Sugar-free baking

Looking for a natural alternative to sugar? We show you how to make delicious bakes with the most popular sugar substitutes...

Sugar-free baking

What’s nicer than to share generous slices of home-made cake with family and friends? Baking is one of life’s pleasures but it comes at a price - it's hard when you've cooked up a batch of cupcakes, or a big fat Victoria sandwich, not to consume it to the last crumb. But if, like many of us, you’re taking steps to cut the sugar in your diet then there are few things you’ll need to know. Sugar substitutes can be expensive and if you don’t know the best way to use them you could wreck all your efforts. 

Keen to try out some alternatives, I spoke to Good Food’s Nutritional Therapist Kerry Torrens about some of the more natural options...

So why do we use sugar in baking? "It’s not all about sweetness," Kerry tells me, "sugar gives us that delicious texture and crumb, the lovely golden brown colour and it prolongs how long we can store our bakes – that’s if your cake hangs around long enough! Sugar also keeps baked goods moist so sugar-free versions may need to be wrapped in cling film before storage to prevent drying out.

Fruit & vegetables

Sugar-free banana cake

"There are a number of sugar substitutes on the market but the most natural are whole fruit and vegetables. Using them in their whole form means you’ll be benefitting from the valuable fibre and nutrients they contain as well as enjoying their naturally sweet flavour. Popular veggie choices are carrots, parsnips and beetroot – these all work surprisingly well in sweet treats as do sweet potatoes, squash and even courgettes. A great tip is to combine veg like these with ground almonds to create a crumbly, naturally sweet cakey crumb.

"Fruit is amazingly versatile - bananas are an obvious choice but don’t forget other exotic fruits which are naturally high in sugar like pineapple and mango. One of the key considerations when using fruit and veg is to make sure they’re as ripe as possible so you optimise their natural sweetness. You need to be prepared for some trial and error before you get your favourite recipe to work. Replacing refined sugar with, say an apple purée, is clearly not a straight forward swap so you’ll need to play around with the amount of fluid and dry ingredients before you get the combination right. Dried fruit like dates, sultanas, prunes and apricots are concentrated sources of sweetness, rich in fibre and nutrients including iron and potassium. They make a great choice for boosting the sweetness of a recipe or as a puree for adding extra moisture and stickiness.

Xylitol

"If you’re looking for a substitute which will give you a straight swap for sugar then xylitol may be the answer. Despite its synthetic sounding name, xylitol is extracted from hardwood trees and the fibres of some fruit and vegetables – it looks and tastes like sugar – although some people experience a slight after-taste. With fewer calories than refined sugar and a low glycaemic index (GI) it has less of an impact on blood sugar levels which means you can enjoy that sweet taste without the resulting 'rush' that regular sugar gives you.

"Xylitol has another benefit - it doesn't cause dental decay. You can use it as a substitute in many recipes [ratio 1:1], but not those which use yeast as a raising agent. Cakes sweetened with xylitol don't tend to colour very much, but that’s not a problem for coffee or chocolate cakes. One word of warning: xylitol can have a laxative effect so go easy when you first try it - a slice of cake shouldn't be an issue though. And finally if you’ve a dog in the family keep him well away from products made with xylitol – it’s highly toxic to our canine friends.

Recipes using xylitol:
Sugar-free lemon drizzle cake
Low-sugar chocolate sandwich cake
Cinnamon apple pecan pudding
Moroccan orange & cardamom cake

Stevia

"If you’re worried about calories - try stevia. Made from the leaves of a plant that contains sweet-tasting compounds called steviol glycosides, stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so the amount you use is tiny in comparison. What’s more, it doesn’t impact blood sugar levels or cause tooth decay. Stevia is available as granules, tablets or in liquid form and is stable at high temperatures so it can be used in baked goods and puddings. You will need to use a specially adapted recipe, though, because swapping the quantity of sugar for stevia is not a straight swap. As well as being calorie-free, stevia contributes nothing nutritionally so it’s what we call a non-nutritive sweetner – it supplies that sweet taste and that’s all.

