First and foremost, why do I even try to remove sugar from my baking? Well, it’s pretty simple: if my husband gets any processed sugar, he gets powerfully sleepy, then passes out for the next twelve hours, then has the hangover from heck for the next day. No, seriously, I mean a traditional hangover…without the alcohol! Primarily, I started experimenting with alternatives because I fell in love with him and he hadn’t had a dessert that didn’t taste like aspartame or dust in 10 years :-).

It is worthy of note that many people have much less specific reasons for avoiding standard sugar: they’re diabetic or a loved one is, the sugar high just throws them for a loop, they would like to find healthier options to improve their diet without losing flavor, and many other reasons. All of these are valid and a very good thing. That doesn’t always make it easy to do, however!

That being said, just how do I define “sugar free”? Well, natural sugars don’t bother Sean (that would be the name that belongs to aforementioned husband), just processed ones. So, fruit is fair game, as are honey, agave nectar, molasses in limited quantities, brown rice syrup, real maple syrup,  and many things stevia. Now, that means that, for the diabetics among you, not all of these recipes will be entirely helpful.  I know that many of my diabetic acquaintances actually can’t really handle the natural sugars of fruit (though some can).  Likewise, molasses is a big nono, and honey can be a problem. I have yet to find out how brown rice syrup works for the diabetic community. However, agave nectar is very low on the glycemic index (that is, how much of a sugary effect the food will have on your system), and stevia practically doesn’t register. So, some of these recipes may be helpful to you anyway. First and foremost, however, these recipes should be helpful to those who want to avoid processed sugar for reasons other than diabetes.

First off, let me tell you a little bit about sugar cane. All of the things we think of as “normal sugar” are variously processed forms of the sugar cane plant. If you remember any of your high school history classes, this is the crop that was valuable enough that many Europeans had entire plantations of Caribbean and other hot-land slaves growing and harvesting it. Our love affair with sugar is long and occasionally unhealthy in many ways! Don’t worry, it isn’t still bad because we use slaves to get it!

White or “table” sugar: This is the most common form of sugar cane, and the one that will just be labeled “sugar” most of the time. It is pure white, granular, and resembles salt until you either taste it or look at it under a microscope (where you’ll see that the cellular structure is completely different—score another remembered fact from high school!). It has been processed until all impurities, nutrients, and individuality is gone :-). It is just sweet, and that’s all there is to it.

Brown Sugar: This is a funny, funny thing. It is the next most common form of sugar, found in all sorts of recipes right along side the white sugar. Why do they have you use two different forms of the same plant? Well, they actually do taste different. By this I mean that brown sugar has a faint flavor other than sweet. To make brown sugar, they process it like white, then at the end of the process they add some of the molasses back into the sugar to make it brown and tweak the flavor. How much molasses they added gives you either “light” or “dark” brown sugar. It is more solid, packs down into a shape (like wet sand into a bucket at the beach), and is altogether stickier as a result.

Molasses: Yes, one of the things I occasionally use is, in fact, derived from the sugar cane plant! See, I told you it wasn’t all evil :-P. Molasses is actually a byproduct of the refinement process to get white sugar. It contains all of the minerals and other such impurities removed from the raw sugar cane in order to get white sugar. As such it isn’t quite as hard on your system, because it can’t just go strait into the bloodstream. It has to be broken down more first. Of course, because it still comes from sugar cane it is a major nono for the diabetic contingent.

Powdered Sugar: Also called “confectioner’s sugar,” this is that incredibly powdery white stuff you see dusted across the tops of cookies, cakes, and pastries. A “confectioner” is an old fashioned name for a sweets and candy maker, and this is the sugar they most often use (though there is plenty of standard white sugar in such things as well). It is white sugar ground so very fine that it melts in an instant, dissolves easily and quickly, and hardly holds a shape at all. It is the powdery and pervasive form of sweet!

“Sugar in the Raw”: This is a very recent addition to my grocery store, and appears to be pretty much what you’d think—sugar cane dried and ground into something you can use, but not more processed than that. It has more flavor than white sugar, but I hear it can be used in place of it much of the time. It has a marginally slower effect on Sean (so he can have slightly more of it in something), but it acts too much like the sugar it is in the end, so I don’t bake with it.

