How To Bake With 12 Healthy Sugar Substitutes

How to wean yourself off the white stuff and make the switch to alternative sugars in your baking.

May 1, 2017
How to bake with sugar substitutes.
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There are a lot of reasons to incorporate alternative sugars into your baking: maybe you’re trying to cut back on refined sugar in your diet; maybe you’re looking for something with a little more depth of flavor than the white stuff; or maybe you’re trying to avoid GMOs (while cane sugar is not made from genetically modified plants, almost all beet sugar in the United States is).

Related: 6 Things That Happened When I Stopped Eating Sugar

There are more varieties of sugar substitutes than ever to choose from on the market, and they can increasingly be found outside of natural food and health stores. But it can be intimidating to pick one: Baking, in particular, has a reputation as a medium that is not friendly to substitution or improvisation, and there’s some truth to that.

Sugar in baked goods is not just for flavor: it affects lift, texture, moisture, browning, and a host of other things, so swapping an alternative sweetener for traditional refined sugar in a recipe might require some experimenting before you achieve a perfect result. But, as someone who has turned out many batches of fallen cakes, melted-together cookies, and other misshapen treats, I can assure you: even a messed-up dessert will still get eaten.

So be not afraid! Go forth and experiment, keeping these guidelines in mind.

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Tips for baking with alternative sugars and sugar substitutes.
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How to bake with alternative sugars

1. For best results, start with subbing your sugar substitute for just a portion of the sugar called for—generally up to half—and go from there.

2. When possible, substitute like for like: use a solid sugar to replace granulated sugar, and for syrups, stick to recipes that call for liquid sugar.

3. If you do want to substitute a liquid sweetener for granulated sugar, there’s a basic formula to use: take the weight of sugar and divide it by .8 to obtain the weight of syrup to use. Reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by the difference between the two numbers. Keep in mind that the switch won’t work well for recipes that rely heavily on the lift created from creaming butter and sugar—in other words, best used for dense cookies over fluffy cakes.

4. When using honey, agave syrup, and other high-fructose sweeteners, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees, as the high fructose content will accelerate browning.

5. Pick forgiving recipes: you’ll have better results with simple cookie recipes, cakes with leaveners, brownies, and the like. Steer clear of candies, sorbets, and other finicky formulas.

6. Keep in mind that not everything has the same amount of sweetening power; honey and maple sugar, for example, will taste sweeter than an equivalent amount of sugar; maple syrup is less sweet. You may need to taste and adjust.

Here are 12 alternative sugars to try:

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How to bake with date sugar
Photograph courtesy of Date Lady
Date sugar

This “sugar” is actually very finely pulverized dried dates, so it’s quite high in fiber and retains the fruit’s vitamins and potassium. Use it in place of sugar—you may want to reduce the amount by about a third—in oatmeal, granola, bar cookies, and banana bread. Be warned that it doesn’t dissolve completely the way sugar does, so it works best for dense baked goods where the slight texture difference won’t be as apparent. The date sugar on your grocery shelf has likely traveled far, but dates are often sustainably farmed so it’s still an eco-friendly pick.

Try it: Date Lady Organic Date Sugar, available at Amazon.com

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How to bake with sucanat.
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Sucanat

To make Sucanat, which is a brand name, cane juice is extracted, strained, boiled, and beat into granules. Because it’s less processed than white sugar, it retains more of the molasses flavor and nutrients than its more refined cousin. It makes a great substitute for brown sugar; start with a 1:1 swap and go from there. You may want to grind it to a finer texture in a spice grinder before using. Look for organic or fair-trade varieties.

Try it: Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Sucanat, available from Amazon.com

How to bake with coconut sugar.
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Coconut sugar

A solid sugar made from the evaporated sap of the coconut palm, coconut sugar has a similar taste to brown sugar and can be substituted 1:1 for granulated or brown sugar in most baking recipes. Because coconut palm trees can produce sap for many years and require fewer resources than sugar cane, it’s a fairly sustainable crop, although you’ll want to look for organic varieties to be sure no pesticides are being used. It’s lower on the glycemic index than most other sugars.

Try it: Viva Naturals Organic Coconut Sugar, available at Amazon.com

How to bake with jaggery.
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Jaggery

Made by casting heated, thickened cane or palm syrup into molds and allowing it to harden, jaggery is an unrefined brown sugar that is sold in hard blocks. It’s less sweet than sugar, so you’ll likely want to use about a third more if substituting for granulated sugar in recipes. Since it’s largely produced outside of the United States (it's a staple of Indian cooking), you’ll want to search out organic brands to avoid unregulated pesticides.

