A delicious guide to sugar alternatives

Hi honey! If you're looking for great alternatives to regular sugar, you have come to the right address. As it turns out, there are plenty of swapping possibilities, and yes, you can also bake with them. I am going to share my favourites and a few tips & tricks that will make using alternative sugars a breeze.

First, an introduction. I’m Olivia, an Instagram blogger at @fitfoodness where I have been cooking up a healthy storm for more than five years. Natural, wholesome ingredients always take centre stage and I tend to avoid overly processed food. I love salads (it’s true) and vegetables are my favourite part of a meal. But do not be fooled, I am no savoury saint. I’m all up for sweet treats once in a while. Though when it comes to desserts, “healthy” is not the first thing that jumps into your mind. Here is why I look for ways to make the classics a bit better for you. I choose a lot of whole grains or wheat alternatives, and of course I swap out sugar for more natural alternatives. Keen to learn more? Let’s get to it.

Why I avoid refined sugar

There are several reasons I avoid white sugar. For one, because it’s too processed; two, because it spikes blood sugar and insulin levels. Thirdly, sugar is addictive. To find a sugar alternative that doesn’t do all of the above, is the same as not trying to look at cat videos when you start scrolling social media. It is virtually impossible. What you can do is balance your sugar intake, experiment with alternatives and enjoy some of their benefits. It is up to you to choose your favourite for each of your recipes. 

About sugar, glucose and fructose

Sucrose, or plain white sugar, comes from sugar beets or sugar cane and is highly processed to ensure a neutral flavour and maximum shelf life. Sucrose consists of both glucose and fructose molecules. Glucose is in almost all the food we eat, and is the main fuel for your brain and your cells. It’s the one that will spike your blood sugar level. In highly processed foods and foods with little fibre, it will do so very rapidly, leaving you with the inevitable crash afterwards. All in all, it’s not that good for your hormonal balance and body processes. How fast glucose is digested and released in the bloodstream is measured by GI (glycemic index) - with white sugar having a GI of 60. Fructose is the second sugar molecule. It has a sweeter taste and has much less impact on blood sugar levels. It is naturally present in honey and fruits. Like glucose, fructose should be eaten in moderation, because it can affect your liver and body functions. 

Amazing alternatives to sugar

When replacing regular sugar in baking, take into account the differences in textures (e.g. dry crystals vs liquid), sweetening power, flavour and colour. Also take a look at the ratio of sugar in the whole recipe. If it’s high, you cannot expect the same results as with regular sugar. If you understand the basics, you are ready to experiment. Note that most of these sweeteners are still a type of sugar, meaning they will be metabolized by your body in the same way. I have listed the GI for each of them, so you can compare them to regular sugar, though keep in mind that a low GI doesn’t mean you can eat unlimited amounts of it. As with everything, balance is key. 

Stevia

Consistency: liquid drops / powder / (plant leaves if you are very keen)
Origin: natural
Glycemix index: 0
Flavour: very (very!) sweet with a slightly bitter / licorice aftertaste.
How to use: 1 tsp stevia = 1 cup sugar. Use in recipes that don’t require much “work” from sugar other than sweetening (drinks, trifles, cheesecakes, whipped cream, …)

This sweetener derived from the Stevia plant is highly praised because of its sweetening power (300 times sweeter than sugar). It has virtually no calories and it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels. Double win. Take into account that because you need just a tiny bit for recipes, you will have to compensate for the loss in bulk. Stevia doesn’t melt, caramelize or provide structure so in general, baked goods will be a bit drier and paler, and less glossy and airy. Stevia can have a quite bitter aftertaste. For the best results, use it with other sweeteners to balance out the flavours or in combination with unsweetened applesauce or yoghurt to provide bulk and moisture.

Xylitol

Consistency: dry, crystallized, much like regular white sugar
Origin: natural sugar alcohol
Glycemix index: 0
Flavour: sweet, a bit like sugar, but with a minty aftertaste 
How to use: 1 cup xylitol for 1 cup sugar, add a splash more liquid. 

Even though xylitol sounds like something you would find in an apothecary, it is actually a naturally occurring product found in the fibre of some fruits, veggies and grains and even birch trees. It has the same sweetening power and structure as regular sugar, but only 40% of the calories. It doesn’t spike blood sugar, and it doesn’t cause tooth decay. The structure is a high plus and it can easily be used to replace sugar in baked goods. Take into account its minty aftertaste (here is why chewing gum manufacturers love to use it). Xylitol absorbs more moisture than sugar, so add more liquid, and it doesn’t caramelize or brown. Some people experience digestive discomfort when using a lot of it.

