For me, baking is pure bliss. I love whipping up brownies, cupcakes, cookies, pies, and cornbread. But as a nutritionist, I also want to feel good about my goodies, whether Iâm eating them myself or sharing them with friends and family. To that end Iâm always playing around with better-for-you ingredient substitutions.
Here are five swaps that will shore up your baked goods' nutritional profile, while also enhancing the flavor and texture (I promise!).
Trade butter for avocado
Iâve heard avocado referred to as natureâs butter, and the name truly fits. I enjoy avocado's creamy goodness whipped into smoothies, spread on whole grain toast, or as the base for a dip, but itâs also fantastic in baked good recipes. Just trade each tablespoon of butter in a recipe for half a tablespoon of avocado. This swap slashes calories, and still provides the satisfying texture you crave in a dessert, while also delivering heart-healthier, waistline-trimming monounsaturated fat (MUFAs for short), and significantly boosting the vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant makeup of your treat. Just one note: you might want to use this trick in recipes with cocoa, which masks the color. Iâve used avocado in blondies and cookies, and while the texture and flavor were fantastic, there was a distinct green tint!
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Replace wheat flour with bean flour
While I tested negative for Celiac disease I do feel better when I avoid gluten. Fortunately there are a number of gluten-free flours ideal for baking that also add bonus fiber, protein, and nutrients. One of my favorites is garbanzo bean flour. A quarter cup packs 5g of fiber (versus just 1g in the same amount of all-purpose flour) and I love the nutty flavor and heartinessâbut not heavinessâit adds to brownies and muffins. Substitute it in a one-to-one swap for all-purpose or wheat flour. It should work well in any baking recipe.
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Use coconut oil in place of shortening
Shortening and coconut oil look similar in that both are generally white and solid at room temperature. The difference is shortening is solid because a liquid oil was hydrogenated to make it solidâa man-made process that's far from natural. Partial hydrogenation creates trans fat, the nutritional villain thatâs been linked to a host of health problems, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to fertility challenges. Fully hydrogenated oil (aka interesterified oil), while technically trans fat free, may be even worse for your health. A Brandeis University study found that subjects who consumed products made with interesterified oil experienced a decrease in their âgoodâ HDL cholesterol a significant rise in blood sugarâabout a 20% spike in just four weeks.
Enter coconut oil, a natural plant-based fat, which also supplies antioxidants similar to those found in berries, grapes, and dark chocolate. While high in saturated fat, newer research confirms that not all saturated fats are bad for you. Coconut oil contains a type called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which are metabolized in a unique way. This good fat has actually been shown to up "good" HDL, reduce waist circumference, and increase calorie burning. For baking, substitute it one-for-one for shortening. Itâs amazing in pie crust and chocolate chip cookies!
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Swap some sugar for pureed fruit
While fat used to be public enemy #1, todayâs nutritional wisdom dictates including good fats (such as avocado and coconut oil) and shunning refined sugar. While removing it entirely in baking isnât always possible, I have found that I can replace up to 50% of it with pureed fruit, such as bananas, pears, apples, mangoes, papayas, and dried dates or figs pureed with water. In addition to being bundled with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the naturally occurring sugar in fruit is much less concentrated. For example, a quarter cup (4 tablespoons) of mashed banana contains less than 7 grams of sugar, compared to 12 grams in just one tablespoon of table sugar. The replacement ratio can be a little tricky, because some fruits are sweeter than others, but I often find that a quarter cup of pureed fruit can replace a half cup of sugar. (Note: I donât like my baked goods overly sweet, so some bakers may prefer a one-to-one replacement.) And because fruit has a higher water content, youâll also need to reduce the liquid in the recipe a bit, typically by a quarter cup.
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Upgrade chocolate chips to dark chocolate chunks
Iâm always singing the praises of dark chocolate, and the research just keeps coming. A study out this month found that gut bacteria ferment dark chocolate to produce substances that fight inflammation, a known trigger of aging and diseases, including obesity. Most of the research about chocolateâs benefits has been done with 70%t dark, and the chocolate chips youâll find in the baking aisle are likely 34% or less (I have seen one brand of 70% but it can be hard to find and quite expensive), so I recommend using a chopped dark chocolate bar instead. Itâs easy peasy, and some research shows that chocolateâs aroma, which is released when itâs chopped, pre-sates the palate, which may naturally help you gobble less of the goodies. P.S. If you love chocolate, check out my vegan chocolate brownie recipe with a secret superstar ingredient (hint: it's a veggie). To make them gluten-free use garbanzo bean flour in place of the whole wheat pastry flour.
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Cynthia SassÂ is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with masterâs degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen onÂ national TV, sheâs Healthâs contributing nutrition editor, and privately counselsÂ clientsÂ in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller isÂ S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia onÂ Facebook,Â TwitterÂ andÂ Pinterest.