If you want to sweeten your food but want to avoid sugar, you'll need to understand what sugar does in your recipe (other than sweeten it, of course), and how your substitute will perform in it's place. Sometimes it simply won't work, other times it works quite nicely. This is a lot like flour substitution - it depends!
There's so many options, and they all work differently, that you really need more understanding before just trying something out. This guide won't keep you from needing to experiment, but hopefully you'll be able to try just a few variations until you get one you like instead of a dozen.
When sugar is heated it melts completely, so in baking it is counted as a liquid in the overall ratio of your recipe. In addition to sweetness it adds moisture and tenderness to the finished product. Sugar also helps to brown foods and increases shelf-life. Because of all these properties that sugar has, it makes it difficult to simply replace it in its entirety with another sweetener or 'filler'.
Even though it's difficult to replace, it's often easier to simply reduce. In most cases you can reduce the amount of sugar by a third (without any substitute), and not affect the quality of the baked goods.
How are Sucrose, Glucose and Fructose Different?
Sucrose, glucose and fructose are carbohydrates referred to as simple sugars. They all taste relatively the same, however how your body processes and uses these sugars are very different.
Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is your body’s dominant energy source. Glucose circulates throughout your bloodstream and is used as immediate energy, or stored in the muscle cells or the liver (as glycogen) for later use. Insulin is released within your body as a response to the rising levels of glucose in your bloodstream.
Fructose is naturally found in fruits and vegetables and does not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar when ingested because it is primarily metabolized in the liver. At the concentrations found in natural foods, your liver can easily process it. Although, when higher concentrations are consumed like in processed foods like high fructose corn syrup, the liver is unable to metabolize it quick enough so some of it is converted into triglycerides and sent into the bloodstream. These fatty triglycerides are of great concern for an increased risk of obesity and heart disease.
Sucrose, also known as granulated white table sugar, is composed of half fructose and half glucose.
What is the Glycemic Index (GI)?
It is a ranking of foods (carbohydrates) based on the body's rate of conversion of that food into blood glucose. This glycemic response ranges from 0-100, where the higher values mean that a particular food causes a faster rise in blood sugar (and the faster the rise of blood glucose, the more insulin is released). Too much insulin can lead to a storage of excess glucose in our bodies as fat, as well as diabetes and other diseases.
Glucose, with a GI of 100, is the used as the baseline of how all other foods compare. Foods with a GI of 55 or lower are considered low, while those 70 and above are considered high.
Below is a list of sugars and foods and their glycemic index to give you an idea of how they compare.
|Fructose||19||Evaporated cane juice||55|
|Bean sprouts||25||Black strap molasses||55|
|Brown rice syrup||25||Ice cream||61|
|Raw honey||30||High fructose corn syrup||62|
|Sugar cane juice||43||White rice||64|
|Lactose||46||Sucrose (white sugar)||64|
|Potato chips||54||Baked potato||85|
How & What To Substitute
The most important thing you need to know before substituting is to understand what sugar does and does not contribute to the outcome of the finished product. Candy recipes like brittle, sponge and toffees rely on chemical reactions provided by refined sugars. Using a substitute in recipes like these, without sugar's unique properties, will not produce the desired results, and therefore should not be used.
Another function of sugar is to add volume to a recipe (a cake batter for example). If you remove it and replace with only a few teaspoons of sweetener, you are going to affect the ratios of the other ingredients and completely change the structure of the cake. You’ll end up with a cake that barely rises, has a dense texture, pale in color, and potentially doesn’t taste very good if you didn’t add enough sweetener.
For each cup of sugar substituted, you'll need to add 1/3 cup of some type of bulking agent to replace that volume lost. Bulking agents can include things like fruit purees, whipped egg whites, or yogurt. If none of these ingredients work in the recipe you’re using, increase the amount of another liquid called for in the recipe until the batter’s texture is similar to what it should be. Substituting is not an exact science, so a bit of trial and error may need to happen to achieve satisfying results.
If replacing granular sugar with a liquid sweetener like honey or syrups, you'll need to reduce the amounts of the other liquid that is called for in the recipe (ie. milk), otherwise your batter will be too runny.
Types of Sugar Substitutes
While these sugar alternatives may not all be able to be used cup for cup, or as an all purpose sugar replacement, they do give you an idea of what's out there, and how a particular sugar substitute can be used.
The majority of the nectars come from the Blue Agave plant found in Mexico (same plant that tequila is made from). There are generally two types of agave syrup available – light and dark. Darker varieties have been heated longer, and have a slight caramel taste. Light syrup is similar to that of maple syrup or honey.
How To Use – Because types of agave syrup vary in sweetness, for each cup of white sugar replaced, use 1/4 - 3/4 cup of agave syrup, and reduce other liquids by 1/4 to 1/3 cup. For example, to replace 1 cup of brown sugar, use 2/3 of a cup of agave and reduce other liquids only by 1/4 cup (since brown sugar has a higher moisture content).