Syrups & coconut sugar

Agave nectar

"I’m often asked about the benefits of some popular alternatives like agave and coconut sugar. These ingredients are being used more and more frequently but don’t forget they’re simply sugar by a different name.

"Syrups like agave are popular ingredients for a gooey flapjack or a sticky ginger cake – but whether you opt for golden syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave or rice syrup they’re all classed as 'free' sugars - the type we should be cutting back on. So if you’re using these alternatives then strictly speaking your home-bake is not sugar-free but you may, depending on which you use, be benefiting from some nutritional benefits like trace vitamins and minerals."

The recipes 

Armed with this information I chose a few of our most popular recipes and substituted the ingredients.

First up, our 5-star rated Classic Victoria sandwich. I replaced the 200g caster sugar with 200g xylitol in the cake, a pretty straight swap as caster sugar doesn't have a particularly distinctive flavour unlike its brown relatives. The result, a beautifully light cake with some colour. I replaced the jam with St Dalfour jam (naturally sweetened with grape juice) and gave the buttercream a miss. It didn't need it but if you were desperate you could add some lightly whipped double cream instead. Verdict: a success.

My second experiment was our Apricot, honey & pistachio flapjacks. I tried swapping the soft brown sugar for an equal quantity of agave syrup and kept the rest of the ingredients the same. This didn't work. The flapjacks didn't hold together very well. I think a reduced amount and no honey would have worked better. They overbrowned a little too, so lowering the oven temperature would have helped.

Coconut carrot sliceNot wanting to give up on agave syrup, I tried the Coconut carrot slices. Instead of 300g light muscovado sugar, I used 150g agave syrup. For the topping I used 30g agave syrup and no melted butter. All the remaining ingredients were exactly the same and the oven temperature. This cake turned out beautifully; I'll definitely do this one again.

Finally, I had a go at the Anzac biscuits which I've had many a time. I replaced the caster sugar with xylitol and the golden syrup with agave. These tasted delicious but were slightly cakey in texture. They were different to how they usually turn out but still went down a treat.

Easy swaps

Get clued up on other ingredients in your bakes and cakes - here's our guide:

  • Use raw cacao nibs and raw cacao powder instead of chocolate. Even dark 70% cocoa chocolate may contain sugar, as can cocoa powder. Raw cacao has a rich flavour and is a great source of minerals like iron and magnesium. Use in cakes, cupcakes, tortes and cookies.
  • Use date and other fruit purées instead of treacle, golden syrup, maple syrup, agave, rice syrup or honey, which are all classed as 'free' sugars. Syrups add a gooey texture to traybakes, cookies and tarts which is hard to mimic. However, fruit purées supply sweetness and moisture and can make a useful alternative.
  • Use wholemeal flour instead of refined white flour. Although it may not be a sugar itself, refined white flour is digested really quickly, which may aggravate blood sugar levels. Use wholemeal flour to slow the rate at which your body absorbs all forms of sugar.
  • Use vanilla pods instead of vanilla extract. In the grand scheme of things, vanilla extract isn't too bad, but if you're keen to avoid processed products, opt for the pods. Although they are a little more pricey than extract, it's easy to make each pod go a little further. Once you've removed and used the seeds, keep the pods and use them to infuse milk, yogurt and cream, as well as stewed fruits and purées.
  • Use homemade fruit compote instead of jam or conserves. Even jams and conserves with no added sugar are still a concentrated source due to their high fruit content. Naturally flavour your homemade compote with spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or ginger, or make a fruit purée using mango, pineapple or apricots.
  • Use lighter toppings in place of icing, buttercream and frosting - these little extras can more than double the calories per portion. Instead, sprinkle your cake lightly with cacao powder, cinnamon or ground ginger. Use a cream cheese topping flavoured with citrus zest, or a fresh cream filling with some seasonal fruit.

Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, how to cut back on sugar or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts, find all the answers in our sugar hub - All you need to know about sugar.

This article was last reviewed on 26 February 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.


Have you tried any alternatives to sugar in your baking? What do you think of them?
 

