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Looking for the best sugar substitute in baking and cooking? Whether you’re going keto, trying to reduce your refined sugar intake, or just can’t find your usual supplies at the store right now, here’s a guide to all your options for replacing sugar, including commercial alternative sweeteners and natural swaps.
Sugar substitutes and alternative sweeteners can be separated into two main groups: natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are very low in calories or contain no calories at all. Natural sweeteners are made from a range of different trees, fruits, and plants. Some are rich in carbohydrates and calories, while others are just as low in calories as artificial sweeteners.
If you’re cutting back on refined sugar, you may be overwhelmed by all the options available, so here’s a breakdown of exactly what they are, with their pros and cons and where you’ll find them.
You’ve probably heard of sucralose but by a different name: Splenda®. Sucralose is a very popular artificial sweetener that’s made from sucrose (sugar). Unlike sucrose, it has zero calories. Despite being 600 times sweeter than sugar, sucralose and sugar taste very similar.
You can find sucralose in a range of different foods, including baked goods like Thomas’ Light Multi-Grain English Muffins and dairy products like Yoplait Light and Dannon Light & Fit (you can use sucralose in your own baked goods too, at a ratio of 1:1 for regular sugar—but it might make things bake faster, so check them for doneness a little earlier than the recipe indicates). Sucralose is also commonly used in drinks and can be found in products like Mountain Dew Zero Sugar, Goya Diet Nectar, and Pedialyte.
First discovered in 1879, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to be commercialized. It’s now used to make popular brand name products like Sweet Twin®, Sweet’N Low®, and Necta Sweet®. Saccharin is a zero-calorie sweetener that’s 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar.
You’re likely to find it in beverages, processed foods, and certain medicines, like chewable aspirin. It’s stable at cooking temperature so you can use it in baked goods, but be careful about how much saccharin you add when cooking—it’s known for having a bitter, metallic aftertaste when used in large amounts.
Aspartame tastes similar to sugar but is 200 times sweeter. Brands like Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin® are all made with this artificial sweetener. You’ll also find aspartame in desserts, dairy products, breakfast cereals, and drinks like Diet Snapple, Coke Zero, and Minute Maid Light. You won’t find this artificial sweetener in any baked goods, though, since it loses its sweetness when heated (so don’t use any of the commercial brands you can buy in homemade baked goods, but feel free to use it in smaller quantities to taste in un-heated recipes like lemonade, iced tea, or even pudding).
Like sugar, aspartame has 4 calories per gram. It’s the only FDA-approved high-intensity sweetener that adds calories to your food. However, it’s still considered to be a low-calorie sweetener given how little of it is required to sweeten food.
Advantame is a fairly new artificial sweetener that’s derived from aspartame. However, it’s 70 to 120 times sweeter than aspartame and around 20,000 to 37,000 times sweeter than sugar, making it the highest intensity artificial sweetener you can find.
Unlike aspartame, advantame can be heated and used in cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. It can be found in any type of food product except meat and poultry. Unlike the other artificial sweeteners, it’s not sold as a brand name product, so you can’t experiment with it at home.
Acesulfame potassium is the artificial sweetener used to make Sunett® and Sweet One®. However, on nutrition labels, you might see it listed as acesulfame K or Ace-K.
This artificial sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has a strong, bitter flavor like saccharin, so you’re unlikely to find it used on its own. It’s usually combined with sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame.
You can find acesulfame potassium in lots of different foods and beverages, including Coke Zero, Fanta Zero, Minute Maid Light, Pedialyte, Yoplait Light, and Mrs. Butterworth’s Sugar Free Syrup. You’re also likely to find it in candies, baked goods (since it doesn’t lose sweetness when heated), and frozen desserts. Because it does have a bitter aftertaste, you can’t use it 1:1 for regular sugar in baking.
Commonly known as Newtame®, neotame is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar. This zero-calorie sweetener is good at masking bitter flavors. It’s often used alongside other popular artificial sweeteners, like sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium.
Neotame is commonly used in supermarket-brand chewing gums, dairy products, and baked goods. You’ll find it mixed into salt substitutes and used in brand name items like Goya diet nectar and Mrs. Butterworth’s Sugar Free Syrup. It’s not easy to come by for home use.
Stevia sweeteners come from the leaves of the stevia plant, Stevia rebaudiana, which is native to South America. However, the FDA doesn’t allow stevia leaves or extracts to be sold as sweeteners. Only high-purity isolates of the stevia plant, known as steviol glycosides, can be integrated into your food.
