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Cut Carbs Without Compromise: How to Reduce Sugar in Baked Goods

A dad and daughter pulling cookies out of the oven.
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Cakes and cookies become bread and crackers when sugar’s left off the table. But the granulated white magic has its fair share of health-related consequences. So let’s find a happy in-between: a place where we reduce the sweet in our favorite treats, without forgoing flavor or crumb.

Sugar is a magical ingredient. It brings out the sparkle in meals otherwise bland and boring. It takes bitter and makes it palatable; it melds with spicy to make it approachable. Unfortunately, these magical qualities come at a cost.

Uncontrolled sugar intake can lead to a variety of health problems, including weight gain and diabetes. Which is a shame, because dessert holds a special place on our tables and in our psyche. After all, what would life be without apple pie and chocolate chip cookies?

But don’t fret. Pardon the cliche, but in this case, you can have your cake and eat it, too. With a few simple tricks and a basic understanding of baked goods, you can significantly reduce the amount of sugar in typical desserts. And we can show you exactly how it’s done.

When and By How Much Can I Reduce Sugar?

We should start with the caveat that sugar can’t always be reduced. Certain desserts and food preparations require sugar in its traditional amount to retain the flavor and texture you expect.

Chocolate brownies and cakes are the hardest to reduce sugar in because cocoa by itself is very bitter. Reducing the amount of sugar in anything baked and chocolate-based, then, can result in a less than desirable flavor.

It’s also hard to reduce sugar in crisp cookies and brownies. It’s possible, yes, but it’s a matter of personal experimentation, and there’s no hard and fast rule for how to do it. If you give it a try, start by reducing the sugar by a quarter to be on the safe side. If your treat comes out overly dry or bitter, it might not be the best candidate for sugar reduction.

We should mention here that sugar is hydroscopic. This means it helps baked goods retain water. So, any time sugar is reduced, the resulting treat will have a shorter shelf life and a slightly drier crumb. Using a natural sugar replacement, like those listed in the sugar swap section below, can help mitigate those effects.

But, even without substitution or addition, the truth is that outside of crispy cookies and chocolate treats, sugar can be reduced by up to a third, and some sources say up to half, without noticeable effect. This includes cakes, no-bake bars, quick breads, and cake-like cookies. In fact, French chefs have been halving sugar in treats for years without attracting attention.

Simple Sugar Swaps

A woman holding a delicious holiday cookie.

While reducing sugar can have consequences, there are a lot of ways to ensure your reduced-sugar desserts taste amazing.

Replacing granulated white sugar with honey or agave as a natural sweetener is a fantastic way to reduce the glycemic load in cakes, cookies, and other baked treats. But don’t try to replace more than a third of the regular sugar with these substitutes.

Granulated sugar provides aeration in doughs and batters. And, well-aerated dough creates the foundation for any sugary baked treat. So, to get rid of it entirely, in favor of honey or agave syrups, will result in a dessert that lacks structure.

Applesauce has long been used to reduce sugar in recipes, but you’ll need to reduce the amount of liquid in your batter as well. This takes experimentation on a recipe by recipe basis. In most cases, you’ll simply substitute a portion of the milk or water in the batter for an equal amount of applesauce. Just be sure to look at the applesauce ingredients. It doesn’t do any good to use applesauce that has just as much or more added sugar than the recipe originally called for.

Perhaps the easiest way to camouflage a low-sugar treat is by using other sweet-tasting spices in its place. Cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, although strong-flavored, are perceived as slightly sweet. Using them in slightly higher amounts can hide the fact that you used less sugar.

Dried fruits work well, too. Adding them into cakes and bars creates natural sweetness. Of course, they all bring their own flavors to the mix, and that’s something to pay attention to. Adding dried cherries to your low-sugar cake will give a completely different flavor profile than adding dried blueberries or apricots.

What to Do If You Cut Out Too Much Sugar

If you bake a treat with less sugar and find it tastes a little, well, too healthy, you can use simple syrup after baking. Just brush a little on with a pastry brush. Sugar on the surface of the treat packs a big punch and will make it taste far sweeter than it actually is. A little bit of simple syrup at the end isn’t going to add much to the sugar content of your baked goods. Just try not to overdo it!

We’re all for being healthy, but we’re not okay with sacrificing desserts. Knowing when and how to cut down on the sweet makes a balanced diet that much easier to attain. While there’s no hard and fast rule for cutting down on sugar in baked treats, there are lots of ways to experiment. And really, that’s half the fun!

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »
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