most interesting portion of the recipe.
I like these recipes, because I don’t like American-style “sugar cake.” But that’s just me. I’m not a sugar person. Except for sticky buns. Sticky buns are my annual birthday gift to myself, and these are exceptional. Light as a feather, sweet but not too sweet, and with a hint of orange.
Not being someone who craves sweets, I found that there was very little in Naturally Sweet that really tempted me. It seemed that there were tons of muffins and quick breads, which I find very uninteresting, and a lot of fruit crumbles that don’t necessarily have all that much sugar anyway. There is a significant variety of treats, but, surprisingly, there are no recipes for either a simple birthday cake or a Pineapple Upside Down Cake. So, harrumph, you really can’t “bake all your favorites with 30% to 50% less sugar.”Maybe this cookbook is for people who routinely eat dessert? Maybe ATK is overextending itself without the Bow Tie at the helm to reign in overweening ambition? Maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t be eating so many baked desserts? I don’t know, America; you decide. I’m going to polish off my sticky buns!