Pros - It has been labelled as a healthier option due to its low glycemic index.
Cons – Some research has show that agave nectar contains certain hormones that could increase the risk of miscarriage if consumed by pregnant women. If you are diabetic, have insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, agave nectar is suspected to be potentially dangerous to consume.
How it compares to sugar - Both have the same calories per teaspoon, but since its sweeter you can use less of thereby decreasing your calorie count.
Brown Rice Syrup
Made from whole grain rice, enzymes are added to break down its natural starches into sugars. It is then boiled down, resulting in a thick 100% glucose syrup with a nutty flavor, and is less sweet than white sugar or honey. Some brands can be made from barley, so be sure to check the label.
How To Use – For every cup of sugar, use 1 ¼ cup rice syrup, and reduce other liquid in recipe by ¼ cup.
Pros – Suitable for vegans.
Cons – Not recommended for diabetics.
How it compares to sugar - higher in calories (55-75) than sugar.
Made from the sap of coconut palm's flower buds. Once heated most of the water evaporates leaving large golden crystals, with a light caramel flavor.
How To Use – Replace cup for cup. Because it is coarser than white or brown sugar, it won’t cream as smoothly and the baked goods will end up with a speckled look with more air pockets.
Pros – Contains minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. Contains inulin which is a fiber that may slow glucose absorption, giving it a lower glycemic index (35) than white sugar.
Cons – Contains the same amount of fructose as sugar.
How it compares to sugar - Equal to sugar in calories and carbohydrates.
Corn & Golden Syrup
Enzymes are added to corn starch, turning it into a syrupy mixture of glucose. Golden syrup has similar properties to corn syrup and can be used interchangeably in cooking and baking. Although it is made from sugar cane and has a slightly toasted flavor.
How To Use – Replace 1 cup of sugar with ¾ cup of syrup. For cookies, reduce the oven temperature 25ºF (to prevent over-browning) and decrease the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup per cup syrup using.
Pros – Corn syrup is an ‘invert’ sugar, meaning it does not crystallize which makes it great to use in candy-making. It can be used to make candies hard like peanut brittle, or chewy candies like toffee. It also gives a shine to sauces, adds thickness to pecan pies, makes sorbets smooth and less icy, is less sweet than sugar, and does not add flavor to the finished product (like molasses or honey would).
Cons – Corn syrup is harder for your body to digest. It should not be confused with the commercial product of High Fructose Corn Syrup –these are very different products.
How it compares to sugar – Only 33% as sweet as table sugar (by weight), yet is slightly higher in calories.
Produced from bees it has a distinctive flavor based on what flowers the bees fed from. Baked goods turn out moist and dense, and tend to brown faster.
How To Use – For every cup of sugar, use ¾ cup + 1 Tbsp honey, and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 Tbsp. If the recipe includes sour cream or buttermilk, add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acidity.
Pros – Contains flavonoids and antioxidants which help reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease, is an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, immunity system builder, and has been used for decades as natural remedy for many ailments.
Cons – Contains 40% fructose, its GI can range from low to high, has a strong flavor which can affect some recipes, contains a number of bacteria including (Clostridium) which can cause infant botulism if children under 1 year of age consume it.
How it compares to sugar - 25 to 50% sweeter and higher in calories than sugar.
Pure Maple Syrup
Made from the sap of sugar maple trees, it is boiled down into a thick golden syrup that is 60% as sweet as sugar. Grade B syrup has a higher mineral content and stronger flavor than grade A.
How To Use – For every cup of sugar use ¾ cup of maple syrup, and reduce the amount of liquid by 3 Tbsp.
Pros – Source of antioxidants and minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese.
Cons – Can be expensive.
How it compares to sugar - Similar in calories to sugar.
Molasses (Unsulfured Blackstrap)
A by-product of refined sugar production. Molasses imparts a dark color and strong flavor to baked foods, but is not as sweet as sugar. Most of the sugar has been taken out of blackstrap and this makes it the least sweet of all the other types of molasses derived from previous extractions. It still contains enough sugar compounds however to be a viable alternative sweetener.
How To Use – For every cup of sugar use 1 1/3 cups molasses, and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 5 Tbsp. It is also more acidic than sugar so you’ll need to add ½ tsp baking soda for each cup of molasses used. Because of its strong flavor, and color, replace no more than half the sugar called for in a recipe with molasses.
Pros – Because molasses is the left over components of sugarcane juice after sugar is extracted, it contains a concentrated level of the vitamins and minerals that were present in the sugarcane itself. It contains small amounts of B vitamins, high in minerals like calcium, iron, copper and manganese. 1 Tbsp contains 20% of the daily recommended daily intake for calcium, 22.5% of the daily recommended daily intake for magnesium and almost 40% of the recommended daily intake for iron. It can be used as a home remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, constipation, and can help inflammatory bowel disease.
Cons – It imparts a strong and distinct flavor, which may not be suitable to all tastes and recipes.
