August 6, 2016 — Discussion

Can a Brownie be Healthy?

Dad explores the question, can a brownie be healthy? Reducing fats and replacing sugars with Xylitol and Stevia in an attempt to make an indulgent brownie.

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There is plenty to suggest that constant self-denial can be counterproductive when following a diet. So perhaps a little of what you fancy can be good for you. I made brownies every bit as rich and indulgent as they look but they had half the fat and half the sugar of a normal brownie. The following is a record of my research and decisions. The brownies look identical to normal brownies and so I have used the same photo for the sugar/fat free versions as the normal versions.

How to replace the fat?

Replacing oil or butter seems to be possible using substances such as applesauce, a puree of prunes or Greek yoghurt. All or part of the fat can be substituted. However, butter has an almost irreplaceable role in baking, helping to create a smooth creamy emulsion in batters which help give a cake an even rise. Butter also makes cakes taste better. I feel it’s essential to include some butter; both for the taste and to help melt the chocolate. I use half the normal amount of butter and substitute the remainder with Greek yoghurt. I’ve tried replacing the cocoa butter in normal chocolate with pure cacao and non-fat cocoa, but it’s difficult to sweeten in a brownie. I stick to a mix of 70% dark chocolate and cocoa powder. The result is a delicious brownie with half the fat.

How to replace the sugar?

Let’s be honest – there’s no easy answer here. All the alternatives have disadvantages, many do not feel particularly natural and many will impart their own non-sugary taste profile into a final bake.

Natural sugars. Fruit are full of natural sugars (dates can contain around 60% sugar by weight). Some jams use concentrated fruit juices instead of refined sugar. We can use root vegetables that are high in sugar such as beetroot and carrot, or use agave nectar and honey. Although none of these options use refined sugar, they all contain sugar of one sort or another. It’s not helping to reduce actual sugar. This means we have to use artificial sweeteners.

Xylitol. I’ve used Xylitol in the past – despite its chemical sounding name and appearance, it is a natural product. It can be used like-for-like with sugar. It also has some of the ability to ‘cream’ when beaten with butter. It has a slightly metallic taste which can be difficult to mask and it’s very expensive.

Stevia. Stevia is a natural product made from the leaves of the Amazonian Stevia plant. It’s available in a natural powdered form, a powdered or liquid distillation, or bulked out with other sweeteners. I settle on a leaf powder – it feels the most ‘natural’ of all the options. It would appear to be safe, but there are no standard conversion tables for this form of Stevia – I’ve seen conversion rates between 1tsp and 2tbs equaling one cup of sugar. (I used 1 tbs per cup of sugar – but I believe this could be as little as 1 tsp – 2 tsp.

However, for all its intense and natural sweetness, Stevia has a distinctive sweet bitterness, and a grassy and licorice aftertaste, which although not unpleasant is not typical of the sweet melting-mellow notes of normal sugar. This effect is very noticeable if Stevia is used as the only sweetener in a brownie. So I substitute half the sugar in the recipe with Stevia and make-up the remainder with dark moscavado sugar and dates. The deep caramel and molasses tastes work well with the Stevia. The result is a delicious brownie with half the sugar.

Why even try to make a healthy brownie?

This isn’t a fair question. I don’t need to. I am not vegan or intolerant to gluten, sugar, or dairy. But I only eat one or two brownies a year – so I am hardly the typical person who might be interested in a ‘free-from’ brownie. But WDC likes a challenge and I thought I would take it up. My conclusions are that it was a fascinating and informative exercise. My first batch used Stevia only and were almost inedible. My second batch was far more successful – but ideally, I would like a few more bakes to get the amount of Stevia powder just right. But irrespective of how I use my particular powder I have to admit that it has not been tested or approved by EU or USA food authorities. Steviol glycosides have been approved and are available in various branded products but each has its issues – pure extracts are up to 300 times as sweet as sugar, making baking calculations difficult, other forms are bulked out with other substances, but these seem to take Stevia to state which is highly processed and more ‘artificial’ and therefore unappealing. My green powder is very natural but has all the aftertastes that give Stevia a bad name.

A final word on Stevia…

In the world of artificial sweeteners you need to make your own choices. None are perfect. For somebody who wants to eat sweet food but cannot eat or tolerate normal refined or natural sugars, Stevia natural leaf powder may offer a workable solution. The glycoside extracted forms of Stevia claim to have eliminated (or masked) the ‘Stevia’ aftertaste. But do make sure you research your choice of product thoroughly. If you decide you are happy with the processing and additional ingredients, it may be that these products can offer a safe and useful replacement for sugar. Let me know how you get on…