Sugar-free baking

  • By
    Caroline Hire - Food editor -

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

Sugar-free banana cakeBaking 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. That's all very well on a special occasion but who wants to save their baking forays for just that?

Keen to try out some alternatives on the market, I spoke to Good Food nutritionist Kerry Torrens about some natural options...


"Despite its synthetic sounding name, xylitol is made from the bark of birch trees and looks and tastes like sugar. It has less of an impact on blood sugar levels because it is low GI, meaning it gives a sweet taste without the resulting 'rush' that regular sugar gives.

"It's lower in calories and 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 colour very much, not a problem for coffee or chocolates cakes."

Xylitol can have a laxative effect so go easy when you first try it in case you are sensitive to it, one slice of cake shouldn't be an issue.

Agave nectarAgave nectar 

"Agave nectar (or syrup) can be used in place of syrups like golden syrup. It’s available in mild or rich flavours, has a low GI but being about 30% sweeter than sugar, you’ll need less to achieve the same taste. It works well in chewy bakes like flapjacks as well as sticky cakes and muffins. It benefits from cooking at a lower temperature (reduce the cooking temp by about 10C/50F). Agave nectar is high in fructose, which is thought to be one of the most damaging forms of sugar, so always use it in small quantities and buy organic, raw agave rather than the cheaper, highly processed version."

Fruit and vegetables 

"Naturally sweet ingredients like fresh, frozen or dried fruits including apricots, banana, dates, raisins and figs as well as grated sweet vegetables like carrots, parsnips and beetroot all work well in bakes and cakes. Using these also adds moisture and density as well as fibre and other valuable nutrients including vitamin C and minerals like potassium and iron."

But what about honey? 

"Honey works well in moist, dense full-flavoured bakes. It's sweeter than sugar so you'll need to use less and because honey is liquid you'll need less fluid (approx one fifth less). Honey is still high in calories and causes increases in blood sugar."

The recipes 

Classic Victoria sandwichSo those are the facts, armed with these 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 sweeetened 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.

Second experiment, was 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 too.

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.

This article was last reviewed on 25th March 2015 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides 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

Have you tried any alternatives to sugar in your baking? What do you think? Are we just spoiling the fun?!

Comments, questions and tips

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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!