Sugar Blues? Gluten-free Baking Without Sugar

 Three alternatives to refined white sugar in vegan baking: raw agave nectar, organic brown sugar crystals and unrefined organic cane sugar
Baking gluten-free without sugar: substitutions and tips.

I got the blues.


An increasing number of comments and questions have revolved around sugar as a sweetener and how to substitute it in gluten-free baking. I thought the subject sweet enough to deserve its own post.

And since I recently started a sugar detox (I do this from time to time-- I'm on day six sugar-free, Darlings- no sweetener except a pinch of the herb stevia in my tea and smoothies), I thought it might be appropriate to refresh this post and bring it forward.

As we know it in its common, refined form here in the United States (the average American eats something close to 143 pounds of sugar per year), sugar is typically derived from the cereal grain known as sugar cane, or the cultivated plant beta vulgaris, also known as the sugar beet. Check for non-GMO status of your beet sugar. Both options are high on the glycemic index and refined to remove any nutrients or minerals that may have been residing in the cane or beet's natural state.

In the cane refining process the syrup remaining after the refining process is called molasses (it contains iron and other minerals that are refined out of white sugar). Note: sugar cane is in the grass and cereal botanical family; people who are allergic to grasses and cereals may be prone to develop a sensitivity to cane sugar.

Sugar in various guises

Brown sugar is refined cane sugar with molasses added for a golden-caramel taste and softer texture.

Raw sugar- also known as turbinado sugar- is also cane sugar, but less refined; it supposedly has more nutrients intact (but I wouldn't go so far as to consider it a health food, Darling).

Vegan sugar aka sucanat is cane sugar in a raw, unrefined state; it has a darker, stronger taste that is akin to molasses. (The refining process is what makes some sugar offensive to vegans- bone char is sometimes used in the refining method.)

Demerara and muscavado are also less refined sugar cane variations with deeper, complex taste.

Although you might expect that all cane sugar behaves the same way in gluten-free recipes, I have found differences in the way these sugars impact a recipe. So when you sub the brown sugar called for, say, with a less refined, stronger tasting vegan sugar- please know that the recipe will indeed taste different, perhaps have a smaller volume, or change in overall texture from the recipe as written.

Cane Sugar Alternatives:


 Raw agave nectar in a bowl- it looks like honey, but it's a totally vegan and low glycemic sweetener
Agave is a natural sweetener, but it's still fructose/sugar.

When thinking about substituting sugar in a recipe, it's important to remember that sugar provides not only sweetness to gluten-free baked goods, it provides structure, texture, and flavor, adds a pleasing moistness, and contributes to browning.

Replacing sugar, therefore, can be a delicate dance with ingredients.

Read on for alternatives to the usual suspects.

Agave: Organic raw agave nectar is a vegan fructose sweetener made from the agave cactus with a subtle sweetness and a lower glycemic impact on blood sugar levels (it is approved for limited use in the South Beach Diet later phases, and may be a possible choice for those who need to monitor their blood sugar levels; agave may not be appropriate for everyone, however-- see notes below).

Raw organic agave is the least refined type of agave and has a mild, neutral taste. It is produced at temperatures below 118 °F (48 °C) to protect the natural enzymes, making it an appropriate sweetener for those eating raw foods. Raw agave contains iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.

Agave nectar works well in baking. Use 1/3 to 1/2 cup of raw organic agave nectar (not the super-refined "agave") for every 1 cup of sugar in the original recipe and lessen the liquid called for by 3 tablespoons. Agave is humectant and adds moisture and binding to gluten-free recipes- especially if you're baking egg-free. Note that using too much agave in a baked goods recipe with a lot of gluten-free starch can sometimes lead to gumminess.

Some cooks also reduce the oven temperature by 25° F when baking agave recipes, but I have not bothered to do this.

You may want to experiment with using a smaller loaf pan  when you replace the sugar with less agave (volume is affected). Use an 8x4-inch loaf pan rather than a 9x5-inch loaf pan, for instance.

