We have just come off of Valentine’s day and Easter, a time when we often bake up some tasty treats for friends and family.
These occasions to bake may have left you wondering how to tip the scales of sweets in the favor of “healthier” rather than just plain decadent.
There are many “healthy substitutions” you can make when baking but there are a few important things to know about the baking process when you make them. Substituting other sweeteners for white, refined sugar is one of the top switches people make.
In this article, let’s discuss the swaps we can make for sugar in recipes.
When deciding on a substitute for white sugar, two things should be considered: what happens in the cooking/baking process and what happens in your/the body.
The Science of Sugar
Swapping out sweeteners is tricky because you can’t just switch out any form of sweetener for another and expect identical results. Some swaps will work in certain recipes and not in others because the reality is that sugar functions as more than a sweetener.
Depending on the cooking method and the ingredients it is paired with, sugar contributes to browning (called the milliard reaction), caramelization, tenderness and “crumb” (i.e. texture”), rise/leavening (especially in yeast breads), gelatinization/gelling in canning, and overall moisture.
If you remove white sugar, significant changes might occur, albeit they may not be all bad. However, you do need to be aware of them when you consider what swap you want to make.
If the “rise” is important to you then best not use a non-calorie sweetener that yeast can’t feed on. When making a low sugar jam with certain fruits that are naturally low in pectin be aware that without it your gel won’t set.
Substituting honey into a standard cornbread recipe will result in a browner, denser bread.
Unless you are an experienced cook (or rather adventurous), you may want to start with recipes already designed for non granulated sugar.
Different sweeteners have various effects in the body too. Calorically speaking, there is no difference in calories between refined sugar and “natural sweeteners” (from fruit, maple syrup, honey and agave).
If you compare a teaspoon of granulated sugar and with that of a natural sweetener, it would all be the same (4 calories per 1 gram). So using a natural sweetener instead of sugar doesn’t actually save you on the calories.
It doesn’t mean they are bad to use, however. There can be perks that come in despite the calories. Local raw honey has benefits for the immune system.
Fruits are powerhouses of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. Some natural sugars are accompanied with more minerals (ie calcium, iron, phosphorus, etc.) than white sugar.
As far as types of sugar swaps you can make there are two main types, natural sweeteners and non-caloric sweeteners.
Substitutes To Use
Fruit and Fruit Puree: Dried fruit (dates, raisins, apples, apricots etc.) is a great way to cut down the added sugar in a recipe while keeping some sweetness and texture.
Fruit puree is another way to cut down on sugar although, believe it or not, it is probably a better fat or egg replacer. Fruit puree is not a 1:1 replacement for white sugar.
Remember, it has an increased water content so you will need to cut back the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup or so. One cup of fruit puree is equivalent to about 1 – 2 tablespoons of sugar. It works well in dense baked goods like carrot cake or banana bread.
Coconut sugar or date sugar: These work really well in cake and pie recipes where a granulated-type sugar is essential for cutting air bubbles into butter and providing rise and browning.
Coconut sugar comes from the dehydrated sap of coco palms and may sport small amounts of magnesium, potassium. There is no difference in the calories these contain compared to white sugar but they do have a few more minerals.
Note that these sugars are light brown and will tint your product a little.
Honey, Maple Syrup and Agave: These are great in quick breads (or other baked products) where you need little to no leavening (rise) to take place (think banana bread or some pancake recipes).
Maple syrup and agave are popular with vegans and vegetarians as these do not come from animal sources. If you have problems with fructose and/or care about it, then likely want to limit agave.
Agave won’t raise your blood sugar levels because it is low in glucose. However, it is high in fructose. In fact, some sources have shown a range of 55 to 97% fructose content!
So basically, this is almost equivalent to fructose corn syrup! My recommendation: I never use agave
Stevia: One of the most common, non-calorie sweeteners, Stevia comes from the Stevia rebaudiana plant from Brazil and Paraguay. Each leaf is about 30 times sweeter than white sugar. One-hundred-percent pure stevia can leave a bitter after flavor so often it is mixed with a sugar alcohol (more info about those below) to off-set the taste. The website Sweetleaft.com has a useful conversion chart for how to best incorporate stevia in to recipes depending on if you use the liquid or granulated form.
Monk Fruit: An up-and-comer, monk fruit comes from a plant. It provides no calories and is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar so you cannot substitute it 1:1 in baking. There are potentials for its antioxidant properties in certain health conditions but the data isn’t fully in on that yet.
Artificial sweeteners: I’ll keep it short…I do NOT recommend these at all. While it is true that they do not raise your blood sugar, research is continuing to point out that while “calorie free,” these sweeteners are not “effect free.” These not only train your brain to crave sweet and eat more refined food products but they also appear to alter your gut bacteria and your overall blood sugar response in general from other foods. I never recommend these.
Other sweeteners (Sugar alcohols): Sugar alcohol just refers to the chemical structure and doesn’t contain any actual alcohol! These include Eyrthrotol, Xylotol, sorbitol and Mannitol. These provided a marginal amount of calories (0.2-2.4 Kcals) are commonly used to help bulk up other non-caloric sweeteners. Sometimes they are used by themselves. They often are a little less sweet than sugar so you need to use more than the original recipe calls for.
As you can see, switching up the sugar content in recipes is both a science and an art. It can make for tricky but fun experiments in the kitchen. Of course, if you really want to keep it simple AND healthy, then fresh or frozen fruit (my favorite!) with a drizzle of warm peanut butter or cold cream (regular or coconut) often does the trick.
Add a sprinkle of chocolate chips or cocoa nibs and you have a satisfying and truly healthy dessert!
– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and daughters. Find her at thepantrylab.com or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”