Cane Juice: Also listed as “evaporated cane juice” (same stuff, just more concentrated, pretty much just Sugar in the Raw). I have never seen this for sale, but you’ll see it listed as an ingredient in organic or natural cereals, granola bars, etc. It is just the juice of the sugar cane plant boiled down a little bit. It is pretty much the least processed form of sugar cane you’re going to find (short of just growing and harvesting the stuff). Sean can handle some of the things that use this (we occasionally buy a granola that uses it) so long as it isn’t one of the first several ingredients. It is sugar, but it isn’t processed into nothing but sweet, and it takes a little longer for your blood sugar to get hit by it.

This is also probably the time to mention high fructose corn syrup. Many people are running from that and end up on blogs like this one, so I should probably talk about it. The industries that make it are apparently petitioning to change the name to “corn sugar.” That’s a pretty accurate name, but so is the current one. They’ve taken corn, pummeled all of the nutrition out of it, condensed it, and sell it as a high-powered sweetener. It is very convenient for the manufacturers of foods that need to last on a shelf, but it has no redeeming nutritional value. That is just about all there is to say, really. It is yuck, for your health and because it tastes really too sweet.

Whew, with that out of the way…here’s some data on the sugar substitutes I routinely use, and where to get them:

Honey: You can get this most anywhere, and you almost certainly already know what it is. Honey is actually higher in calories than plain white sugar. That being said, it is a more complex sugar and a much less processed one, and is thus easier on your system.  It is very easy to find, but much of what is available at your local grocery store will be pasteurized and be “clover honey.” Honey is, of course, made by bees, and commercial honey is produced in large bee-keeping institutions that cultivate and maintain the blossoms their bees are allowed access to. So, if it says “clover honey” that means that clover blossoms were what those bees took nectar from. Clover honey is the most common and the least complexly flavored honey you can get. This is fine for most baking. You will start to notice if you use wildflower or some other kind of honey in your baking, though. They have a richer flavor and often seem “stronger.” Raw honey has not been processed in any way, and some people find it to be superior. I don’t work with it myself (mostly because I haven’t found any and it is more expensive), so make your own call there.*

*Note: It is actually true that you shouldn’t feed things with honey in them to children under 2 years. Some of the things bees put in honey can be hard on tiny untrained digestive systems.

Molasses: Double listed here because I do actually use it—see above for description. This is readily available at your local grocery store (it’s usually by syrups of some kind), and I use “Dark Molasses.”

Maple Syrup: By this I mean the actual sap of a maple tree, not “Mrs. Butterworth’s” or whatever other brand of pancake syrup is available where you are. Most of the pancake syrups are just high fructose corn syrup with flavorings added. Real Maple Syrup (and it is usually billed that way), comes from the sugar maple tree, harvested in the spring. If you read Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder in your youth, then you know what I’m talking about :-). If not, well, that’s where it comes from. It is then boiled down to thicken the sap into syrup (though it is still thinner than the fake stuff) and bottled. It comes in “grades” (that is Grade A, Grade B and so on). If you can find Grade B and it’s cheaper, it’s just fine and go for it. If not, Grade A works too. The difference in grade is the “impurity level” and I can’t tell the difference myself. I’m guessing it takes a professional. This can be found in your grocery store, but it may be cheaper from either a local market, Whole Foods, or a bulk buying store (I often get mine at Costco). Unlike fake syrup, this must be refrigerated after opening!

Brown Rice Syrup: Yes, it is really made from rice, and no, I have no idea how they derive something sweet from rice. But they do. It smells a little odd, but it won’t once you’ve put it in something! The substitution instructions on the jar are not useful—you have to experiment per recipe. The only brand I’ve used is Lundberg, available at Whole Foods or Amazon, and it is available as certified organic or not. It is a heavy liquid sweetener, and the flavor disappears surprisingly well in to various things, making it a better go-to than honey for a baked good that shouldn’t taste like honey.

