Baking without sugar

The war against highly-refined sugar has been going on for quite some time. We all know it’s not good for us. So what are the choices for bakers looking for a healthier sugar replacement? For many of us, it’s the return to natural sweeteners long forgotten: whole or dried fruits; maple, rice and barley syrups; as well as agave nectar and stevia.

Here in Canada, the best choice for eating local and natural is pure maple syrup. Loaded with potassium and calcium, maple syrup is good for all baking, but since it imparts a strong maple flavour it works best with simpatico flavours like pumpkin, apple, vanilla, sweet potato and cornmeal. If you are substituting maple syrup for cane sugar, you will have to adjust the amount of liquid or add more bulk for structure. I typically use about 2/3 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of cane sugar called for in the recipe, and decrease another liquid by 3 tablespoons. Maple sugar is the dehydrated form of maple syrup and can be substituted 1 for 1 with cane sugar.

Brown rice syrup, made from fermented, sprouted brown rice, is a thick, amber-coloured syrup that is subtly sweet like butterscotch. It is best used in cookies, crisps, granola, pie fillings and puddings, or in combination with another sweetener like maple syrup in cakes and muffins. I typically substitute 1 cup of brown rice syrup for every 1 cup of cane sugar and reduce another liquid ingredient by 1/4 cup.

Barley malt syrup, made from fermented barley, is a thick, dark brown syrup with a strong, distinctive flavour much like molasses. It is less sweet than cane sugar but has a strong flavour, so I use it sparingly and often in combination with another sweetener.

Agave nectar hails from the juice of an agave cactus and is native to Mexico. It is sweet like honey and has a low glycemic impact on blood sugar levels. Raw organic agave is the least refined type of agave and is often used in raw dessert-making. There are differing opinions on the manufacturing process of raw agave and whether or not it is good for us, but I’m not going to get into that here. Since agave nectar is sweeter than cane sugar, I typically use 1/2 to 2/3 cup for every 1 cup of cane sugar called for in the recipe, and decrease another liquid by 3 tablespoons.

Stevia is a zero-calorie, non-glycemic sweetener that is actually an herb from the Amazon rainforests, available in powdered or liquid form. Stevia imparts a sharply sweet taste much sweeter than cane sugar, and so a tiny amount goes a long way. It does not replace the bulk or structure of sugar in a recipe, so volume will be less. If used in baking to replace sugar, you may have to add an additional dry ingredient to obtain the right texture. I find stevia can be bitter and leave an unpleasant aftertaste in baked goods, so I hardly ever use it.

The healthiest sweetener by far are fresh or dried whole fruits, like dates and bananas. Pureed ripe bananas are very sweet and make baked goods not only naturally sweet, but moist as well. They may also substitute for eggs in vegan baking. You may have to adjust the recipe to accommodate the extra liquid or puree.

I have been experimenting with dried dates as a sweetener substitute for a while now. Date sugar is also available and made from finely ground dates. The benefit of this sweetener is that it contains all of the fruits, nutrients and minerals. It is also low on grams of sugar per tablespoon. Date sugar can be used as a direct replacement for sugar. It is quite sweet, but doesn’t impart an overly sugary taste to desserts.

A word of caution: even when choosing these natural, non-chemical sweeteners, do so sparingly as most of these choices still raise blood sugar levels. In excess, just like white sugar, they can cause imbalances in your body. Remember, moderation is the key!

      

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3 Responses to “Baking without sugar”

  1. omgoshimvegan — November 16, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    I love this. I have been wanting to switch out sugar for other sweetners but never know which to use. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Nicole — November 16, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    omgoshimvegan: I'm so glad you found this post helpful. Tomorrow I'll be posting a sugar-free muffin recipe using a date puree, so come back for it tomorrow :)

  3. vegangela — November 18, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Awesome post – I'm bookmarking!

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