Fruit pie getting an egg wash.

Love sweets? You’re not alone. The average American consumes an average of 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day—a lot more than the six teaspoons for women and nine for men recommended by the American Heart Association.1 Sugar intake continues to draw not-so-sweet media attention, as more research suggests its association with everything from tooth decay to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.

The sugar that matters here is the kind that’s added to most processed foods in many different forms (e.g., white sugar, brown sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, maltose, maple syrup, and more). While some of these may be less refined than others, they are all metabolized similarly in the body and count as added sugar. Whole fruits and dairy products, on the other hand, come packaged naturally with some sugar, along with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. These foods are hard to over-consume in their natural state and can still be included as part of a healthy diet; taking advantage of their sweetness can also help you cut back on the refined stuff.

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

If you’re trying to cut back on added sugar, dessert may be the hardest challenge. Fortunately, it is possible to have your cake and eat it too, without any guilty feelings. For some, satisfying a craving can be as easy as a small piece of decadent dark chocolate or berries topped with a dollop of yogurt. When you make desserts yourself, you have control over the ingredients and can make simple substitutions to make your dessert a healthy part of your day. Next time you get the baking bug, consider the information and tips that follow to make something both nutritious and delicious.

Are Artificial Sweeteners the Answer?

An attractive alternative to sugar, artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are increasingly found in a variety of “sugar-free” and “diet” foods today. Artificial sweeteners (e.g., Sweet ‘N Low, Splenda., Equal) are several hundred times sweeter than sugar, but don’t contain any calories nor do they contribute to tooth decay. Stevia is another calorie-free sugar substitute, but one that is naturally derived from a plant. Finally, sugar alcohols (i.e., polyols) are carbohydrates that are less sweet than sugar but add some sweetness, bulk, and texture to foods.

While these alternative sweeteners are regulated and approved by the FDA to be safe, they have been scrutinized intensely for decades because of associations with health concerns, including cancer. Research has also been inconclusive as to whether or not these substitutes actually help with weight loss.2 Often the “sugar-free” label creates a “health halo” effect that may lead people to end up over-consuming and/or compensating later on. Ultimately, artificial sweeteners are no magic bullet and should be used only in moderation, if at all.

Four Tips for Healthier Desserts

Try these simple tips for embracing more naturally sweet treats:

1. Use less sugar
One easy place to start in modifying recipes is to simply try using less sugar. Since sugar does a lot more than make foods sweet, use a more flexible recipe such as muffins or other quick breads, oatmeal cookies, or pie fillings. Sometimes you can eliminate sugar, but start by cutting no more than a quarter of the sugar and then adjust accordingly. Pastry chef Joanne Chang, owner of Boston’s Flour Bakery and author of Baking with Less Sugar, told The Huffington Post, “You will discover, as I did, that when you don’t focus on sugar and sweetness, you end up with desserts that are full of amazing, compelling flavor.”3

2. Try “fruit-forward” desserts
Highlighting the natural sweetness of seasonal fruits is a nutrient-dense approach to making desserts double as a serving of the four to five servings of fruit you should get each day. Berry crisps or other types of fruit tarts are great examples of fruit-forward desserts—but limit the use of additional sugar, use fresh or frozen fruit rather than canned, and try just one crust instead of two. Applesauce and mashed ripe bananas can also be added to quick breads or other batters in place of some of the fat as a moist, higher-fiber alternative. Additionally, dried fruit such as dates, figs, prunes, and raisins are packed with fiber and nutrients. They can be chopped or puréed and added to many desserts as a nutritious extra and/or natural sweetener.

3. Incorporate Whole Grains
Replacing some or all of the white flour typically used in most recipes with some kind of whole grain flour is a great way to sneak in some extra nutrients, texture, and nutty richness to your desserts. There are many varieties of whole grain flours on the market these days, including wheat, brown rice, oat, and spelt. Keep in mind how the texture may change using these heartier flours, but that may be a desired effect and one that can be adjusted using a combination of flours.

4. Consider portion size
While some restaurants are starting to offer smaller or “mini” dessert portions, the vast majority still offer outrageously large desserts that can really derail healthy eating efforts. One of the biggest perks of making your own desserts is that you’re in control of the portion size. Try baking mini versions or cutting a dessert into smaller portions and freezing individual pieces for later. Enjoy and savor each bite, mindfully, and you may realize that just a small bit is all you need to curb your craving.

Allison Righter is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and lecturing instructor of nutrition and food safety at the CIA.

1. Johnson, R.K.; Appel, L.J.; Brands, M.; et al. Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009; 120:1011-20

2. Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source. Artificial Sweeteners. Accessed August 30, 2015.

3. Spiegel, A. How Baking with Less Sugar Can Make Your Desserts Taste Better. The Huffington Post. July 7, 2015. Accessed August 30, 2015.