Agave Nectar: This is the go-to if you want a sweetener that is lighter, in color, texture, consistency, and overall sweetness flavor, than brown rice syrup. Like brown rice syrup, this flavor disappears much better than that of honey. In fact, in more than one recipe I will indicate how you can substitute one of these two syrups in part or whole for the other (very useful if you’re out, running low, or having to shop in a town where things are harder to get than at home). Whole Foods carries the cheapest Agave Nectar, but I’ve found it on Amazon and even in grocery stores more and more often lately. It is derived from the agave cactus (a desert plant).

Stevia: “Stevia” is the name of a plant that is, I believe, native to Africa. However, it has relatively recently become readily available to people not in the wilds of Africa. If you’d like, you can grow a stevia plant on your windowsill and drop the dried leaves into tea and other hot beverage-type things, and they will make it taste sweeter. However, other forms are much more useful for baking and general sweetening. As a heads up, stevia is actually sweeter than sugar as the professionals with scales measure these things, so you generally need far less of it in a modified recipe than there was sugar in the original (of course this affects texture and so on as well, requiring further moderation, which, in the recipes on this blog, I have done for you :D). How much less depends on how diluted the particular stevia substance in question is, which I will get to in the specific products below.

Baking Stevia: The only brand of this I’ve ever found is actually called “NuNaturals MoreFiber Stevia Baking Blend.” There are some other products out there that might be similar, but I’ve never managed to obtain them to find out. I have found it online, or, if you live in a place served by Azure, they carry it (my mother found it there). I have never found it in a store, but you may be surprised by your own natural goods store, if you care to look. This is a diluted form of stevia where a liquid form of the plant has been mixed with several different fibers and starches to make a powder that is vaguely the consistency of powdered sugar. It acts nothing like powdered sugar in baking, mind you, so don’t be fooled! It is not as strong as pure stevia, but it is still much sweeter than sugar. The package recommends halving the values of sugar to substitute, but this is WAY too sweet still. I often quarter the sugar value, or less. This is wonderful for baking precisely because it still has texture and will help a baked good hold shape more than any liquid sweetener ever will.

“Truvia”: Another relatively new product, this takes the same idea as baking stevia, but instead of trying to make it higher-fiber (which is also supposed to be good for you, by the way, and some people use baking stevia instead of sugar just to get more fiber in their treats), they wanted to make it look and act as much like white sugar as they could. Now, this is also way sweeter than sugar, so you can’t substitute strait across. I tend to use this in much smaller amounts for things like heated pie fillings, where I need the sweetener to dissolve in a way that the fiber of baking stevia won’t.  Very often I only use a teaspoon or two in an entire recipe. Now, many liquid sweeteners will also do the job in heated things, but they can increase your volume and thin things out. So, this is sometimes the better choice! It is available in packets or in a jar, though Amazon doesn’t carry the jar.

Liquid Stevia: I do not use this, but many people like it. It is also called “stevia extract” and it is pretty much exactly that. It is very very very sweet, you need just a drop or two to sweeten a cup of tea, and it is popular for just such uses. My mother-in-law keeps a bottle in the fridge for use in her coffee instead of sugar. Some folks appear to like to use it to sweeten baking or jams or the like, but I have found that between the two diluted forms listed above I can do all of the same things with, at least, less need to mess with other things to get the texture of a cake or pie or cookies to work out correctly. So, if you want a quickie sweetener that is non-sugar for your breakfast goods, go for this (a small bottle lasts quite a while), but the other two work too, and will work better for your baking.

Fruit: Fruit is naturally sweet, and often needs very little boost in a pie or sauce. Sometimes you can even puree a sweet but mildly flavored fruit (like pears) and use it to lightly sweeten a baked good that traditionally uses sugar (like cheesecake). Fruit is also very very yummy on its own, and instant dessert is just a chopping board away when you have the stuff for a fruit salad!

So, there you go. I know this looks long, but I’m just trying to give you all the useful info I can think of! In an individual recipe I don’t have time to explain all of this, so I’ve put it all here for your reference. Sugar free baking, unlike gluten free baking, does not really require specialized equipment, just a well stocked kitchen and, often, these more unusual ingredients.