There are several different types of steviol glycosides, including Rebaudioside A, Rebaudioside D, and Stevioside. However, most nutrition labels only state the words stevia leaf extract, stevia powder, or stevia liquid. They don’t usually specify which steviol glycosides were used.
Stevia sweeteners are around 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar and have zero calories. They’re also extremely ecologically friendly compared to other natural alternative sweeteners thanks to the plant’s low carbon and water footprint. The main downside of stevia is its strong licorice-like aftertaste. Beverages like Coca Cola Life, Blue Sky Zero Sugar Cola, and Suja Organic Energy drinks tend to blend it with other alternative sweeteners.
When stevia is sold as a sugar substitute, manufacturers also tend to mix it with other alternative sweeteners. It’s often mixed with sugar alcohols, dextrose (a simple sugar that comes from corn), maltodextrin (a highly processed starch), or cane sugar. Popular stevia sugar alternatives like Stevia In The Raw®, Truvia®, and PureVia® all mix their stevia with ingredients like these, which makes them suitable for baking and cooking.
Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are a member of the carbohydrate family, but have fewer calories per gram than sugar and other carbs. This is because they’re not completely digestible and your gut can’t fully absorb them.
There are many different types of sugar alcohols. However, they’re pretty easy to identify. With a few exceptions, like isomalt, most of them have names that end in -ol, like erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol. Sugar alcohols are naturally found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other plants. They can also be made from sugars and starches. The resulting products are about as sweet or a bit less sweet than sugar.
In their processed form, sugar alcohols generally taste a lot like sugar, but have a cooling, minty aftertaste. Part of the sweet yet cooling sensation associated with toothpaste and many chewing gums is because of sugar alcohols! These alternative sweeteners are also used to make candy, cough drops, soft drinks, and a range of other products. Unlike sugar, they’re good for your teeth.
Unfortunately, despite their low calorie content and health benefits, most sugar alcohols need to be consumed in limited amounts. They tend to cause gastrointestinal issues and act as laxatives when consumed in large amounts. If you’re keen to cook with a sugar alcohol, it’s best to use erythritol as it’s the least likely to cause these unpleasant side effects.
Monk fruit, which is also known as Luo Han Guo or Siraitia grosvenorii Swingle, is native to Southern China. Extracts from this plant are 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar.
Monk fruit sweeteners are similar to stevia: They have zero calories and are typically only sold as extracts. Unlike stevia, though, monk fruit has no bitter aftertaste. It’s also not likely to cause any gut issues if you eat a lot of it, unlike sugar alcohols. The main complaint most people have about monk fruit extract is that it has a fruity undertone. It might work well in your fruit smoothie or yogurt, but you might not enjoy it in drinks like coffee.
Many monk fruit sweeteners, like Monk Fruit in the Raw® and ZenSweetTM, mix their monk fruit extract with erythritol, dextrose, or maltodextrin, which can be used in baked goods and other recipes. However, it’s possible to obtain pure monk fruit extract from vendors like Purisure® and Lakanto®.
Inulin and Plant-Based Sweeteners
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber found in a variety of plant-based products. It can also be extracted and added into food products. Some sweeteners, like SweetLeaf Stevia®, choose to mix inulin into their stevia rather than incorporating ingredients like maltodextrin or dextrose.
However, some alternative sweeteners, like yacon syrup and artichoke syrup, contain naturally-occurring inulin. Yacon syrup is a fruity liquid that comes from a South American tuber. Artichoke syrup, which is made from Jerusalem artichokes, has a flavor more similar to light molasses. More popular alternatives like pure maple syrup, coconut syrup, and coconut sugar also contain inulin.
All of these syrups have distinct flavors since they’re made from different plants. They also have different amounts of inulin. However, unlike sugar, they’re nutritious and good for your gut. Despite their sweetness, they tend to have less sugar and fewer calories than table sugar.
If you’re after a plant-based natural sweetener, make sure that you’re buying the real deal rather than a flavored product. For example, pure maple syrup can be a healthy alternative to sugar, but maple-flavored syrup is likely just some type of corn syrup or refined sugar. In baking, you can use 1 cup of maple syrup for every cup of sugar, but should reduce the other liquid in the recipe by 1/4.
Similar to plant-based sweeteners but not vegan since it comes from bees, honey is another natural sweetener you’re probably quite familiar with already. It contains both sucrose and glucose. In baking, you can use it in place of sugar at a ratio of 3/4 cup honey for every cup of sugar, but should also reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe and add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda if there isn’t already baking soda in the recipe.
The darker the honey, the stronger its flavor, so you may want to stick to clover and other light honeys for baking. It has slightly more calories than sugar, but is a bit lower on the glycemic index and contains more nutrients too.