Comments, questions and tips

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andreaclarke110
4th Aug, 2016
Can we have some recipes for cakes/ muffins which are just made with fruit or vegetables please?
Helsi
7th Apr, 2016
I'm interested in reducing my intake of sugar in all forms and baking naturally poses some problems. I am familiar with the the use of xylitol as an alternative to granulated sugar in this context and was delighted to see your endorsement of this excellent sugar substitute. I came here in particular in the hope of finding recommendations for alternatives to liquid sugars such as agave/maple syrup/sweet freedom etc which, to my mind at least, are also classes as sugars. I was disappointed I admit, not only to find that you do not discuss this topic, but actually go so far as considering agave as a healthy alternative to sugar. You appear to be replacing one sugar with another. Is this really reduced sugar baking? liquid sweeteners
mo-can
15th Sep, 2015
I am looking into using glucose (without fructose) for baking and wondered if anyone has any tips or experience with it? I found this article which was quite interesting. http://exsugarholic.com/2013/06/30/using-dextrose-glucose-in-cooking-and-baking/
alisonschenkl
26th Aug, 2015
Please, when recommending that bakers replace sugar with xylitol, could you consider adding the information that xylitol is highly poisonous and often lethal to dogs. A ratio of 5g xylitol to 1kg of ingredients can prove fatal. I have more than one friend who has lost a dog after their pet managed to access baked goods that were made with this product . For humans it's apparently harmless, but is responsible for the deaths of many, many dogs. Thank you.
Butterfly92xo
3rd Jan, 2015
I use mashed sweet potatoes :)
jandbs81
1st Oct, 2014
The most natural alternative to 'sugar' as we know it, is Coconom organic Coconut Sugar which is un-refined, low glycemic and sustainably harvested. This wonderful product is full of natural goodness. It can be used as a 1-1 sugar alternative in beverages and also baked goods.
catriona1
28th Mar, 2014
I have had good results with xylitol, sold as Total sweet in Sainsburys, classic sponges, Victoria Sandwiches and coconut tarts were all very tasty, no complaints from my husband who has type 2 diabetes! the only thing I would say is that I felt they soon went 'dry' in texture. I think most recipes that call for caster sugar would work with xylitol. Thumbs up from me!
Double whammy
21st Mar, 2014
My daughter is a Type 1 diabetic and coeliac. I have been trying out new recipes and adapting old ones to make them lower in sugar and gluten free. Please see my blog Doublewhammycook.blogspot.co.uk to see what works for us. I would welcome comments and helpful suggestions.
suefry
31st Jan, 2014
I am one of those thousands. More recipes like this would be very welcome especially if all the family will eat them. Some alternative sweetener recipes I've tried so far have been given the thumbs down but I will keep trying until I find something acceptable.
kellyc
30th Jan, 2014
As a diet control only type2 diabetic I think this is a fantastic step in the right direction please add more recipes there are thousands just like me looking for safe but enjoyable alternative recipes.