How it compares to sugar – Higher in calories than sugar.
Sucanat & Turbinado
It is the brand name with the acronym that stands for SUgar CAne NATural. This unrefined granular sweetener is made from dried sugar juice with added nutrients. Because it contains molasses, it is similar to that of brown sugar. Turbinado sugar is a more refined version of sucanat.
How To Use – Replace cup for cup.
Pros – Same nutritional benefits as molasses, does not spike blood sugar levels quite as high compared to white sugar.
Cons – Because it is coarser than white or brown sugar, it won’t cream as smoothly and the baked goods will end up with a speckled look with more air pockets.
How it compares to sugar – Similar in calories.
Extracted from the leaf of the stevia plant and can be 100-300 times sweeter than sugar.
How To Use - For every cup of sugar, use 1 teaspoon of stevia (added to the dry ingredients) and add 1/3 cup of a substituting liquid (like applesauce). Only use with baking temperatures below 400°F (it will break down at higher temperatures).
Pros - It does not affect blood sugar levels, or stimulate insulin, and has zero calories, and does not contribute to tooth decay. Studies have shown it has many health-promoting that help control blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure.
Cons - Can be expensive, and some people may not like its after taste. When consumed in large amounts it can causes stomach upset like bloating. Can be hard to substitute in baking to produce the desired results.
How it compares to sugar – A no calorie option to sugar.
Applesauce - Replace 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup applesauce.
Banana - Replace 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 cup puréed overripe banana (may need to add a few Tbsp of water to completely liquefy).
Dates or Figs - Replace 1 cup of sugar with 2/3 cup purée. Soak dried fruit in hot water, then puree with a bit of water until liquefied.
Aspartame (Equal® and NutraSweet®), Acesulfame Potassium (Sunette®, Sweet One®), and Saccharine ( Sweet and Low®), range from 160-700 times sweeter than sugar. They could be used in baking, however if wanting to use in baking I would suggest replacing only a maximum of 1/4 cup of the sugar in the recipe (with 6 grams of sweetener). Your best bet would be to choose another sugar substitute for your baking needs.
It is made from sugar, but through a patented process it is converted into a no calorie, non-carbohydrate sweetener.
How To Use –Substitute cup for cup (refer to product package).
Pros – Because it passes through the body without being broken down for energy, your body does not recognize it as a carbohydrate so you get the sugar taste without the sugar effects (rise in insulin levels, fat storage, etc). Stable when heated, so it can be used in baking and cooking.
Cons – Belongs to a class of chemicals called organochlorides (some of which are classified as toxic or carcinogenic). The presence of the chlorine molecule may reduce the risk of toxicity, but some groups still question its safety.
How it compares to sugar - 1 tsp has 2 calories and less than 1 gram carbohydrate, compared to 16 calories for sugar and 4g carbs
This is by no means a complete list, but it gives you and idea of some of the popular natural and artificial sweeteners that are available on the market.
Read the Label
With so many variations of sugar, it can be hard to know what to look for when reading food labels. Below is a list of sugars in its various forms that can be found in processed foods:
|Types/Forms of Sugar|
|Agave Nectar||Honey||Dehydrated Cane Juice||Rice Syrup|
|Barley Malt Syrup||Invert sugar||Dextrin||Saccharose|
|Beet Sugar||Lactose||Dextrose||Sorghum Syrup|
|Brown Rice Syrup||Maltodextrin||Evaporated Cane Juice||Sucrose|
|Brown Sugar||Malt syrup||Fructose||Syrup|
|Cane Crystals||Maltose||Fruit juice concentrate||Treacle|
|Cane Sugar||Maple syrup||Glucose||Turbinado Sugar|
|Coconut Sugar||Molasses||High-fructose corn syrup||Xylose|
|Corn syrup||Corn sweetener||Palm Sugar||Raw sugar|
Run out of an ingredient and in a pinch? Below is a list of a few substitutes you can use.
|Light or Dark Corn Syrup (1 cup)||-equal amounts honey *|
|-equal amounts golden syrup|
|-1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water (or other liquid from recipe) *|
|*although substitutes will not work in candy-type recipes where mixture is boiled|
|Icing Sugar (1 cup)||1/2 cup + 1 1/2 Tbsp granulated sugar + 3/4 tsp cornstarch. Grind to a fine powder in blender or food processor|
|Brown Sugar (1 cup, packed)||1 cup granulated sugar + 2 to 3 Tbsp molasses|
Sugar is Still Sugar
Regardless whether it comes from a natural or artificial source, it's still sugar and too much of it can lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
For a healthy lifestyle, granulated sugar or its substitutes is recommended to be no more than 5% of your daily calorie intake (approximately 6 tsp for women, 9 tsp for men).
Remember to keep in mind when you’re substituting that aside from sweetness, sugar substitutes do not perform the same chemical functions in baking such as creating a light, tender crumb, adding moisture and giving baked goods a golden-brown crust. So do not expect the exact same results.