What sugar is best for baking? Can I bake with honey without losing its’ health benefits? How much sugar should I eat per day? Can I eat cake daily? Is brown sugar better than white sugar? What is the difference between dark and light brown sugar? Is agave syrup good? And how about coconut sugar?
These are some of the questions that most home bakers ask when they try to pick the right sweetener – both property & nutrition-wise. Me myself, I was baking since I was a little girl, helping my mom and grandma in the kitchen. Back in the days, we used to use one universal white granulated sugar as a sweetener to all baked goods. As I was growing up, developing interest in what I actually eat, and learning more about nutrition in general, I started to recognize that there is a huge amount of different kinds of sweeteners available on the market. And today with a growing trend of healthy eating, we can find dozens of sweeteners on the shelves of supermarkets and healthy food stores, often with names, we can’t even pronounce.
In this article, I want to introduce the most common sweeteners used for baking and discuss if they are appropriate or not. Further, I aim to clarify how much sugar we should actually eat and answer a simple question of each passionate baker – Can I eat a cake every day? Sources of information used in the article are listed at the bottom. My tips using sugar are listed in the Tips&Tricks section. I put this article together to be able to clarify all sugar-related confuses and myths and first of all, my own. Please use this article as a guide when baking or preparing desserts.
What are sugar, glucose, and fructose?
Sugar generally means sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide that consists of one molecule of glucose bonded to one molecule of fructose. Fructose and glucose are both monosaccharides. Regular granulated sugar (table sugar) sourced either from beets or cane consists of 99,9% of sucrose. But glucose and fructose can as well exist separately, without being bonded to each other. Coconut sugar consists of 70% sucrose and the remainder consists of individual molecules of glucose and fructose (that are not bonded together). Agave syrup contains anything between 50-90% fructose, a small amount of glucose and the remaining small percentage is sucrose. Why is this important to know? Simply because sucrose (disaccharide), and fructose and glucose (both monosaccharides) are digested and metabolized by our bodies differently and therefore have different impacts on the organism.
In short, sucrose, being a disaccharide, must be first broken down into simple sugars (break the bond between fructose and glucose) before it can be absorbed. This is happening in a small intestine. Since monosaccharides glucose and fructose are already in their simplest forms, they don’t need to be broken down before our bodies can use them. They’re absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Glucose raises blood sugar more quickly than other sugars, which stimulates the release of insulin. Fructose raises blood sugar levels more gradually than glucose but on the other hand, only the liver can convert fructose into glucose (digest) before your body can use it for energy. Therefore an excessive fructose intake may raise the risk of metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
How much sugar should we eat per day?
WHO’s Guideline for Sugar Intake for Adults and Children recommends in both adults and children, “reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake” (strong recommendation). WHO goes even further and suggests a “further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake”. You might ask if WHO means by sugars only added sugar (sucrose) or as well sugar received from fruits.
WHO’s specifies: “free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit“.
Considering this then the answer is yes, all sugars count. How much is then 10% of total energy intake? If we consider an average person’s daily intake to be 2000kcal/day than 10% is 200kcal/day which is 50g of sugar per day, ideally only 25g.
Examples of 50g of sugar consumed (approximately):
- 2 Tablespoons Honey
- 3 Bananas
- 2 Apples
- 1 Mango
- 150g of 70% Dark Chocolate
- 100g dried Apricots
and most likely will that amount of sugar be in two pieces of your cake. Therefore, in my opinion, more important than speculating about which sugar should we use when baking we should rather dramatically cut on its’ amount. Irrespective if it is brown, cane, coconut, or white sugar. When I am playing with recipes and adjusting ratios of ingredients, I often get inspired by recipes available on the internet or in cookbooks. Unfortunately, most of them call for enormous amounts of sugar, sometimes as high as the amount of flour. My baking rule is to use a maximum of 50% sugar to 100% of flour.
Check out this Carrot Cake recipe with only 4g of added sugar per piece
Types of Sugar used for Baking
Sweeteners suitable for baking can be divided into two big groups – dry sugars (crystals, so-called granulated sugars) and syrups (liquids). In the following text, I’ll introduce the most common one for baking and explain what benefits they have both property & nutrition-wise.