Try it: Pure Indian Foods Organic Jaggery, available at Amazon.com

 
 
How to bake with maple sugar.
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Maple sugar

Maple sugar can be substituted for granulated sugar in recipes that require creaming of butter and sugar—but it’s twice as sweet, so you might want to start with slightly less than a 1:1 ratio and adjust. Because it’s essentially boiled and crystallized maple syrup, it can be pricy, but it is possible to make your own by boiling maple syrup at home.

Try it: Coombs Family Farms Organic Maple Sugar, available at Amazon.com

How to bake with muscovado sugar.
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Muscovado sugar

Muscovado is cane sugar that has not had the molasses removed (as opposed to regular brown sugar, which is refined white sugar with the molasses added back in). The flavor is rich, like a very robust brown sugar—try substituting it for dark brown sugar in cookies and cakes.

Try it: Interna Foods Organic Muscovado Sugar, available at Amazon.com

How to bake with sorghum.
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Sorghum

A cane juice extracted from sorghum grass, sweet sorghum syrup, also sometimes confusingly called molasses, adds a slightly sour, grassy undertone to whatever you sweeten with it. Try it instead of maple syrup, cane syrup, or honey in baked goods—like maple syrup and molasses, it contains a small dose of vitamins and minerals like B-6, manganese, and potassium. As a crop, it uses relatively little water and is often produced in the U.S., so it’s a more eco-friendly option than something like agave, which uses up a lot of resources.

Try it: Sandhill Farm Organic Sorghum syrup, made by a small farm in Missouri.

 
 
How to bake with barley malt syrup.
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Barley malt syrup

Made from sprouted (aka malted) barley, this syrup imparts a very strong nutty, molasses-like flavor to baked goods. You’ll often see it called for in bread and other yeasted recipes, as its primary sugar, maltose, helps yeast fermentation. It’s high in antioxidants—but can also contain gluten, so those who can’t eat the protein should steer clear.

Try it: Eden Organic Barley Malt Syrup, available at Amazon.com

How to bake with molasses and cane syrup.
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Cane syrup and molasses

A byproduct of refining cane sugar, molasses retains more nutrients than its more highly processed sister, like vitamin B6, calcium, and magnesium. The first boiling of sugar cane juice results in cane syrup, which is the sweetest and lightest; the second boiling results in molasses, which has a slightly bitter flavor; and the third creates blackstrap molasses, which has the strongest flavor, darkest color, and the most vitamins (one tablespoon of the stuff contains more iron than three ounces of red meat).

Try it: You can buy Hey Shuga! Organic Cane SyrupWholesome Sweeteners Organic Molasses, and Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Blackstrap Molasses at Amazon.com.

How to bake with brown rice syrup.
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Brown rice syrup

Like barley malt syrup, rice syrup carries the flavor of its parent grain, although it’s slightly more delicate in flavor than its barley-based cousin—try it instead of corn syrup in pies for a more complex flavor. It’s relatively high in antioxidants and minerals. It’s also vegan and easy to find organic—though rice can absorb arsenic from the soil, so vary it with other sweeteners.

Try it: Lundberg Organic Brown Rice Syrup, available at Amazon.com

 
 
How to bake with honey.
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Honey

Using honey in baked goods will result in a denser, moister dessert. It’s sweeter than cane sugar by about a third, so keep this in mind if you plan to use it as a substitute. As noted above, reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees, as honey will accelerate the browning in a recipe. Raw, local honey is best, but cooking it will destroy most of the health benefits (here’s the real deal on using local honey to cure allergies), so keep in mind that if you’re heating it, you’re using it mostly for flavor (it’s still great to buy it locally to support local beekeepers).

Related: 20 Astonishing Uses For Honey In And Out Of The Kitchen

 

How to bake with maple syrup.
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Maple syrup

Use maple syrup anywhere its intense, complex flavor would be welcome—cookies, granola, oatmeal, in your coffee. The more delicate flavor of the paler, more expensive grade (called “Golden” or “Amber”) disappears in baked goods, so go for “Dark color” maple syrup (what used to be known as “grade B”), which is more robust in flavor—and contains a higher level of minerals like calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and potassium to boot. (Here’s more about maple syrup’s health benefits.)

It’s also a pretty sustainable choice—if well taken care of, trees can produce sap for generations. Look for organic varieties to be sure tree-tapping standards are being met.

Try it: Now Foods Organic Maple Syrup, Dark Color, available through Amazon.com.