The Best Refined Sugar Substitutes for Baking

By Marilee Nelson |

The Best Refined Sugar Substitutes for Baking

One of the best things you can do for your health and the health of your family is eliminate refined sugar in your diet. And given the many sugary traditions of the holidays, now is a great time to become more refined-sugar-aware when it comes to baking. Thankfully, it’s never been easier to master the art of substituting natural sweeteners for refined sugar. All you need to know is some basic substitutions for the type of refined sugar(s) your recipes call for and how to swap them out properly.

How to Tell if a Sugar or Sweetener is Refined or Truly Natural

To be fair, sugar does come from a plant-based source---but it’s not the source you may think. Most modern refined sugar comes from genetically modified sugar beets, not the natural sugar cane most of us grew up with. To be clear, “cane sugar” is still highly refined and thus not recommended, but add in the GMO factor and it takes unhealthy to a new level.

Plus, many natural food stores carry sugar substitutes that are far from healthy or natural, even if they say “organic,” “all natural,” or “non-GMO.” So, what should you look out for? Here’s a short-list of the dozens of names refined sugar goes by: white sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, cane sugar, sucanat, agave, icing sugar, confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, cane juice, caramel, glucose, dextrose, dehydrated cane syrup, malt syrup, maltitol, invert sugar, treacle, sorbitol, muscovado sugar, sucrose, golden syrup, and malt syrup (to name a few).

The Best Unrefined Sugars for Baking

When we talk about “unrefined” sugar, what we’re looking for are sweeteners that come from nature (not genetically-modified plants!) and undergo as little processing as possible. The benefit of this is that they retain their nutrients---like vitamins, minerals, and fiber---and do not contain toxic by-products of processing like bleaching agents. And since they’ve been left in their natural state, they do not have the same addictive qualities as something like high fructose corn syrup, which research has shown is as addictive as cocaine!1

All that said, there are some natural sugars that are better suited for baking than others, including:

  • Coconut palm sugar: affordable and easy to find at your local market, natural food store, or online.
  • Maple syrup/maple sugar: look for organic whenever possible. Maple sugar is delicious...but expensive, so many people opt for coconut sugar instead.
  • Raw honey: look for “raw” on the label and go for local if you can.
  • Dates/Date sugar: you can use dates to make your own date paste (more on this below) and date sugar can be found online or at natural foods stores. Just make sure it’s 100% date sugar and not cut with another sugar.

How to Bake with Unrefined Sugars

Here’s a list of simple substitutions that should replace all refined sugar in your favorite holiday recipes:

Coconut Sugar or Maple Sugar: use 1:1 in place of white or brown sugar in desserts.

  • When substituting for white sugar, you may wish to use “blonde” coconut sugar for desserts with a lighter color.
  • When substituting for brown sugar, you may wish to add a bit of date paste or honey to enhance moistness...but this depends on the recipe and the texture of your coconut sugar (dry or slightly moist) so enjoy experimenting!
  • For icing sugar, combine 1 cup coconut sugar (blonde or regular) with 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder or tapioca starch in a high-powered blender.

Maple Syrup: use in place of liquid sweeteners, like corn syrup, in beverages, whipped cream, icings, or in place of sugar.

  • When substituting for something like corn syrup, it can be helpful to combine maple syrup with raw honey to create a more sticky texture. A 50/50 mixture usually does the trick.
  • For whipped cream we add it straight. For a stiffer cream, add a tablespoon or two of arrowroot powder or tapioca starch.
  • You can use maple syrup in place of sugar in a cake, bread, etc. but you must remove one-third of another liquid in the recipe, like milk for example. If the recipe doesn’t lend itself to this, you’re better off using coconut or maple sugar.

Raw Honey: use in place of other syrups, caramel, or liquid sweeteners, can also be subbed for sugar and works great in fillings, beverages, and can be delicious in cheesecake. Bear in mind, since every type of honey has its own distinct flavor, you may need to experiment a bit. Try orange blossom or clover honey for their more neutral flavors.

  • When replacing syrups, you can use raw honey 1:1 OR mix with maple syrup for a more mild flavor.
  • For fillings, use 1:1 in place of sugar and add arrowroot powder or tapioca starch if more stiffness is desired.
  • For cheesecakes, choose a honey that will complement the flavor of the cheesecake like a citrus or fruity flavor. From there, you can sub the honey 1:1 for sugar, or for a milder flavor do half coconut sugar and half honey. This simple recipe from The Frugal Farm Wife shows you how.
  • Raw honey is wonderful for cinnamon or sticky buns either as-is or combined with date paste!

Date paste or date sugar: dates can be made into a paste that adds moist deliciousness and nutrients to a variety of recipes. Date sugar can be found at your natural foods store.

How to make date paste:

  • 2 cups pitted dates*
  • ½ cup water

Buzz everything up in a food processor or high-speed blender. Stores for 3 weeks in the fridge.

*Some dates may require soaking if they’re on the dry side. If in doubt, soak in warm filtered water for 1-2 hours before blending.

  • To replace refined sugar (white, brown, etc.), substitute 1:1 with date paste.
  • To replace syrups, maple syrup, or honey (for those who can’t tolerate them) substitute 2:1.
  • Date paste is also delicious on it’s own as a nourishing substitute for caramel...try dipping sliced apples in it, YUM!
  • Date sugar can be substituted 1:1 for brown or dark brown sugar or 50/50 with coconut sugar for white sugar.

Have a Favorite Refined-Sugar-Free Recipe to Share?

We’d love to hear all about your favorite recipes, cooking sites/cookbooks, and baking tips on Instagram @branchbasics.

Happy holiday baking!

Further reading:

Interested in how healthy food can be used as medicine? Check out the Branch Basics blog to learn more. 

Eat protein-packed, nutrient dense foods with this healthy snack guide from Branch Basics.

Clean your kitchen the nontoxic way with product tips from Branch Basics. Use the Natural Scrub Brush to work on anything from tough stains to dishes!

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.