Regular White Sugar (Table Sugar) – is 100% pure sucrose, it can be extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets, it is highly refined (purified in 3 cycles) and therefore very white (all impurities are centrifuged away). Table sugar can be used in any sweet recipe – baked or not baked. Coarse sugar is a type of white sugar that has larger crystals than regular sugar and it is sometimes polished with carnauba wax to prevent from picking up moisture, therefore it is suitable for biscuits/cookies that are supposed to stay crisp
- Powdered Sugar (Icing Sugar) – is a regular white sugar finely pulverized into a powder. In the US is its finesse categorized as 6X – coarser or 10X – finer. Nutrition-wise it is regular white sugar, property-wise it’s fine and suitable for icings
- Organic Cane Sugar – sugar made from sugarcane grown organically is often semirefined (or unrefined) and more appropriate for vegans as bone char commonly used to whiten regular sugar is not allowed in any USDA certified organic products. The nutritional profile is slightly better (contains iron, calcium) than it is in the white one but amounts are trivial
- Brown Sugar – is a fine granulated sugar with less than 10% of impurities ( molasses). It’s sticky and tends to clump and depending on color and flavor of remaining molasses it can be dark or light brown. In my opinion, a small amount of molasses in brown sugar has almost no nutritional value but it has some effect on keeping the cake moist. Therefore is suitable for baked goods that should stay moist for a longer time (carrot cake, brownie, chewy cookies, etc..)
- Muscovado Sugar – is the darkest and richest tasting brown sugar with the highest % of remaining molasses and minerals, therefore it is considered to be one of the best choices. It’s very moist. Light muscovado has fewer molasses than dark muscovado. Again, the nutritional content is slightly better than one in white sugar but it has no significant importance on our health – consider this when buying it for 4-5 times higher price. For me, muscovado sugar is only attractive because of its moisture locking-properties when they are desired and when baking gluten-free products
- Turbinado Sugar (called as well raw sugar) – is less refined brown sugar with light caramel flavor and tends to be rather dry than moist. Demerara sugar is a type of turbinado sugar with larger crystals and toffee flavor
- Coconut Sugar – sugar made from flowers of a coconut tree, contains some minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. It has a lower glycemic index but it is still high in fructose. Still, this is my preferred sweetener for baking cakes and preparing dessert because of its’ mild caramel-like taste, lovely smell, and a nice sweetness
- Honey – I never use honey for baking for three reasons. Honey is high in fructose, its nutrients and enzymes are being destroyed when exposing to heat (above 50°Celsius) and because real honey is very bee labor-intensive :). I simply find it wasteful to bake with honey. Honey has amazing health benefits when eating raw and I only use it for non-baked desserts and only in a moderate amount
- Molasses – is highest in nutrients of all sweeteners (minerals, source of iron, selenium, and copper, B vitamins) but has a strong, distinctive flavor. It provides moisture and softness to baked goods and it can be found in different grades – premium-grade molasses is sweeter & lighter in color while the lower grade is darker in color, less sweet, more acidic, and higher in nutrients. Blackstrap molasses is very dark, very acidic and least sweet. Molasses’ properties are very desirable in certain baked goods like gingerbread or spiced cakes
- Maple Syrup – – is made by boiling and evaporating sap of maple tree. Darker maple syrup has a stronger flavor and is produced later in the season while lighter is produced earlier. Considering how much work and amount of maple sap is needed to make a single spoon of maple syrup I recommend using it only for less sweetened non-baked desserts
- Agave Syrup – recently a very popular syrup preferred because of a lower glycemic index and high sweetness. Be careful when using it often – it has an extremely high fructose content (sometimes as much as 90%) and it is very sweet (sweeter than sugar). To protect its enzymes, do not heat it over 50° Celsius/ 120°Fahrenheit and therefore do not use it in baked goods
- Rice Syrup – is a 100% glucose syrup made from rice starch. Brown rice syrup is less refined therefore retains more vitamins and minerals but it has an extremely high glycemic index (higher than table sugar) which spikes your blood sugar very high causing sugar cravings