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loofie
13th May, 2016
For the Victoria sponge sugar free cake, normally you'd dust with icing sugar - what did you do for your sugar free version please?
daffcott1
29th Jan, 2014
I have read in the past that you can just reduce the sugar in cake baking, but can't remember by how much.. Can anyone help with this. ?
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
5th Jan, 2015
Hi daffcott1 thanks for your question. Baking is a real science so altering the quantities by any significance is going to drastically change the structure of the finished cake. It's best to use a recipe which has been specifically designed to use less sugar or contains a sugar alternative, such as this sugar-free carrot cake recipe   http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1940676/sugarfree-carrot-cake-   
ujs2010
29th Jan, 2014
HAS ANYBODY TRIED REPLACING SUGAR WITH STEVIA? If so what sort of ratio?
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
5th Jan, 2015
Hi ujs2010 stevia products come in different forms and concentrations so it's best to refer to the conversion suggestions on the pack or consult the manufacturer. Hope this helps. 
Double whammy
21st Mar, 2014
Hi I have tried using Truvia sweetener in my baking with mixed results. My daughter is Type 1 diabetic and coeliac so I am trying to make my cooking gluten free and lower in sugar. I have started a blog at Doublewhammycook.blogspot.co.uk where I hope to share what works for us. It also includes a table of how much Truvia I use to replace the sugar in a recipe. I use roughly a third of the amount of sugar by volume to get the same sweetness.
walthamx
4th Dec, 2013
How can I reduce the amount of sugar in sponge / cupcakes without making the sponge too dry? I am not diabetic, I have just found the sponge recipes I have tried too sweet.
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
18th Dec, 2013
Hi there, When baking it's not advisable to adjust the quantaties or the cake may not turn out as expected, why not try following some low sugar cake recipes instead if you find the regular recipes too sweet. Best wishes. 
flexxy
29th Sep, 2013
What are the other substitutes available in place of sugar for baking especially for people living with diabetes?
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
18th Dec, 2013
Hi there,This is a good summary of the sugar alternatives, for more detailed options we would advise consulting a specialist quide or website.Best wishes. 
lizmurray
28th Jan, 2015
Recipe for a fudgy, sugar-free, egg-free, dairy-free, gluten free vegan (if not using honey) chocolate cake. 2 medium oranges chopped 2 cups plain unsweetened almond milk 1 Tbsp cream of tartar 1.5 cups maple syrup/honey 1/2 cup rapeseed oil 1 tsp vanilla powder or cinnamon. 3/4 cup oats ground (to be like ground almonds) 3/4 cup chestnut flour (can use plain flour) 3/4 cup ground almonds (can exchange for more ground oats to make this nut free) 1 cup cocoa powder 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda 1 tsp baking powder pinch of salt For the frosting: 2 ripe avocados, halved and pitted 1/2 cup cocoa powder 1/2 cup maple syrup 2 Tbsp rapeseed oil 1/2 tsp vanilla powder (optional). pinch salt 2 Tbsp strong black coffee INSTRUCTIONS To cook the oranges Add 2 tblsp water to oranges and simmer over a low heat in a saucepan until the water's absorbed. Blitz in a blender until finely chopped. To make the cake: Preheat oven temp to 170°c fan. Coat two 8-inch cake pans with cooking spray/oil. Line with baking paper and grease/spray again. Whisk together almond milk and cream of tartar in a large bowl. Leave them to sit for about 5 minutes to curdle. To the almond milk mixture, add 1 cup of orange puree, honey/maple syrup, oil, and vanilla extract. With a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer), beat until foamy, about 30 seconds. Sift in remaining dry ingredients. Beat again to incorporate. Divide between the cake pans. Bake at 170°c fan until a skewer comes out with fudgy crumbs, 30-35 minutes. Remove and cool completely in the pans on wire racks. Then, if time allows, transfer pans to the fridge to cool further. Run a knife around the edge of the cake pan before inverting the cake and peeling off the parchment paper. (Ensure you allow the cakes to cool completely before removing, or they won't stick together- this is a sort of non-cake cake after-all). To make the icing: Scoop out the flesh of the avocados and place in the bowl of a food processor. Puree until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and puree again, scraping down the sides of the bowl (if the avocado is ripe enough you can do this with a fork) To assemble the cake: Place the first layer on your cake stand or serving plate. If the cake has sunk in the middle use the icing to fill the gap- it'll be doubly fudgy!! Smooth on about half of the icing, and top with the second cake layer (if it's sunk use the flat base for the top). Smooth on remaining icing and add any decorations you like- I like to sprinkle ground almonds in a pattern on the top. Refrigerate before serving. The cake can be served immediately, but it's better left overnight (very fudgy) and I like to add a little soya milk/oat cream instead of dairy cream . I've tried this cake with beetroot instead of oranges and will be trying pumpkin purée as a substitute next.
spanielsmum
26th Mar, 2014
re Xylitol . Please be aware that this is toxic to dogs ( and ferrets) http://vetmedicine.about.com/od/toxicology/qt/xylitol_tox.htm
tobyjug3
19th Nov, 2013
I use Sorbitol in my baking, a straight volume match spoon for spoon. I also use it for sweetening preserves where sugar is not the preservative e.g. pickles and chutneys. I got this advice from the manufacturers