A dab of agave is also lovely in smoothies, soups, dressings and sauces.
Notes: Agave is a form of sugar. Because agave (like honey) is fructose, some folks avoid it, believing too much fructose may be harmful to the liver and raise triglyceride levels. As always, before try a new product, please research it according to your own specific dietary and health needs, and consult your medical expert for advise.
FODMAP sensitive folks may find agave's inulin levels too hard to digest.

Stevia:Stevia, a zero-calorie non-glycemic vegan sweetener, is actually an herb, available in powdered or liquid form, and if you are counting calories, it's a goddess-send. Stevia imparts a sharply sweet taste much sweeter than cane sugar (some brands sport a faint licorice-like aftertaste) and a tiny amount goes a long way.

It does not replace the bulk or structure of sugar in a baking recipe, so volume will be less. If used in baking to replace sugar, you may have to add an additional dry ingredient such as ground/processed coconut, dates, raisins or nut meal to obtain the right texture, especially in cakes and cookies. Or try baking the recipe in a slightly smaller pan. Try using an 8x4-inch loaf pan rather than a 9x5-inch loaf pan, for instance.

Cooked powdered stevia can be bitter. To my taste buds, it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste in baked goods- so I would use it sparingly, and add extra vanilla or cinnamon.

Stevia works best in puddings, custards, smoothies and drinks both hot and cold. Not all brands are equal- there are differences in taste and potency- so experiment and find the brand of stevia you prefer.


Karina's Notes: Stevia is in the sunflower and aster family (Asteraceae for those of you into botany). If you have an allergy to those flowers, you might also react to stevia.
There are new gluten-free stevia products available now with a more granular structure for help in volume and texture. Check labels and call the manufacturer to determine if they are 100% gluten-free.

Maple Sugar and Date Sugar: These two natural alternatives sport a granular sugar-like texture that works well in certain cakes and cookies. I find they make for a denser baked goodie. They are both far less sweet than cane or beet sugar in baking recipes. Your taste buds may need time to adjust. Use a sub one-to-one.

Coconut Sugar and Palm Sugar: An Asian sweetener crafted from the sap of coconut flower buds, touted to be rich in vitamins and minerals. I have not tried it, but it is said to have a deep caramel, molasses like taste. Use as a one-to-one sub in recipes. Choose organic.

Honey, pure maple syrup, and brown rice syrup: Best choice for eating local is local organic honey (and for some lucky cooks- maple syrup or brown rice syrup may be local if you're living in the right place). 

Honey is not 100% vegan (due to the honeybee factor, Darling) but may be a suitable choice for less strict vegetarians and omnivores. Check on its gluten-free status- as some beekeepers encourage honey production with bee food- that may not be gluten-free.

Honey attracts moisture and that is a definite plus in gluten-free baking. Use 1/2 to 2/3 cup for every cup of sugar called for and decrease the liquid called for by 3 tablespoons.

New news on honey is that your favorite brand may have been tampered with- food safety tests on honey (especially honey sourced from China and India) reveal it may not be pure honey at all- or worse- the honey may be contaminated with toxins and antibiotics. See this excellent article on honey safety and the brands to watch out for.

Real maple syrup is a low-FODMAP, vegan, local choice. It is sometimes clarified with the milk protein casein, so check your source if you use real maple syrup- it may not be 100% vegan. 

As with honey, use 1/2 to 2/3 cup for every cup of sugar called for, and lessen the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons. Maple syrup works best with simpatico flavors such as pumpkin, apple, vanilla, squash, sweet potato, and cornmeal. Maple syrup is an excellent choice for FODMAP sensitive folks.

Brown rice syrup is vegan and subtly sweet. Use as you would honey or agave. Make sure it is truly gluten-free and contains no barley (sometimes used as enzymes in processing). *Recent studies reveal a higher than expected level of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup- while more testing is performed, you may wish to consider an alternative. See an ABC news report on arsenic in brown rice products here.

I've had good luck baking with all of these syrupy sweeteners, especially in moist, dense cakes like carrot or pumpkin cake, quick breads and fruity muffins. Again, the dry ingredient volume of a recipe is impacted here, so the batter or dough may need added bulk for structure and/or you may have to adjust the amount of liquid in the recipe (lessen the liquid by 3 tablespoons). Again- less volume may mean using a smaller baking pan works best.

