How to make baking healthier by using natural alternatives to sugar.
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. That's all very well on a special occasion but who wants to save their baking forays for just that?
In a quest to make baking a little bit healthier, I spoke to Good Food nutritionist Kerry Torrens about some natural alternatives to sugar:
"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 - this makes it useful for diabetics.
"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 nectar (or syrup) makes a good substitute for golden or maple syrup and is available in mild or rich flavours. It has a low GI but is sweeter than sugar, so you'll need less. It works well in chewy bakes like flapjacks as well as sticky cakes or muffins. It's a liquid which means you'll need to reduce the fluid in the recipe. You should also lower the cooking temperature. It's produced from the same Mexican cactus as tequila."
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."
Oh well, perhaps not.
So 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.
Not 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.
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?!