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.


"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


"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 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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Comments (15)

andreaclarke110's picture

Can we have some recipes for cakes/ muffins which are just made with fruit or vegetables please?

Helsi's picture

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

alisonschenkl's picture

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's picture

I use mashed sweet potatoes :)

jandbs81's picture

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's picture

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's picture

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 to see what works for us. I would welcome comments and helpful suggestions.

suefry's picture

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's picture

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.

julese's picture

Please, PLEASE stop stating that Agave Nectar is a good substitute for Sugar, or promoting it as 'OK' for low-sugar recipes.
I see this error time and time again, on reputable food sites (and in books by chefs and nutritionists who quite frankly should know better!).
Agave Nectar has only fractionally less sugars in it than pure honey, and is composed of 72% Sugars (clear honey has 77%).
Agave nectar/syrup is NOT low sugar by any stretch of the imagination, and is certainly NOT suitable for people wanting to properly reduce sugars in their diet, and certainly NOT ok for diabetics or pre-diabetics. Please note, agave is promote as "low Gi", but it is NOT healthy and is FULL of sugars. "Sweet Freedom" is the same (another supposedly "healthy" syrup claiming low Gi means 'healthy' - it simply doesn't!).
It is misleading and factually incorrect to state that these products are low in sugar or "healthy alternatives" to sugar.
If you really want to get sugar out of your diet, or are Diabetic (as I am), then better to stick to Xylitol or Stevia (but beware of bulking agents with some Stevia products!).

chanters's picture

Your article lists agave nectar as healthy. However if you see the fructose content of agave, it's between 65%-95% which is extremely high. When fructose enters the body it is more often than not stored as fat in the liver...something which is not good for the body. Coconut sugar is a better option as there's very little processing involved.

As for xylitol, not all of the products out there are made from birch bark. Furthermore the chemical process it has to go through to strip the xylan from the bark is far from natural or healthy. Who'd want a sugar that's been exposed to sulfuric acid, calcium oxide and phosphoric acid and then bleached to make it look like a sugar? Over consumption of xylitol can also have laxative effects too!

julese's picture

I totally agree about the Agave - terrible stuff being promoted as "low Gi" and therefore as "low sugar" - it's anything BUT low sugar (and most of it has been heavily processed too! ).

However, as a Diabetic, Xylitol has proven over the years to be the ONLY sugar/sugar-replacer which does not affect my Blood Glucose levels, and it has no aftertaste, and has proved (for me anyway) the best sweetener for baking (and believe me, I have tried them ALL!).

It is also FAR better tasting than all those chemical-based sweeteners (Sucralose, nasty aspartame, etc.) and even Stevia, which is being heavily promoted everywhere recently, but often has bulking agents added (such as Malitol etc.) which are both insulin-affecting AND strongly laxative. Also, Stevia has a bitter (almost aniseed) aftertaste for many people.

Of all the sweeteners, sugars and 'natural' products available, having tested and re-tested them countless times on myself, friends and family, Xylitol is our own personal favourite, and the healthiest and most natural we've found. Almost no food products can be guaranteed 100% natural (except off my organic allotment perhaps!) but at least Xylitol is up at the top of the list of "good guys" in terms of being from a natural source, having zero impact on Blood sugar levels and insulin, it can be used in almost all baking recipes and it has no chemical or bitter aftertaste.

I just wish the UK would get its act together regarding the regulations on food-claims and labelling where Sugars are concerned... if you want to call something "Sugar Free" then it must actually be Sugar free.
Yet I have lost count years ago of the number of recipes (on reputable websites, in cook books, even on some Diabetic websites for goodness sake!) with recipes claiming "sugar-free" status, when they are in fact stuffed full of sugars!

It's time people stopped thinking of Sugar as being just that white granulated stuff people put in tea and coffee.

bryanlambert's picture

Thanks for an interesting article on sugar free baking. As I am a type two diabetic now on insulin I notice articles like yours with interest, but I am puzzled as to the lack of mention of Splenda

sweetenough's picture

This is brilliant! I'm quite surprised these are the alternatives suggested as they are the only sugar substitutes I will use but so often others are suggested which are equal to sugar in affecting my sensitive blood sugar levels. Unfortunately I am also gluten-intolerant so when baking I can never tell whether the sugar-alternative or wheat-alternative is to blame for my failures and it all gets a bit beyond me. Perhaps I'll try some of these tested recipes without gluten, maybe I'll have more success!

Questions (10)

loofie's picture

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's picture

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

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   

ujs2010's picture

If so what sort of ratio?

goodfoodteam's picture

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's picture

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 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's picture

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

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's picture

What are the other substitutes available in place of sugar for baking especially for people living with diabetes?

goodfoodteam's picture

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. 

Tips (3)

lizmurray's picture

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

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.

tobyjug3's picture

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