Healthy cake, fact or fiction?

Cakes have long been a culinary symbol of pleasure and conviviality. And although they are an occasional treat, you cannot overlook the fact that they contain significant amounts of sugar and fat. Is it possible to reduce these amounts without sacrificing taste?

Yes, provided that you keep the minimum amounts necessary for success. A perfect cake has the right balance of ingredients which all have a role to play. Before you begin, it’s important to understand the roles that sugar and butter play in the structure of a cake.

The roles of sugar

In many desserts, such as pies, tarts and even muffins, sugar is added mainly for flavour. But sugar plays other unsuspected roles in cakes that make it almost irreplaceable.

Incorporate air bubbles

When butter is creamed with sugar (the first step in making a butter cake and a host of other cakes), the friction of sugar crystals against the butter traps thousands of air bubbles that will form cells in the cake’s interior during baking.

Ensure tenderness

Sugar prevents proteins naturally present in flour from joining together and forming an elastic network (gluten) when the flour is mixed with liquid.

Add volume

A cake’s height comes not only from air bubbles incorporated at the time of beating, or from leavening agents. One of sugar’s unsuspected functions is it allows batter to rise even higher. How? In fact, sugar increases the temperature at which the batter begins to solidify during baking. The batter remains liquid longer, which allows steam and gas from leavening agents (carbon dioxide in baking powder) to rise even higher. If you reduce the amount of sugar too much, the batter will solidify faster and will expand less in the oven.


Finally, sugar is essential to the formation of a beautiful golden crust, thanks to two reactions: caramelization and the Maillard reaction, which provides cakes with a lot of flavour.

How much to use?

In a traditional cake recipe, you normally use equal parts of sugar and flour, which roughly translates to about 180 ml (¾ c.) of sugar for every 250 ml (1 c.) of flour. To achieve a healthier version, the amount of sugar should be reduced to 125 ml (½ c.) per cup of flour. If you use less than that, the cake may turn out pale and flat.

The roles of butter

Butter gives cakes a unique flavour. It can be replaced volume for volume by non-hydrogenated margarine. This would improve the cake’s fat content (there are more good mono and polyunsaturated fats and fewer bad saturated fats). There’s good news if you want to reduce the amount of butter: the consequences are less catastrophic than reducing the amount of sugar! Let’s take a look at the functions of butter in cake.

Incorporate air bubbles

Butter serves to retain air bubbles trapped by sugar crystals during beating. These air bubbles are released in the batter when the butter melts during baking.

Ensure tenderness

Butter, like sugar, helps prevent the development of gluten in cake. The inside could turn out rubbery if the amount of butter is reduced by too much. Butter also keeps the inside of a cake from hardening after it is baked.

Add softness

Fat stimulates salivation and acts a bit like a lubricant that facilitates chewing. Butter contributes to the sensation of moisture and smoothness in the mouth. This is why a low-fat cake may seem drier than a regular cake.

How much to use?

In traditional cakes, you would normally use 75 ml (⅓ c.) or more of butter for every 250 ml (1 c.) of flour. In a healthier version, you can reduce this amount to 45 ml (3 tbsp.) per cup of flour. The rest of the butter could be replaced by fruit puree, either homemade or in a baby jar (apple, banana, pear, peach, avocado…) or even by thick yogurt. This substitution is not essential but will add a bit of moisture to the centre of the cake.

Checklist for healthy cakes and muffins

Here are the recommended amounts of sugar and fat to obtain good quality cakes and muffins that are also good for you. Instead of recommending reductions by percentage (ex. Reduce by 30% of 50%) or volumes of sugar and fat per recipe, we offer you the amounts required depending on the amount of flour used. The final result can vary depending on the recipe and the interaction of other ingredients such as eggs and liquid.

› As sugar and fat protect against the development of gluten (an elastic protein found in wheat), do not over mix the batter after adding liquid ingredients to the dry ones.
› Sugar and fat also help preserve muffins and cakes by retaining moisture inside. Since healthy versions use less sugar and fat, it is best to eat them the same day.

Amounts / per cup of flour


  • Sugar: 125 ml (1/2 c.) 
  • Butter: 45 ml (3 tbsp.) 


  • Sugar: 30 to 45 ml (2 to 3 tbsp.) 
  • Butter: 30 to 45 ml (2 to 3 tbsp.) 