Sorghum molasses: You guessed it- it's derived from the gluten-free cereal grain sorghum. Molasses has iron and other minerals, and is considered a "healthier" choice than refined white sugar. I use it to make a soy-free tamari-style sauce (a spoonful mixed with a spoon of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of Asian spices, sea salt). It's also tasty in chili, baked beans, spicy cookies, cakes and muffins. It has a strong, assertive taste.

Raisins: I've used processed raisins (raisins zapped into grainy crumbs in my food processor) as my main sweetener in nutty drop cookies and breakfast style cookie bars. They add subtle sweetness and texture. Try using a combo of processed raisins and coconut in place of sugar. Add a touch of honey, molasses or raw agave to boost the sweetness and bind the dough. Note: FODMAP sensitive folks may have to be careful about adding too many raisins or coconut to a recipe.

Fruit: Pureed ripe bananas are very sweet and make gluten-free baked goods not only naturally sweet, but moist as well. They may also substitute for eggs in vegan baking. I think bananas taste best in fruit or vanilla based recipes. I don't care for them in a chocolate recipe- but you might. Some bakers use banana baby food- it's handy and easy to store; just make sure the brand of baby food is organic and gluten-free. You may have to adjust the recipe to accommodate the extra liquid or puree. Chopped or pureed fruits, applesauce, sugar-free preserves and jams, white grape fruit juice, and frozen juice concentrates (try frozen orange, apple or white grape juice concentrate) will sweeten batters and cookie dough. Adjust liquid levels in your recipe. And again- FODMAP sensitive individuals may need to limit the amount of added fruit and fructose in a recipe, for comfort.


iPhone photo of a street cafe table with coffee cups and Splenda packets
Pick your poison.


Better Think Twice Alternatives:



High Fructose Corn Syrup: No matter what the sun-drenched bucolic ad tells you, Babycakes, HFCS is not really a "natural" product. Mother Nature wouldn't recognize it. It's a monster-refined, processed cornstarch-derived product that is cheap and plentiful, thanks to government subsidies. HFCS appears to have a rapid impact on blood sugar levels and triglycerides, and is suspected to spike insulin levels, foster insulin resistance, and encourage Type 2 diabetes and obesity. It is processed by the liver. We avoid it like the plague.


Please read:


Splenda: Having used Splenda only once, in a pinch, while traveling, I have no experience to comment on how well it works for baking. It supposedly works as a sugar substitute, but.  

Personally, I wouldn't feed it to my dog, never mind my kids. It is processed sugar, modified using a chemical based process.

Bottom line- for me- is that Splenda is never going to be a product I would willingly put into my body- or feed to my children. If you must go zero calorie, look into the natural herb sweetener stevia, and find a gluten-free source.

Edit: The Center for Science in the Public Interest has downgraded Splenda from "safe" status to "caution". Read why here.

The --tols: I cannot recommend the alcohol based artificial or "natural" sweeteners such as sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol, etc. They are highly processed sugar alcohols and may cause cramping, bloating and IBS symptoms in sensitive individuals- especially those who react to FODMAPs (that would include moi).


New Notes:
Watch Sanjay Gupta- Is Sugar Toxic?
Watch this startling video lecture on sugar, fructose, and HFCS- its political history and far reaching effects. Thanks to reader Mike for sharing this link with me.
HFCS is seeking to re-brand itself now as "corn sugar". So if you see corn sugar on a label, don't get too excited. It's still the same junk.
The New York Times article that got me to start a sugar detox: Is Sugar Toxic?
Many health advocates and experts advise consuming no more than 2 tablespoons of sugar- total- a day. 



Peruse reader comments below for more information, links, opinions and tips. Note- I do not necessarily endorse or agree with every comment on the discussion thread below. It is a public discussion, a mix of facts, thoughts, and opinions. I encourage you to do your own research (using reputable sources) and inform your choices.

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