Sugar-Coated: Substituting for Sugar

website sugarcoated

“Zer,zer, zer, erk, I’m out of gas.”

My son stopped directly in front of me, his arms extended, a big smile on his face. This was my cue to give him a big hug – the “gas” he needed to continue with his playing.  At eight, though, he actually requires very little “gas” to make him go.  His energy is unbounded, and I very often wish I could bottle it and put it aside for those days when my own energy levels are low.

Unfortunately for many of us, long days and too much on our plates lend themselves too easily to being sapped of our “get up and go” just when we need it the most.  And it’s in those moments when we’re most likely to reach for that five letter word – sugar.  Most of us know enough these days to avoid the Snickers bar for our “quick pick me up”, but the abundance of “healthy” power bars on the market belies just how bad even those are for you.

The dangers of sugar

My husband is a history teacher, and he tells me that the new colonists were quick to realize the benefits of growing the four most addictive crops at the time:  tobacco, sugar, coffee, and chocolate.   When we think about refined sugar, we think about its taste and the quick burst of energy it provides us.  We don’t often think about the fact that sugar,  in many ways, is a poison that our bodies react to unfavorably.  It provides nothing our bodies need, and in fact, it depletes our bodies of necessary nutrients as our bodies work to eliminate the refined sugar from our systems.  Studies link refined sugar to the rise in diabetes, the increase in heart attacks, and even to thyroid problems.

What sugar does

In baked goods, though, sugar is priceless.  It controls the temperature of our ingredients for timely baking; it causes fermentation so our desserts can rise properly; it helps with the “browning” necessary for tasty baked goods; it absorbs liquid to keep our cakes moist; and it even breaks up gluten to yield those tender, flaky desserts we crave.  To think of replacing sugar with something else can seem almost like a sin to many people, and I know folks who won’t even try a dessert made without sugar, because they’re convinced  the dessert simply can’t be as good.

I can tell you, though, that cooking without sugar is not as difficult as it seems, and the desserts are definitely worth trying.

Replacing sugar with fruit

There are many, many different substitutes on the market which people can try, but I confess that I prefer to use one of three options:  Ripe, sweet fruit or vegetables; Agave; and Truvia (Stevia).  Whenever possible, it really is best to simply use fruit.  With fruit, you can get all of the nutrients and fiber that your body needs, along with the sweetness derived naturally.  When baking, simply replace half of the sugar called for with a fruit puree of your choice.  Milder purees like applesauce work well in just about anything.  Pureed bananas, peaches, mangos, prunes, pumpkin, figs, etc… work well in recipes which require stronger or similar flavors.

Replacing sugar with Agave or Honey or Truvia

If you want to eliminate the sugar altogether from a recipe, though, I like to use Agave or Honey or Truvia.  Don’t be fooled, though – simply because they’re less refined than sugar does not make them absolutely better.  What they do have going for them, though, is that you can use substantially less of them than sugar, reducing how much “sugar” you’re putting into your body.  For most recipes replacing the total amount of sugar with half the quantity of Agave or Honey or Truvia is a good place to begin.  For many recipes, you may even find that you can reduce by even more, depending on how sweet your sweet tooth is.

Tips for Agave or Honey

Here are the tips you need:  Because Agave or Honey is liquid, you need to make sure you’ve balanced your wet to dry ratio.  For baked goods like cakes and breads which use a lot of sugar, two options work best:  Either increase your flour amount by ½ cup or decrease your liquids by ½ cup.  If you’re making something like muffins or pancakes, though, where the sugar amounts are actually quite small, you don’t need to make any adjustments at all.

Tips for Truvia

Working with Truvia is a little bit trickier.  Most folks like to simply use the stevia/sugar blends because you can just substitute a one to one ratio for the full sugar, which reduces how much sugar you’re putting into your baked product.  If you want to completely eliminate the sugar, though, you can use half the amount of Truvia as the sugar called for, but you’ll need to increase your dry ingredients (usually the flour amount) to compensate for the missing sugar.  This isn’t necessarily a straight ratio, though.  Usually, you’ll only need to replace about half of the missing sugar to compensate.

A trick I like to use:  Use identical bowls of the same shape and size, one for your dry ingredients, and one for your wet.  If you’re making cakes or cupcakes, you’ll find that the two amounts will normally match in depth and amount.  If you’re making muffins, cookies, or breads, the dry ingredients will usually be slightly more than the wet.  After you’ve experimented a few times, you’ll become quite adept at “eyeballing” and knowing whether you need to add or subtract from one bowl or the other before mixing them together.

If you’re cooking with Agave or Truvia or Honey, it’s always best to start with a small amount and add as necessary.  For example, my children like their Brussels sprouts to have a little sweetness to them.  Simply adding half a teaspoon of Agave to an herbed olive oil marinade is more than enough to satisfy them.  The mantra to remember is:  Less is best.

Replacing sugar with Coconut Sugar

On the market these days is coconut sugar which has a low glycemic index because it’s from coconuts. What’s nice about coconut sugar, if you’re not allergic to it, is that it works the same as brown sugar in a recipe so you can simply substitute one for one. I often will decrease the amount because I don’t like things overly sweet but you can experiment and see what taste preferences you have.

Chocolate Cranberry Cookies


10 oz Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

1/2 cup Agave

2 cups 100% whole wheat flour or favorite gluten free flour blend

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp coarse salt

1 cup soy free vegan butter, at room temperature (or another type if you want)

1/3 cup Truvia 

4 eggs, at room temperature or egg white equivalent or fruit puree equivalent 

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup chopped Craisins (if you have a food processor, use it to chop the craisins; you can also just add them as is but the cookie will be “chunkier”)

1 cup Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips (or another type if you prefer)

Baking Instructions:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare your cookie pans.  (I would use “If You Care” parchment paper, but you can Pam spray or coat the pans with oil or butter.)

2.  Melt the mini chips with the Agave over a pan of simmering water.  (I put a small pan of water on the burner and place a large pan with a handle on top with the chocolate in it.  Works well.)  Set aside.

3.  Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

4.  Beat the “butter’ until light and fluffy (if you have a mixer, use it).  Slowly add in the Truvia, mixing well an using a rubber spatula to scrape the sides as necessary.  Add the eggs, one at a time (or whites or puree) and blend well.

5.  Slowly add the melted chocolate and vanilla, scraping the sides with a rubber spatula as necessary.

6.  Add the flour mixture, and mix just until the dry ingredients are moist.  Fold in the chocolate chips and craisins.

7.  Drop the cookie dough by 1/4 cupfuls, leaving about 2 inches of space in between.  Bake for about 15 minutes, rotating your cookie sheet halfway through.  The edges will be slightly dry and the tops cracked a little.

8.  Cool for a couple of minutes on the sheet before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.


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