Experiment: Reduce the sugar and the butter

We put it to the test, reducing by various amounts the sugar and fat used in a butter cake recipe. Here are some of our results.

Regular cake

Our recipe contained 150 ml (⅔ c.) of sugar and 90 ml (6 tbsp.) of butter per 250 ml (1 c.) of flour. These amounts of sugar and fat are quite consistent with generally recommended proportions and result in an exceptional cake. Note the wonderful height, the fine and uniform texture of the centre, as well as the beautiful golden crust.  

  • Good taste
  • Perfect height
  • Crust well browned

50% less sugar

Could we reduce the sugar by half? Yes, but the result was disappointing. Due to the insufficient amount of sugar, the batter solidified faster during baking and the cake rose less. But, most of all, the crust turned out pale and was tasteless, because there was less caramelization and the Maillard reaction. We needed a compromise!

  • Bland taste
  • Denser inside
  • Paler crust

The compromise (50% less fat and 1/2 less sugar)

To keep all the beneficial effects of sugar and fat for the height, colour and texture of the cake, we determined that we had to use at least 125 ml (½ c.) of sugar and 45 ml (3 tbsp.) of butter per 250 ml (1 c.) of flour (see our checklist). The result was quite acceptable, a compromise that combines pleasure and health!

  • Good taste
  • Golden colour
  • Fewer calories

And sugar substitutes?

Can you replace the sugar in cake and muffin recipes with a substitute like Splenda® or Equal® ? That depends. Personally, I prefer baking with all forms of natural sugar (honey, maple syrup, sugar, brown sugar…) rather than using artificial products. Whatever your preference, here is a look at some substitutes.


What is it: Equal® contains aspartame, a small protein that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, but that loses its sweetness when exposed to heat. And in cakes: forget about it! It’s impossible to use in baking recipes that require baking as it loses its sweetness.


What is it: Splenda® contains sucralose, a compound made by adding three chlorine atoms to a sugar molecule. This makes the molecule 500 to 600 times sweeter. To make Splenda®, a small amount of sucralose is mixed with maltodextrin, a kind of starch that acts as a filling agent. The mixture is dosed so that a cup of Splenda® has the same level of sweetness as a cup of sugar. Therefore, you can replace it cup for cup in baking.

And in cakes? The result is not always good. Cakes don’t rise, don’t brown or store well. If you want to use it in bake, it’s a good idea to refer to recipes available on the product’s website rather than improvise. On the other hand, it does achieve acceptable results in muffins. Is it worth it?
Splenda® certainly reduces calories: around 100 calories per cup, compared to about 900 calories for the same amount of sugar (the calories come from the maltodextrin). But this savings will cost you: a cup of Splenda® is at least three times more expensive than a cup of sugar.


What is it: Stevia is the newest zero-calorie sugar substitute available in North America. This sweetener is derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant, native to Brazil and Paraguay. It is on the market in two forms: the more “natural” form is a green powder composed solely of dried crushed leaves. It is 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar. The second more common form contains purified extracts of stevioside and/or rebaudioside, the molecules responsible for the plant’s sweet taste. These extracts are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. They are mixed with filling agents such as maltodextrin to obtain a white powder sold in packets to sweeten hot or cold drinks, for example.  

And in cakes? As stevia does not lose its flavour during baking, it is possible to use in baking, but this product does cost. One stevia packet replaces 10 ml (2 tsp.) of sugar. The result is ok in muffins but not in cakes. It cannot replace all the multiple functions of real sugar!

Watch for: Though consumers can buy stevia at the grocery store or in the pharmacy for culinary purposes, its use in the food industry is limited to “natural health products,” a growing category that includes energy drinks, reduced calorie drinks (Trop50 for example) and vitamin water. It’s a safe be to say that we haven’t heard the last of stevia.

Christina Blais

For Christina Blais, explaining food chemistry to the masses is as simple as making a good omelet. Holding a Bachelor and Master degree in Nutrition, she has been a part-time lecturer for over 30 years in the Department of Nutrition at the Université de Montréal, where she teaches food science courses. She has been sharing the fruits of her experience with Ricardo since 2001, during his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé. And diehards can also read her Food Chemistry on our website. You can follow her on Facebook at @Encuisineavecchristinablais.