- Corn Syrup – is a clear syrup produced by hydrolysis (breakdown) of corn starch. The more refined, the more clean/ light in color and taste. Extremely popular sweetener especially in the U.S. used in carbonated drinks and sweet products. Corn syrup is not healthy in any way because of the high amount of fructose (similar to agave syrup)
- Stevia – sweetener with zero calories that is about 40 times sweeter than table sugar. But don’t get fooled. Powdered stevia is artificially made and highly processed with methyl alcohol or other toxic chemicals. There is a great number of texts and articles explaining what stevia is and how it is processed. If you decide to use it or not is just up to you. For me, the only acceptable form of stevia is the one with fresh leaves
My Tips&Trips – How to use Sugar when Baking
1 Part Sugar, 2 Parts Flour
The amount is more important than the source. Whatever sugar you use it is still the same sucrose at the end. Rather than using the best quality raw, unrefined organic sugar ever, get used to using less sugar in general. My most important rule when baking sweets is to use at max a ratio of 50% of sugar to 100% of the flour
In recipes for shortbreads, cookies, or Christmas pastry that call for final coating or dusting in/with powdered sugar I either omit this step or use coconut flour instead. Coating in coconut flour provides you with the same visual effect and saves unnecessary calories
Enzymes naturally occurring in honey are being destroyed when heated over 50°Celsius. Therefore I never use honey for baked goods and only use it to sweeten cold desserts (occasionally). For the same reason, I do not use maple syrup for baking
From all sugars, my personal favorite is coconut sugar. Coconut sugar has a nice, caramel-like taste, it has a less aggressive sweetness and a lower glycemic index. It can be used interchangeably for brown/white sugar in the same ratio – gram for gram, cup for cup. But as always, less is more
If the recipe calls for sugar but you decide to use f.e. agave syrup instead, you need to consider that those two have different levels of sweetness. How to alternate? Remember that fructose is sweeter than sucrose and therefore you need to use less of it
Substituting Liquid Sweetener for Sugar and Vise-Versa
Syrups (honey/maple syrup) unlike sugars (cane/coconut) contain water in a certain amount – generally, it is about 20% water and 80% sugar. For example – 1kg of syrup contains 800g of sugar and 200g of water. Therefore if you work with a syrup you need to adjust ratios of other liquids in the recipe. If you substitute syrup for sugar: divide the weight of sugar by 0.80 to determine the weight of the syrup. Reduce the amount of other liquids in the recipe by the difference between the two. If you substitute sugar for syrup do it the other way around. This is a pretty accurate method but you can simply do it approximately as I do
Try this sugar-free Ice-cream with zero sugar added
Friends, I hope this article was a helpful guide in the world of sugar. The simple conclusion for every baking enthusiast would be simple. Slowly but steadily try to cut on the amount of sugar and watch your daily intake. Irrespective of a source of sugar it is still the same sucrose that is not beneficial for our bodies in any way. Instead of sugar, try to focus on other ingredients in the recipe and enhance the nutritional value of the cake with them. Substitute flours, use fresh fruits, use good fats like butter or olive/ coconut oil, and control baking temperatures.
- Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-470-39267. Chapter 8, Sugar and Other Sweeteners.
- WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. (2015). Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health.
- European Journal of Nutrition. Macdonald, I. A. (November/23, 2016). A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174139/.
- Groves, M. (June/8, 2018). Sucrose vs Glucose vs Fructose: What’s the Difference? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/sucrose-glucose-fructose#what-are-they.
- Barthelemy, J. (May/2, 2016). AVOID! The Toxic Truth About Stevia https://janeshealthykitchen.com/the-toxic-truth-stevia/.
- Horecka, S. (January/16, 2014). Biely, hnedý cukor, med, glukóza ako sa v tom vyznať? https://horecka.sk/2014/01/biely-hnedy-cukor-med-glukoza-ako-sa-v-tom-vyznat/
- Horecka, S. (November/28, 2018). Cukor,cukry alebo prečo nemať fóbiu zo sacharidov https://horecka.sk/2018/11/cukorcukry-alebo-preco-nemat-fobiu-zo-sacharidov/