• Passionfruit cashew cream melting moments (Chris Middleton)Source: Chris Middleton
I, like many people am partial to a slice (or two) of a spectacular celebration cake, gooey brownie or molten fruity pudding. Does this necessarily mean that my delicacy is laden with refined sugar? It most certainly does not.
Caroline Griffiths

19 Oct 2016 - 3:05 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2018 - 8:35 AM

It is possible to bake with less sugar or indeed, to be refined sugar free and fructose friendly, whilst making the most of natural ingredients. Home baking with less sugar is one way to reduce the hidden sugars in our diets without sacrificing a ritual we love.

Sugar is used in the preparation of baked goods to develop the characteristics that we are familiar with. Sugar provides sweetness and enhances flavour, it colours when baked, provides tenderness and helps in the development of volume and structure. It contributes to the moistness of cakes and the crispness of biscuits and cookies. But here’s the good news: Reducing, replacing or removing it doesn’t inevitably mean disaster.

Raspberry chia jam

This gluten-free Coconut raspberry jam slice uses apple puree, rice malt syrup and raspberry chia jam to deliver a moreish mouthful. 

There are a couple of approaches you can take to reducing refined sugar in your baked goodies. You can cut back the sugar already there, reduce and replace it with less refined sugars, or use alternative sweeteners. 

Baking has the reputation of being an exacting art form — the difference between success and failure balanced on a knife’s edge. I choose to be more optimistic! A little tinkering from curious cooks should never be shied away from.

Here are a few of the tricks I’ve learned.

Cutting back on the sugar in a cake or biscuit recipe

 To take the most straight forward and gentle approach, reduce the sugar in a traditional recipe by 10 to 15 per cent. You shouldn’t find a great deal of difference in the final product. Next time, go a little further with your reduction if all went well.

Using less-refined sugars

 Less-refined sugars such as rapadura sugar, coconut sugar, honey and maple syrup contain trace vitamins and minerals.  Rapadura and coconut sugars can be switched for refined sugar in a ratio of 1:1 (also try reducing them by 10 to 15 per cent). Honey and maple syrup taste sweeter than refined sugar (so you don’t need as much) and will brown more readily in a given baking time. All will contribute their own unique taste and will be suitable for recipes that do not contain other dominating flavours. Up to half of the refined sugar in a recipe can be replaced with an equivalent weight (or a little less) of honey or maple syrup. To account for the water content of these liquid sweeteners, reduce the liquid in a recipe by 30 ml (1½ tablespoons) for each 170 g (½ cup) used.  Also add ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda to improve the leavening. See the directions under rice malt syrup (below) if you wish to remove all of the refined sugar from a recipe.

Alternative sweeteners

My preferred alternative sweeteners are whole, pureed and dried fruits, as well as dextrose (glucose powder), rice malt syrup, xylitol and the liquid form of stevia. Dextrose, rice malt syrup, xylitol and stevia are all fructose-free. Fruit does contain fructose in its natural form, but you get the benefit from the fibre and nutrients as well.

Whole fruit — Fruit lends natural sweetness and moisture to recipes. Grated or homemade pureed apple adds bulk and texture where refined sugar has been removed, especially in cakes. I have had success using pureed fruit in combination with rice malt syrup or dextrose. Replace the sugar in an average cake recipe (one serving 6-8, with around 220 g (1 cup) of sugar) with 150 g (½ cup) puree plus 115 g (⅓ cup) rice malt syrup or 80 g (½ cup) dextrose.

Hummingbird cake

All the sweetness in this tender Hummingbird cake comes from the fruit. 


Dextrose (glucose powder) — Dextrose is less sweet than refined sugar and the texture is like coarse icing sugar. For a straight substitution, multiply the weight of sugar in the recipe by 0.7 for the amount of dextrose needed. You may also need to add extra liquid – use your intuition here. Dextrose makes a great swap for icing sugar in frosting and icing recipes on a 1:1 basis. Note that the texture will not be quite as smooth.

Rice malt syrup (brown rice syrup)Rice malt syrup is similar in texture to honey, is less sweet on the palate and will have less of a browning effect when baked. To replace the sugar in a biscuit or cookie recipe, for every 110g (½ cup) to 165 g (¾ cup) of sugar used, replace it with about 115g (⅓  cup) rice malt syrup and reduce the liquid slightly if there is any, or it may be necessary to increase the dry ingredients slightly — again, use your intuition. Add a small amount of dried fruit for little pops of sweetness, or include an ingredient with interesting texture like cacao nibs. If you are baking a cake, rice malt syrup is best used in combination with apple puree. Replace the sugar in an average cake recipe (one serving 6-8, with around 220 g (1 cup) of sugar) with 115g (⅓ cup) rice malt syrup and 150g (½ cup) puree.

Liquid steviaStevia is a plant-based sweetener extracted from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana. It is super sweet, so you only need between a few drops and up to a teaspoon per recipe. Brands do vary, so add to taste. Add a drop or two to your baking to boost the sweetness in a recipe where you have reduced the refined sugar as suggested above. I prefer the liquid form to granulated stevia.

Ricotta, fig and hazelnut cheesecake

This Ricotta, fig and hazelnut cheesecake is made with stevia - and the figs add little pops of sweetness, too. 


Xylitol — Xylitol is a granular sugar substitute found naturally in fibrous fruit and vegetables.  It is simple to use in cakes and cookies and can be substituted for sugar in a ratio of 1:1.

Be prepared for some trial and error before you get your favourite recipe to work to your complete satisfaction. Taste test on your loved ones before committing to catering for a sugar-free wedding! Or to get the feel for it before you try your own experimentation, try a couple of tested recipes from trusted sources to get you in the swing of things.


Caroline Griffiths is a Melbourne-based nutritionist and food writer, and the author of  Incredible Bakes That Just Happen to be Refined-Sugar Free (Smith Street Books, $39.99 hbk) - View our Readable feasts review hereFind Caroline on Instagram.  

More sugar-smart bakes from Caroline
Baked vanilla and pea donuts

Peas? Yes, really! We use lots of vegetables and fruits to add natural sweetness to our baking, so why not peas? They are unusual, but rather fun, I think. These donuts are also equally delicious dipped in chocolate glaze. Garnish with frozen peas for added texture if you like.

Jam duffins

This is my guilt-free version of a jam donut, disguised as a muffin. These are best straight from the oven, but reheat quite well in the microwave.

Brown butter loaf with brown butter frosting

The nuttiness and extra flavour that comes from browned butter is fantastic. Just don’t walk away from the pan as those delicious milk solids will change from toasty-brown to nearly burnt in the blink of an eye. 

Passionfruit cashew cream melting moments

Melting moments are a nostalgic favourite of mine. They’ve been given a whole new lease of life here with delicious passionfruit cashew cream. Try the cashew cream as an icing for cupcakes, a cake filling or even on your toasted sourdough for breakfast.

Brownies with coconut–date swirl

These brownies are dense, but not heavy. They’re quite rich, so you won’t need much to feel satisfied – the perfect match for a cup of coffee.

Chocolate shortbread sandwich biscuits with banana cashew cream

You can enjoy these chocolate shortbread biscuits by themselves, or even drizzled with dark chocolate; however, filling them with banana cashew cream is even better! 

Coconut and pandan crème brûlée

Pandan extract is available from Asian grocery stores. The strength can vary between brands, so add it gradually. You can prepare the crèmes the day before serving – they need to be well chilled before you brûlée the top. You will need a kitchen blow torch for this task. Don’t be tempted to add too much syrup to the top of each crème – it will take too long to caramelise.