Looking for a natural alternative to sugar in your cakes? We have plenty of ideas for sweet treats using the most popular sugar substitutes.
What's nicer than sharing homemade cake with family and friends? Baking is one of life's pleasures, but if like many of us, you're taking steps to cut the sugar in your diet, it shouldn't mean an end to it. Sugar substitutes offer a lighter way to enjoy a sweet treat, but there are a few things you'll need to know before using them. Firstly, they can be expensive and if you don't know the best way to incorporate them in a recipe, you could spoil your efforts.
I spoke to Good Food nutritionist Kerry Torrens who pointed out that, "Using sugar in baking isn't all about sweetness – it also 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 before storage to prevent them drying out."
So, what are the most useful alternatives to sugar?
Fruit & vegetables
"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 that 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 straightforward 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 purée for adding extra moisture and stickiness.
"If you're looking for a substitute that will give you a straight swap for sugar, 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 [in a one-to-one ratio], 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. Be warned, though, if you have a dog in the family, keep it well away from products made with xylitol – it's highly toxic to our canine friends."
"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 in the way of nutrition, so it's what we call a non-nutritive sweetner – it supplies that sweet taste and that's all."
Syrups, coconut sugar, palm sugar and jaggery
"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, although because the amount is so small, it's unlikely to have any impact on your health.
"Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. It is fundamentally the same as palm sugar and jaggery, which are made from palm sap and sugar cane, respectively. These sugars undergo less processing so they retain some trace nutrients, though once again, the amount is negligible. Use them if you prefer an unrefined sugar but remember they are still just that – another form of sugar."
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 sponge batter; a 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.
My second experiment adapted 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.
Not wanting to give up on agave syrup, I tried it in 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 along with the oven temperature. This traybake turned out beautifully. I'll definitely do this one again.
Finally, I had a go at adapting 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, though slightly cakey in texture. Nonetheless, they went down a treat.
Get clued up on other ingredients you can use in your bakes:
- 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 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 to make them 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, tips on how to cut back on sugar, or 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 13 September 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food
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Have you tried any alternatives to sugar in your baking? What do you think of them?