While the successful merger that is a "healthy dessert" does occasionally occur — think of now-ubiquitous frozen yogurt — the bottom of the great divide is littered with failures that seemed so perfect when they made the jump (e.g., candy bars laced with concentrated polyphenols, high-fiber ice cream or flax-and-quinoa cookies).
The dessert items receiving the brunt of healthy treatments certainly would be baked goods, such as cakes and cookies. "For some people, the idea of a healthy dessert is a misnomer, but I think the incorporation of ingredients such as whole grains can readily make them healthier," says Aaron Clanton, baking curriculum manager at Manhattan, Kan.-based American Institute of Baking (AIB). "But these ingredients do change the baking aspects of products -- such as the mixing -- so processes and formulas need to be adjusted."
The challenge to adding whole grain ingredients to desserts is to keep the familiar texture. Ultragrain from ConAgra Mills, Omaha, Neb., is a "white" whole-grain flour from a proprietary variety of wheat specially grown to have a sweeter, milder taste and lighter color than conventional wheat and wheat flour products.
Via advanced milling technology, Ultragrain flour maintains a mild taste and creates its smooth texture while still preserving the content of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, as well as vitamins and minerals typical of whole-wheat bran and germ. These nutritive components are not found in refined flours. The combination makes Ultragrain a whole grain product with the taste, look and texture properties of refined flour.
Including whole grains enhances the nutrient density of desserts as does increasing fiber content. Another ConAgra whole grain, Sustagrain Barley, relies on a unique macronutrient composition for its health "sell." More than half of its carbohydrate content is composed of dietary fiber, with 40 percent of that fiber content in the form of beta glucans. This form of fiber has a proven cholesterol-lowering effect. At around three times the total dietary and soluble fiber of conventional whole-grain flours, Sustagrain Barley has a low starch content and is designed for boosting the fiber of formulations rather than the bulk.
Lowering calories-per-weight has proven to be a good way of creating healthier desserts, and fiber is an effective medium. SunOpta Inc., Minnetonka, Minn., offers a family of insoluble fibers from sources such as oat, soy and pea as well as multi-fiber blends. "All of these fibers can be used to create healthier desserts such as cakes and brownies, or dessert components such as pie crust, granola or crumb toppings," says Cathy Peterson, group vice president of applications and technical services. "Some have a soft enough texture and small enough particle size to be used to increase dietary fiber levels in creamy formulations such as cheesecake or in fruit toppings."
Adding fiber and water reduces the caloric density of the dessert, allowing the consumer to indulge in the serving size she is accustomed to rather than accepting a reduced portion size to reduce calories. "Insoluble fibers are virtually calorie-free and are excellent ingredients for reducing calories," continues Peterson. "Incorporating Canadian Harvest or SunOpta fibers into a brownie formula, for example, can reduce the calories by 20 to 30 percent without sacrificing the indulgent characteristics of the brownie."
Typically the biggest risk in employing fiber-based low-fat or fat-free ingredients is losing the indulgent, creamy texture fat provides. SunOpta also makes Barley Balance, a concentrated form of barley beta glucan designed to create hearth-healthy products. It also can be used at lower levels — as little as 1 percent — to improve the texture and mouthfeel of reduced-fat baked goods and other desserts. The soft gel that is created by the Barley Balance mimics the structure of fat and can increase the moistness and creaminess of products.
Sweet and low
While sweeteners have always been a big trend in healthier desserts, a lot of them fall short in performance when it comes to baking formulations. Simply put, many low- and no-cal sweeteners just can't provide the bulk many baked goods need. Even a natural sweetener such as stevia is limited, in this case because at 300 times the flavor intensity of sugar, it can't replace sucrose ounce for ounce.