This time of year, it's hard to take a holiday from sugar.
Out come the baking sheets, floured and buttered for rich treats in fancy shapes. Up go the candy-covered, frosted gingerbread houses. The sugar cookie is everywhere, topped with even sweeter icing. All of it adds up to a potential season-long nightmare for the millions of people watching their weight, counting carbohydrates or fighting diabetes.
Enter two products this fall that mix the no-calorie sweetness of sugar substitutes with real sugar - the stuff that helps cakes rise, turns cookies and muffins golden-brown and keeps them both moist and crisp.
Splenda Sugar Blend combines real sugar and the sweetener sucralose that became all the rage with the Atkins and South Beach diets. While regular no-calorie Splenda was advertised for use in baking, it lacked some of sugar's essential baking properties.
Equal Sugar Lite blends sugar with the aspartame-based sweetener and acesulfame potassium to make it easier for bakers to use the sweetener.
The products mimic what some home cooks have been doing since Splenda came on the market - adding sugar to a sugar substitute to improve their cakes and cookies while reducing calories and carbohydrates.
The makers of saccharin-based Sweet 'N Low, for example, haven't developed a blended product, but recommend on the packaging that bakers substitute a specified amount of the sweetener for half the sugar in recipes.
But do these products pave a way out of the holiday dilemma? Do they really look, smell and taste like the real thing?
We made a holiday sugar cookie and a yellow layer cake with chocolate icing in four versions - one with regular sugar, one with Splenda Sugar Blend, one with Equal Sugar Lite and one that substituted the recommended amount of Sweet 'N Low for half the sugar.
The cookies were surprisingly similar. Each version of the dough performed well when chilled and rolled out. Some of our newsroom tasters had a hard time picking out the real sugar cookie, though others detected faint aftertastes from the sugar substitutes.
The Sweet 'N Low cookie seemed least successful; it crumbled more easily than the others, and the sugar and sweetener on top partially melted instead of staying crusty.
The differences in the cakes could be spotted instantly; the one made with sugar rose much higher and had a finer crumb. The cakes with sugar substitutes were denser and sweeter. Again, the Sweet 'N Low cake came in last, with the Splenda blend version edging out Equal Sugar Lite for second place to sugar.
Brian Strouts, head of experimental baking at the American Institute of Baking, got similar results when he tested the Equal and Splenda blends against regular sugar in spongecake, yellow layer cake and angel food cake.
The difference in volume was most noticeable in the spongecakes, which depended the most on sugar to make the cake rise, Strouts said.
"The texture [of the substitutes] also got a little what we would call crumbly," Strouts said. "It tended to fall apart a little more. Was it a complete failure, a huge negative? Probably not."
The cakes tasted better than they looked - similar to sugar, with a hint of an aftertaste, he said.
"Personally, I would just as soon bake with sugar and make the slices smaller," Strouts said. "But I can understand this is a market and this is a product out there. I can understand why people want to do that."
But nutritionists say the sugar-sweetener blends are far from a license to binge on holiday treats.
In the five years since the American Diabetes Association relaxed its recommendations on sugar, people with diabetes have begun to enjoy sweets again. But the flip side of that research is the realization that carbohydrates from other kinds of foods - from potatoes to bread - have roughly the same effect on blood sugar.
That means using a sugar-sweetener blend doesn't necessarily make a recipe acceptable, several nutritionists and diabetes educators said. The calories and carbohydrates contributed by flour, nuts, butter and other ingredients count, too.
"When you get down to serving size, it may or may not be significant," said Paula Yutzy, a diabetes educator at Mercy Medical Center. "I think a lot of times this is more Madison Avenue hype than that useful."
And because the sugar blends are designed to be substituted into any recipe, consumers won't always have a full nutritional breakdown of their made-over specialties.
In the cake we tested, the sweetener-sugar blends shaved 21 grams of carbohydrate (29 percent of the full-sugar version) and 82 calories a serving (13 percent).
For every two of our cookies, the blends took away 5 grams of carbohydrate (27 percent) and 18 calories (12 percent).