Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Sugar-Free Sweetness - Sugar Alternatives

For a long time I have been interested in alternatives to sugar, perhaps because, like many of us, I have a desire to be healthy as well as a desire to eat sweet things. And do you know what? There ARE alternatives. There are actually heaps of ways we can sweeten our food without having to use sugar, but it can take a lot of work to research and figure out. And you lucky things, I've been doing the hard work for you. Well, for me and you.

I have decided to get serious about experimenting with some sugar alternatives in my baking, and see if I can find something(s) that I would be happy to switch to long term. There are a few things to factor in, for example - Does it taste good? Does it easily replace sugar in any given recipe, or do I have to adjust the other ingredients to make it work? Is it truly a healthier option? Is it affordable?

I've been trying a few alternatives recently, but by no means all! Let me tell you a bit about what I have looked at so far, and as I experiment more I will report back on how they perform.

XYLITOL - Despite its name this is not an artificial substitute, but a naturally occurring one. I have been familiar with it for many years and have also known it as birch tree sugar, though some more reading tells me it can also be extracted from other plant materials. Xylitol has approximately 2/3 the calories of sugar, you need a little less of it when replacing sugar (so that's even less calories) and it has a very low GI, causing less impact on your blood sugar levels. And to add to these awesome credentials, it is good for your teeth. Not just not bad for your teeth, but good for them, and is often used in toothpaste. Amazing! Xylitol looks pretty much just like sugar, but has a minty taste, and gives a bit of a zing on the tongue, much like toothpaste, when eaten on its own. Too much of it will cause a laxative effect. It is extracted through hydrogenation.

GLUCOSE/DEXTROSE - A very fine powder. It's the good part of sugar. Sugar minus the fructose. Dissolves quickly on the tongue and has a slightly minty fresh feel. A really effective and safe substitute for sugar, though it is very high GI.

COCONUT SUGAR - Drained from the flower stem of the coconut tree, and also has a fairly low GI. Packed with vitamins and minerals that you won't find in your usual sugar. Has a dark, rich taste, and appears much more like brown sugar than white. Is not highly processed.

AGAVE SYRUP - LADEN with fructose - this a bad sugar alternative. Fructose is what we are to avoid as much as possible.

"SWEET FREEDOM" - A syrup made 100% from natural fruit extracts (apples, grapes and carob). Contains 23% fructose, as opposed to 50% in sugar. So a great improvement and relevant alternative. I haven't tried it in everything yet, but suggest using in place of honey, golden syrup, maple syrup and possibly condensed milk. Also 25% fewer calories than sugar, plus you can use less as it is very sweet. So far I have only found it in the UK and ordered it online. Which is not hard. Easier than going to the supermarket actually.

STEVIA - there is much debate on the safety of stevia. More research for me to be done here.

HONEY - high in calories and in fructose, so not a better option than sugar in this regard. It does contain vitamins and minerals which white sugar does not, and is not highly processed.

I'm also interested in learning about whether HONEY is actually a healthier alternative to sugar. I came across an all natural APPLE CONCENTRATE syrup recently that could be interesting to try. BANANAS and DRIED FRUIT in baking add to sweetness and reduce the amount of sugar you need to use. So there is much to experiment with.

And finally, a note on sugar as we know it. Table sugar is highly processed, but you can get less processed versions. Rapadura sugar is the most unrefined sugar you can get, at the opposite end of the scale to table sugar. Although it is still high in calories and has a high GI, it does contain vitamins and minerals that are not found in our fine, white, refined sugar. Raw sugar comes somewhere on the scale between white and rapadura. Also, when baking I tend to reduce the amount of sugar that the recipe suggests, and it's never noticed in the end result. Even this is a good place to start if you are keen to reduce your sugar consumption.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on sugar and sugar alternatives. Are you excited that there are some healthier options out there? Do you have any other suggestions that I haven't covered? Do you care about how much sugar you eat? Enough to make a change? Are you looking forward to hearing the results of my first experiment in my next post...?

The info above has been collected from prior knowledge, learning from friends, Wikipedia, BBC Good Food and the backs of various packets. If you want to know more, I suggest you start with some Googling and Wikipedia-ing. All the products I have mentioned above can be found by Wellingtonians at Moore Wilson's  and/or Commonsense Organics.

RESULTS can be found below and find more details in these posts:
Sugar-Free Chocolate Chip Biscuits
More Sugar-Free Results

Here's the sweetest thing you'll find anywhere. She's good enough to eat.

To be updated as I trial different sugar substitutes in various recipes

Coconut Sugar
Biscuits - Taste: dark, syrupy and a little bitter. Texture: cakey
Chocolate pudding - No taste or texture difference, though possibly makes it a little drier. Add a drop more liquid.

Biscuits - Taste: no discernable difference. Texture: cakey

Muesli Bar - Taste: no discernable difference. Texture: cakey
Pikelets - No taste or texture difference

Sweet Freedom
So far have only used very happily in place of honey.