Agave syrup

Looks: liquid syrup, from clear to dark coloured, dissolves easily
Origin: natural, agave plant, but often highly processed
Glycemix index: 15
Flavour: sweeter than sugar, the clearer the more neutral the taste
How to use: best in recipes that call for a little sweetness. For 1 cup of sugar, use ⅔ cup of agave syrup. Lower the amount of liquid in the recipe by 25%. Lower your oven temperature by 25°C to avoid coloration. Great in iced lattes, fruit salads, glazes, …  oh and margaritas.

A sweet syrup derived from the boiled-down juice of the agave plant. It’s about 1.,5 times sweeter than regular sugar. Agave syrup is popular because it has a fairly low GI compared to sugar. The texture is more liquid than honey which makes it easier to dissolve. Downsides: most agave you can buy in stores is highly processed, so try to pick organic and raw syrups. It’s very high in fructose (similar to high fructose corn syrup) so use sparingly. 

Coconut sugar

Looks: crystals, dark brown
Origin: natural, sap of the flowering bud of the coconut palm, boiled down.
Glycemix index: 35
Flavour: delicious caramel tones with a slight tang, less sweet than sugar
How to use: great for replacing brown sugar or even regular sugar on a 1:1 ratio. Best in recipes that can handle bold and warmer flavours, like cinnamon rolls, carrot cake, brownies, crumbles,... 

A delicious sweetener with a rich caramel-like flavour. It’s said that this is a healthier option because it has more nutrients like zinc, iron and potassium and it’s lower on the glycemic index. But here again: it’s still sugar so don’t overdo it. It’s great for replacing regular sugar because of its similar texture but it does have a stronger flavour so keep that in mind.

Honey

Looks: syrup, from clear to golden brown and from viscous to thick
Origin: natural, from bees collecting nectar (not technically vegan)
Glycemix index: from 45 to 65 depending on the variety
Flavour: wide array of delicious flavours from lavender to birch to thyme. Slightly sweeter than sugar, with a hint of acidity.
How to use: for 1 cup of sugar use ¾ cup of honey. Reduce liquids by about 1/4 . Great in sauces, glazes and soft, moist baked goods such as cakes. 

Honey, and raw honey especially, has been praised for centuries for its beneficial properties. It has minerals, antioxidants, is easy on digestion and is meant to have antibacterial properties. Honey contains roughly 75% sugars in a 50/50 ratio of glucose and fructose. It does have a fewbit more calories than sugar per tbsp, but as it’s sweeter you can use less of it. The acidity in honey makes it great for baking with leavening agents such as baking soda. Look out for good quality honey, as there is a lot of fraud going on in the cheaper honey market.

Maple syrup

Looks: dark brown syrup
Origin: natural, from the sap of the maple tree
Glycemix index: 55
Flavour: luxuruous, caramel-like, rich
How to use: for 1 cup of sugar use ¾ cup of maple syrup and reduce liquids by about 1/4 . Great in bold bakes, drizzled over waffles and pancakes (you know it), in glazes, in drinks,...

Maple syrup is from the sap of the maple tree and is the pride of Canadians. And that’s no wonder, with a flavour profile like that. It contains some minerals and over 24 antioxidants. Of course you would have to consume a lot to get the benefits of those, which is not really the objective. It is still quite high in sugar, so should be consumed in moderation. Try to choose C-label syrup which is the highest quality.

Fruits

You might have not have expected this one here, but actually fruit is the most natural, healthiest sugar replacement out there. And it’s versatile! I regularly use unsweetened apple sauce in my granolas or cakes to provide moisture and stickiness. You can safely reduce the amount of sugar when you use overripe bananas in pancakes, cakes, and other bakes. Dates are sticky and amazing and a great add-in when blended into raw bites, syrups and fillings. Actually, all fruits that are naturally rich in sugar could work. A tip is to let them get as ripe as possible. So go and experiment with mango, prunes, apricots,... you name it. The greatest benefit is that you’re not just adding single sugar molecules, but also fibre, vitamins and other nutrients.

So now you have all the info, you are ready to fire up your KitchenAid machines. Don’t know where to begin? I’m sharing here an amazing recipe using some of these alternatives. 

Enjoy that delicious baking of yours!

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