Alternative sweeteners are something of a booming industry at the moment. With sugar getting a pretty bad rap, the interest in replacements is steadily increasing. This is reflected in the wide variety of options now on the market, all claiming to be the number one sugar alternative.
But “the best” low carb sweetener is really a matter of personal preference. I am not here to tell you which ones you should use and which you shouldn’t. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and the ones I might like best may not appeal to you for various reasons. I am just here to give you a little insight into baking with these sweeteners. Because no matter what, none of these products behave exactly like sugar, and baking with them can present a bit of a challenge.
To make matters more complicated, these sweeteners also all differ from each other in how they behave and how they bake. In some cases, they can be substituted for each other easily enough without loss of taste or texture. And in other cases, a substitution will not get you the desired result. It helps to have a basic understanding of the different properties of these products when making your choices.
Artificial High-Intensity Sweeteners
These artificial sweeteners include sucralose (Splenda®), aspartame and saccharin, among others, and they contain little to no calories or carbohydrates. They have the distinct advantage of being relatively inexpensive and widely available in most grocery stores. In their basic form, they are much, much sweeter than sugar so you often need very little to sweeten an entire recipe. Many manufacturers combine them with other food additives, such as maltodextrin, so that they can measure cup for cup like sugar, but be forewarned as this can raise the carb count. These sweeteners are all considered by the FDA to be GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Your biggest issue with these sweeteners is that they lack bulk. What does this mean for baking? Well, they don’t have much volume and even the granulated versions are so light and powdery that they don’t add much besides sweetness to your recipe. They won’t whip little air bubbles into creamed butter, which is what gives many cakes their fine crumb. If bulk is necessary for a recipe, you will have to find ways to make up for it with another ingredient. These sweeteners also won’t help your recipe brown or caramelize with heat so the final product may be much paler than one made with sugar.
Stevia is similar to the artificial high-intensity sweeteners in that it is much sweeter than sugar and has no bulk properties. It is a naturally occurring zero-carb sweetener, derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant native to South America. Stevia comes in both liquid and powder form, and you need only a small amount of either form to replace a cup of sugar. There are a few manufacturers that combine stevia with bulking agents like maltodextrin to make a “baking blend” that measures more like sugar. Stevia has a distinct aftertaste similar to licorice and, while not necessarily unpleasant, it doesn’t always combine well with other flavors. Some people find stevia quite bitter when used on its own, but combining it with other sweeteners can lessen this effect.
Sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and erythritol, are popular low carb sweeteners because they have significantly less impact on blood glucose levels than sugar does (other sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and maltitol may still raise blood sugar). They are naturally occurring substances found in fruits and fermented foods, and they come in both granulated and powdered versions. Because these sweeteners contain bulk, they are very useful in achieving the right texture in low carb baked goods.
In their basic form, erythritol and xylitol are typically only 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar and often need the addition of another sweetener to correct for this. Many brands have already added other low carb sweeteners, such as stevia, monk fruit or oligosaccharides, to make them measure more like sugar. Sugar alcohols also don’t always stay in solution, making it more difficult to sweeten drinks and sauces. Erythritol in particular tends to revert back to a crystalline state and can produce a grainy mouth-feel in some foods. One distinct advantage to erythritol, however, is that it will caramelize with applied heat, making it useful in many recipes.
Many sugar alcohols, with the exception of erythritol, can cause some gastro-intestinal upset in high concentrations, so you want to use them in moderation. Many people also notice a distinct mouth-cooling sensation, similar to a strong mint, with both erythritol and xylitol. The use of other sweeteners can help mitigate this cooling effect.
How To Bake with Low Carb Sweeteners
All of these sugar substitutes, both artificial and naturally-occurring, differ from sugar in that they don’t attract and hold moisture. This can be both good and bad. It’s good in that the particles don’t clump together in humidity, like sugar does, so your sweetener will remain pourable right out of the bag. But it’s bad in that your baked goods tend to be drier and more crumbly, and you will need to make up for that with extra oils or liquids.
If you are used to baking with sugar, learning to bake without will largely be a matter of experimentation. You can take any conventional recipe and swap in a different sweetener, but your results will almost certainly differ from those made with sugar. There is simply no low carb sugar substitute that behaves or taste exactly like sugar. Each has its own unique properties, with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Your choice of sweetener, or combination of sweeteners, should depend not only on your own taste, but on the purposes for which you want to use them. Being mindful of the differences between these products and sugar can help you create some delicious low carb treats that everyone will enjoy.