This article was written by Rachel Sandman.

We are all trying to eat healthier but don’t want to give up our favorite cakes and cookies. There are several popular ingredient substitutes that claim to make tasty treats healthier. See if you can tell fact from fiction about which food substitutes are legit.

Fact or Fiction? Substituting whole wheat flour for white flour is better for you

Whole wheat flour and white flour are both made from wheat berries, which have three nutrient-rich parts: the bran (the outer layers), the germ (the innermost area) and the endosperm (the starchy part in between).1 Whole wheat is processed to include all three nutritious parts, but white flour uses only the endosperm. When put head-to-head with whole wheat flour, white flour is a nutritional lightweight. Whole wheat is much higher in fiber, vitamins B6 and E, magnesium, zinc, folic acid, and chromium. Whole wheat flour has a nuttier and slightly more bitter taste than white flour, so baking pros like Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible and The Pie and Pastry Bible do not recommend 100% whole wheat flour in your baked goods.2 Start by substituting 25% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. You can work your way up to substituting up to 50% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. Beyond 50%, you need to adjust in terms of liquid, as whole wheat flour is more absorbent than all-purpose flour.

Verdict: Fact

Fact or Fiction? Using a sugar substitute is better than using sugar

It’s tempting to want to replace added sugars with artificial ones, but it’s not necessarily the best move. Though sweeteners like Splenda, Equal and Sweet N’ Low are deemed safe by the FDA , questions remain. Since most sugar substitutes are not metabolized in the body, they are generally considered safe for consumption; however, there are prevailing concerns over the toxicity of “nonmetabolized” compounds in scientific studies.3 Studies on sugar substitutes range in conclusions from “safe under all conditions” to “unsafe at any dose”.4 Overall, sugar substitutes as an alternative to sugar is not recommended. Because these compounds are produced in a lab and do not occur in the natural world, our bodies have not necessarily evolved to safely digest the compound. Some studies have observed that use of these products is linked

with weight gain.4 There’s also the matter of your microbiome, the diverse ecosystem of healthy gut bacteria that powers your immune system and more. Another study found that sugar substitutes alter it in undesirable ways.5 As a general rule, minimizing foods processed in labs and eating a diet primarily composed of natural ingredients is the best way to optimize your body’s function.

Verdict: Fiction

Fact or Fiction?  Coconut oil is a healthy substitute to butter

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than butter (about 64% saturated fat), beef fat (40%), or even lard (also 40%).6 Too much-saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises “bad” Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease. But what’s interesting about coconut oil is that it also gives “good” High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol a boost. Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so. Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels and we don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease. According to Dr. Walter Willet, an M.D in the Harvard School of Public Health, coconut oil is not as healthful as vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil, which are mainly unsaturated fat and therefore both lower LDL and increase HDL.7 Coconut oil’s special HDL-boosting effect may make it “less bad” than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it’s still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease.

Verdict: Fiction


[1]Jonnalagadda, S. S., Harnack, L., Liu, R. H., McKeown, N., Seal, C., Liu, S., & Fahey, G. C. (2011). Putting the whole grain puzzle together: health benefits associated with whole grains–summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. The Journal of nutrition141(5), 1011S–22S.

[2] Caitlyn O’Shayghnessy and Roxanne Webber. (2016) Are Whole-Wheat and All-Purpose Flour interchangeable?

[3]Sharma, A., Amarnath, S., Thulasimani, M., & Ramaswamy, S. (2016). Artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute: Are they really safe?. Indian journal of pharmacology48(3), 237–240.

[4]Tandel K. R. (2011). Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits. Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics2(4), 236–243.

[5]Payne, A.N., et al. (2012). Gut microbial adaptation to dietary consumption of fructose, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols: implications for host–microbe interactions contributing to obesity. Obesity Reviews. 13(9) 799-809.

[6] Eyres, L., et al. (2016) Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews. 74(4) 267-280.

[7]Willet, Walter. (2018) Ask the Doctor: Coconut Oil and Health. Harvard Health Letter.


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