I always tell people that I am a better cook than a baker. 

I think that’s because baking is much more about chemistry. With baking, you have to stick to a recipe; cooking tends to be more forgiving about creativity and of making changes or substitutions.

There was a time when I would experiment with making baked goods like cookies, brownies and quick breads, trying to adapt recipes to make them with less of something, whether it was fat or sugar. The worst attempts were when I tried to change too many of the parameters at one time. A notable failure was trying to make brownies lower in both fat and sugar at the same time.

They turned out to be sad, tough and tasteless lumps.

If you bake, you recognize that each ingredient serves a purpose: fat contributes moisture, flour and egg help create structure from their proteins, and sugar can affect color, moisture and flavor. Your recipe may have flavoring agents like vanilla and other ingredients like baking soda, baking powder or yeast to give the baked item volume and make it rise. If you forget or skip over an ingredient and miss adding it, the finished product will demonstrate what you neglected.

We are in a time now when many consumers don’t bake or cook, and are often very concerned about the ingredients of their foods to the point of having “chemophobia.” Are these ingredients natural? Are there too many ingredients? Are they too hard to pronounce or unfamiliar? 

All of these scenarios often give rise to suspicions that are compounded by fear-mongers and self-proclaimed experts who preach the gospel of “clean” foods. They darkly warn consumers, “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients,” or “Don’t eat foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce.” 

Coincidentally, these same fear-mongers may promote “clean” or more natural versions of various foods as a better or more nutritious alternative, often profiting from these items.

The quest for a “clean” list of ingredients can make a brand turn to its research and development team to see if ingredients can be changed or eliminated or even if the verbiage on the packaging can be simplified. For example, sodium bicarbonate may become baking soda.

While the consumer may think changes to ingredients are easy or inconsequential, a person who bakes knows only too well that altering a recipe may have unintended consequences. 

For example, less sugar may have to be counteracted with more fat to keep moisture. Even relatively simple changes to ingredients — replacing cane sugar for high-fructose corn sugar or replacing wheat flour with tapioca flour or other gluten-free flours — may also affect baking times, the need to add additional ingredients, how the finished product looks or performs and the cost of finished product, which ultimately the consumer has to shoulder.

The irony of all of this is that a “clean” item, whether it’s a cookie or an entrée in a chain restaurant, may have just as many or more calories and may have similar or sometimes fewer nutrients than its “unclean” version.

The bottom line

Before you are too quick to tout the benefits of clean eating, learn about the purpose of ingredients and the consequences of changing or removing them. 

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