Glucose/Dextrose powder
Biscuits - taste: noticeably less sweet. Texture: normal but more experimenting needed
Cakes/puddings: no discernable difference. Possibly slightly less sweet


Coconut Sugar
NZ$25.90/kg in bulk bins (best value)
or $12 for a 300g bag*

NZ$23/kg in bulk bins (best value)
or $11 for 400g bag*

Sweet Freedom
3 UK pounds + another 3.50 for postage.
Click here for the link

Glucose/Dextrose powder
NZ$3.80 (?tbc) for 400g at Pak n Save
NZ$3.20 for 400g at New World

Stevia Powder (not yet tested on The Cook's Sponge)
NZ$6.99 for 250gms.*

* Coconut sugar, xylitol and stevia costs are from Commonsense Organics - Wellington City, Kilbirnie and Lower Hutt. Thanks to Kilbirnie for detailing the costs. Not all stores have all products in bulk bins. Ask for a better price if buying in seriously big bulk - get together with your friends and share it out perhaps?

Moore Wilsons prices very similar. They have a 1kg bag of coconut sugar for $19.09  + GST.
They don't stock Xylitol.


  1. Ooh, nice round-up, thanks! Always good to cut calories so you can eat more biscuits!

    I've used agave syrup a bit, esp when a savoury dinner type dish calls for a little something sweet. Keen to try the coconut sugar and Xylitol - thanks for the heads-up.

    I agree with you about just cutting the amount of sugar in a recipe. I've sometimes gone overboard with that with things like muffins though...

    My favourite no-sugar-added sweet treat from Heidi at 101Cookbooks is this fab recipe for everything-free choc chip biscuits. It calls for mashed banana, and of course, chocolate chips. I substitute dates for them for my dairy-allergic husband (chocolate is very easily contaminated, even when theoretically dairy-free).


    1. Yes I have had the pleasure of eating these, made by your own fair hand. I have been thinking of them again in light of this, so thank you for the link.

  2. have you come across stevia? a sugar alternative to add to your herb garden....

    1. Well yes, I have come across it, but can't seem to get my head around it. Can you tell me more? I should add it to my list of things to look in to further down the track.

    2. So far I've only seen it used in drinks instead of sugar. With tea, or in summer drinks as you might use mint in a mojito. I just did a little research and found stevia choc chip biscuits! http://www.stevia.net/morerecipes4.html So someone, somewhere is making stevia into a powder. More research tells me you can buy it online in New Zealand. What more would you like to know?

    3. This is really good thanks. CSO sell powdered Stevia. I'm keen to make it my next sugar-free experiment. It looks like there's lots to read about on stevia.net

  3. ooooo yes, very keen to see your results! I have often tried to get inventive with my baking to make it healthier, but have never actually tried any of the ones you listed. Looking forward to it! p.s Love the pic of Esther!

  4. I've rediscovered some little blocks of Malaysian palm sugar in the pantry which I use when cooking Thai curries. I used another one tonight when I made an approximation of nasi goreng for dinner. It comes from a palmyra (sugar palm) tree - I wonder how that would go in baking?

    1. Interesting... I don't know anything about it, I'll see what I can find.

  5. Interesting post, thanks Angela (we should really meet one of these days by the way!).
    I'm very interested in this debate/research as I'm very keen to reduce our sugar consumption. I have stevia powder bought from Health Shop in Porirua Mall and I tried using it in my hot drinks but it does really alter the taste. It is a lot more concentrated than sugar so you use a lot less. I've been using in my home made tooth powder that we use instead of toothpaste. It's not bad for your teeth and has no calories.
    I've been quite tempted to try agave but have found it hard to convert dry to liquid quantities, and it's sweeter than sugar.
    My Mum had to go on a sugar free diet for health reasons and she sweetens her baking with dried fruit mainly or banana...
    That's my input tonight ;-).

    1. Hi Ann lovely to hear from you. Sounds like you've had some interesting experiments. I would definitely encourage you to try baking with xylitol and/or coconut sugar and see what you think. And to try them in your hot drinks of course - especially the coconut sugar.
      Yes I haven't quite got my head around the converting dry to liquid, though I have just googled "agave baking recipes" and it looks like plenty of others have done it for us! That could be a good place to start, then you could work on adjusting your own recipes. There is plenty here for me to experiment with, so it looks like this will be a long running saga.

    2. Thanks Angela. I've actually totally given up sugar for this diet I'm on so coconut sugar is out. I could however try xylitol if it contains 0 calories. Need to to my research on that one :-).
      Made "crème au café" the other day with stevia and it was delish :-).

  6. You might be interested in this article and linked articles on agave syrup - it may not be that healthy an alternative to sugar (wish I'd read it before I bought 2 different types if it! ;-)! ). hope it helps, and good luck on your sugar free adventures!

    1. Looks like we've missed the link! Try again?

  7. Hi Angela,

    Just had a look on Sella, and there is 6kg of dextrose going for $14 plus a $13 freight, so it turns out at $4.50 a kg delivered. There is also some on Trademe I think by the same person (same freight charge and packaging). Just thought you might be interested in knowing. I've really been enjoying your information about sugar, and am implementing, slowly, a less sugar (especially fructose)diet.

    Christy Lowry

    1. Wow that's a good deal, I will look it up thanks. Great to have you with us :)

    2. Hi Angela,

      I have just discovered that beer Brewing shops sell Dextrose. There is one in Porirua called Brewers world, and they sell (on line I have seen) 25kg of Dextrose for $70, so that ends up being just less than $3 a kg, if you could get a few people who wanted to buy it go in with you it would be a cheap way of getting it.


    3. Ah - beer brewing - I wondered when I saw it online if it was for something like that. Picking it up from Porirua might be easier, I'll pop in and have a look, thanks so much for the tip. I see I have just missed out on doing a combined purchase with RB, but there will be others...


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