Sugar, spice and an extra slice

Experts cook up ideas for creating healthier fall treats

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 28, 2016

 Alisha Nemeth, of the Salt & Sugar Co., said she uses dark chocolate where she can instead of milk chocolate to cut back on sugar in desserts.

Alisha Nemeth, of the Salt & Sugar Co., said she uses dark chocolate where she can instead of milk chocolate to cut back on sugar in desserts.

Photo provided by the Salt & Sugar Co.

METRO DETROIT — It’s officially fall, and the campaigns for all things pumpkin spice and apple cinnamon are nearly as aggressive as the ongoing presidential election.

If you’ve been daydreaming about pecan pie, cider mill doughnuts and s’mores for weeks, you’re not alone. There are plenty of Michiganders who can’t wait to dive into the sugar-and-spice flavors of fall. But where there are treats there are calories, fat and shocking amounts of sugar.

But that doesn’t always have to be the case, according to Brita Siljander, a registered dietician with Beaumont Health System. She spends her days advising patients on how they can improve their health through their diet, and she practices what she preaches.

“I enjoy sweets, so I always think, ‘How can I make this taste good but be healthy about it?’” said Siljander. 

Throughout the fall, she admitted, she likes to indulge in some comfort foods, but with tweaks here and there to shave off some of the unwanted junk wherever she can. To start, she’ll add a little less butter to the crumbly topping of an apple crisp. She might even bake an apple crisp-like filling with nuts and ground flax into an apple instead of a crust to take away some carbohydrates.

And where there’s crust, does there really need to be so much?

“Maybe use one pie crust instead of two, one on top and one on bottom. Just do the bottom,” Siljander explained. “Bake it like a tart without a top. Or bake your pies and tarts the way you normally would but as mini versions. A lot of times it comes down to portion size. We don’t necessarily take the calories out of it — we can have the real deal but a small portion of it.”

Other favorites in Siljander’s cookbook include a custard made from vitamin A-rich carrots topped with cinnamon and brown sugar, and cookies and dessert breads with fresh fall produce hidden inside to increase the nutritional value. For savory dishes like chili, she’ll probably opt to top it off with a scoop of plain yogurt instead of sour cream.

Don’t be afraid to go savory with your roasted pumpkin seeds too, if you’re looking to skip the sugar.

“Pumpkin seeds are full of magnesium and zinc,” she explained. “I’ll make them with some cinnamon and brown sugar, or a spicy version with chili pepper and lime.”

Cutting out sugar can be tough when you run a catering business known for its baked goods, like the Salt & Sugar Co. in Lathrup Village. The mobile food service specializes in whole meals and sweet treats made from local, fresh, organic ingredients. 

Office manager Alisha Nemeth, who started the business with her chef husband, said that making any desserts yourself is already a great way to ensure they’re on the healthier side.

“That’s how you can really control what’s going in there,” Nemeth said. “Like if you’re doing something with pumpkin, instead of getting the pumpkin mix in the can that has added sugar, do it yourself so you know what’s going in.”

Nemeth said she’s had some trial and error in the past getting her pumpkin goodies to taste great without dumping in a ton of sugar (the trick, she admits, is you definitely can’t leave the sugar out). But if you’ve got a little time to play around with your recipes, you can find easy ingredient swaps.

“When we’re trying out a recipe, we usually start with about half the sugar other recipes might call for, then we kind of tweak as we go,” she said. “We use dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate because that has less sugar, and we like to try alternative flours or eliminate flour altogether. The caution on that is (the measurements) might not be the same, but you can get more protein and less wheat in there.”

Nemeth also looks to applesauce or honey as sugar swaps. Experience has helped her get the ratios just right, but for more novice healthy bakers, there’s always cheat sheets on the internet.

“There’s a ton of places online to look up recipes and find replacements, or you could find a nice cookbook that’s on the healthier side,” she said. “The idea is to find (swaps) that aren’t too complicated. Sometimes I look at the ingredients and think, ‘What is that?’ If I don’t already have it in my pantry, I’m not interested.”