Remember when the choice of fake-sugar packets stopped at pink or blue? Today's long lineup deserves a look, so we tested 11 brands of sweeteners in coffee, lemonade, and baked cakes. Some are suitable for sweetening beverages, depending on personal taste, but despite claims that they're "perfect," or "great" for baking, few did well in our cake test. That's because sugar does more than impart sweetness in baked goods; it also affects texture and helps cakes rise and brown.
Madhava Light Agave Nectar isn't really a sugar substitute; it's mainly fructose. It's sweeter than table sugar, so you can use slightly less and achieve a similar sweetness. But the product costs 11 cents for a penny's worth of sugar (2 teaspoons) and cuts only about 5 calories when replacing 2 teaspoons of sugar.
Equal had a mild artificial-sweetener flavor in coffee; in lemonade it just tasted sweet. The Equal cake was free of artificial flavors, but it was also free of sweetness and tasted more like a biscuit.
Sweet'N Low had a lingering artificial flavor and a bitterness in lemonade that was less obvious in coffee. Baking instructions recommend replacing just half the sugar, which resulted in a tender, moist cake with mild artificial-sweetener flavor. But using sugar also adds calories.
Four brands with stevia—PureVia, Stevia Extract in the Raw, SweetLeaf, and Truvia—tasted bitter, medicinal, or astringent in coffee, lemonade, or both. A fifth, Sun Crystals, combines stevia and sugar, reducing the calories you'd get from sugar alone. It had a slight bitter flavor in cake and a lingering aftertaste in everything. Because of the taste and cost—3 to 12 cents per penny's worth of sugar—stevia sweeteners might not be worth it.
NatraTaste Gold and Splenda gave drinks an artificial-sweetener flavor to varying degrees. Both turned out dense cakes with the same artificial flavor, but the NatraTaste Gold cake was also bitter and astringent. Splenda also sells a fiber-boosted—and higher-priced—version that tastes like regular Splenda, and a Splenda- sugar blend that resulted in a moist and tender cake with just a slight artificial flavor. But again, there are those pesky extra calories.
This is known as a "sugar alcohol." One brand, Ideal, had a mild artificial flavor, and the cake made with it was moist. However, sugar alcohols might cause diarrhea, bloating, or gas in some people.