Bakers Journal

Baking Without Sugar

November 7, 2007
By Brian Hinton

Brian Hinton solves the sweet mystery.

sugarSince early childhood, sweet treats have been the comfort food of choice for most of us. Go into any supermarket and usually, there are free cookies to sample. Grandma’s cookies, cakes and muffins have been imprinted on us for life, and we look for these tastes in the bakery section each and every visit.
Over thousands of years, our bodies have used natural sweeteners such as fruit, honey, leaves and bark to satisfy the craving for sugar. Today, natural sugars are refined to the point of providing zero nutrition, due to consumer concerns about weight gain, depression, inflammation, migraines and Type 2 diabetes.

As an industry, we sell sugar in many guises, from the icing on a cake to the soft breads and rolls that are part of our daily diet. Times are changing, with the successor to low-carb being low sugar or no sugar added, according to the New York Times.  By the start of 2007, it’s estimated that over 11 per cent of all new food products on store shelves will be labelled “reduced sugar.” For the retail baker, replacing sugar offers many pitfalls; and with new labelling regulations coming into effect at the end of this year, any use of sugar substitutes requires an additional nutritional declaration.

Those who would demonize sugar, include all types of refined sugar, glucose, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), invert sugar and icing sugar in the term or broad category. That being the case, what are the choices for the baker looking for a refined sugar replacement?


First, a return to sweeteners long forgotten – honey, molasses, rice, barley and maple syrups. Honey is available in light, amber and dark, with taste and colour determined by the surrounding flora. For the baker, darker honey, such as buckwheat, can give character to baked goods such as muffins and cookies. The most economical and readily available is No. 1 blended Canadian, which comes pastuerized (this process kills yeasts and some bacteria) or non-pastuerized. Molasses varieties include blackstrap, which is produced during the refining of white sugar – look for the unsulfured grade. This dark syrup has a pronounced taste and flavour, and is high in minerals, including iron. Barbados molasses comes from whole cane sugar, and is less sweet, with a fraction of the minerals. Rice or barley syrups are produced by using enzymes to convert the starch into a sweet syrup. Malt syrup is better tolerated by diabetics because it doesn’t stimulate insulin production. Maple syrup is limited as an inclusionary ingredient, but does provide excellent flavour profiles – both on its own, and with vanilla.

The use of sugar in daily breads and buns is totally unnecessary, other than to provide a cheap bread softener. Many other ingredients are available that perform the same function. Artificial sweeteners have no place in a yeast dough; common substitutes for sugar being lower levels of non-diastatic malt syrups or molasses which support yeast fermentation activity, and promote crust browning.

For white sugar to syrup recipe conversions, start at straight weight exchange, and reduce the liquids by 25 per cent – some minor adjustments may be required. Because of their high humectancy, syrups will attract moisture and keep products soft for extended periods of time. Caloric values will remain high, and other ingredients have to be introduced that mimic the tenderizing qualities of white sugar. Consider resistant starches and gums, since they are readily available in small quantities, together with recommended uses.

When we look at modern-day sugar substitutes, a different picture emerges – the choice beween polyalcohols and a chlorinated sugar or a no-calorie sweetener, such as SPLENDA® Sucra-lose, is a difficult one. Formulating with substitutes at the retail level is error prone, and diagnosing how to fix inferior baked goods can be hit and miss. When looking at a cookie form-ula with 20 to 25 per cent sucrose, the sugar not only acts as a bulking agent, but provides sweetness, colour and appropriate texture. These characteristics are essential, and must be maintained when a switch to artificial sweeteners is made. The public’s reaction when seeing them on an ingredient declaration varies, depend on whether they are organic focused, just want to lose weight or are insulin dependent.

As a retail baker, most of my recipes combine two or three sugar substitutes, the easiest to source being SPLENDA® or SPLENDA® Sucralose – artificial sweeteners which can be bought either commercially or from a local supermarket. The others that I use most frequently include Maltitol and Xylitol, each bringing a specific function to the baked goods. We use Maltitol in a straight one-to-one substitution in sponge cakes, and SPLENDA® in cookies and muffins. For many years, diabetics have used products sweetened with poly-alcohol sugars like Sorbitol, Xylitol, Maltitol, and Mannitol. These are natural sweeteners that do not trigger an insulin reaction (Xylitol can be derived from birch tree pulp). They have half the calories of sugar, and are not digested by the small intestine. Sorbitol is 50 per cent as sweet as sugar, its GRAS (generally recommended as safe) rating in baked goods for use at 30 per cent.

One natural sweetener loved by naturopaths everywhere is stevia, which is grown in South America, and a relative of the chrysanthemum. Its leaves provide an intense sweetness – some 300 times that of sugar.  As yet, it is not recognized by Health Canada or the FDA as a sweetener, so it cannot be used as a dietary supplement. As with all artificial sweeteners, consumption over extended periods of time, toxicology tests and long-term use will determine stevia’s safety in food products.

The overall trend for more healthy baked goods is being vocalized by all segments of consumers, from the schools through to seniors looking for good nutritious foods to form part of a well-balanced diet. The position of sugar in the ingredient list and the nutritional facts table will largely determine how the general public views the baking industry’s ability to supply nutritious and beneficial foods.

SPLENDA® is a trademark of McNeil Nutritionals, LLC

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