On sugar; what can be substituted for particular sugars; and sweetness

In this post:

Overview, explaining the main factors distinguishing between different types of sugar: texture, flavour, and sweetness.

Then, there is information, including uses and substitutes for each of the sugars and syrups listed below.

Refined sugars
  • Granulated sugar
  • Caster sugar aka ultrafine sugar
  • Icing sugar aka confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar, fondant sugar
  • Light and dark soft brown sugar
  • Sparkling sugar aka sand sugar, pearl sugar or decorator’s sugar
  • Coffee crystals
  • Golden syrup
  • Invert syrup

Raw sugar
  • Demerara
  • Turbinado sugar

Unrefined sugar
  • Muscovado
  • Jaggery
  • Piloncillo, panela,
  • Molasses
  • Golden caster and granulated sugar, also unrefined icing sugar

Sap derived syrups and sugars and and honey
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Agave syrup aka agave nectar aka maguey syrup
  • Coconut sugar aka palm sugar

Fruit derived syrups aka pomegranate or date molasses
Starch derived syrups
  • Liquid glucose
  • Corn syrup
  • Extract of malt aka barley malt syrup

For a post about sugar syrup, as used in cocktails, follow this link.

Overview

All sugars – refined, raw, unrefined – are all refined to a greater or lesser degree. They are all, at the minimum, 95% sucrose (most are more), so none are truly ‘better for you’ although contain trace elements of nutrients. Some of the syrups have less sucrose in them, but they still contain a fair whack – use with care.

What differentiates sugars is the size of the crystals; and the amount of molasses.

If you are looking for a substitute, consider what role the sugar is playing in the dish you are making.

The size of the crystals

The size of the crystals has two effects: the first is texture, and the second is amount of time to dissolve.

The size of the crystals – crunch

In terms of the texture one obvious sugar to consider is demerara sugar. These crystals are quite big, and they give a wonderful crunch, for example, on a drizzle cake or on shortbread. If you don’t have demerara and you are making something for which you need crunch look for another sugar that has crystals the same size.

The size of the crystals – time to dissolve

One of the main uses of icing sugar is …. to make icing – it’s dead quick to make as it dissolves in water in a trice. Caster sugar will take longer to dissolve. The only way to achieve the quick-dissolving effect is to put it in a blender and grind it to the same fineness as icing sugar.

On the other hand, coffee crystals are big. The intention is that they dissolve slowly in the coffee, giving a sort of layered tasting experience. You could obtain a similar effect by using chips off a block of jaggery – chips about the same size as coffee crystals.

The amount of molasses – the taste, and the colour

The amount of molasses has an effect on the taste. Depending on the strength the flavour can range from caramel to liquorice. If you don’t really want a caramel taste in something – I don’t think it would go well in mint tea for example, then use a white refined sugar. If you like the caramel taste, as I do, then use golden caster sugar instead of ordinary white caster sugar in pretty much all your baking. If you like the really deep, almost bitter taste of, for example, muscovado sugar, and think, as I do, that it enhances the taste of dark chocolate, use it for making brownies. Dark brown sugar has a similar molasses content – you can use that instead.

Molasses also gives sugar colour – if you like the golden look of demerara, try light brown sugar, or gold sanding sugar.

The sweetness of the sugar

Some sugars are sweeter than sugar… well, sweeter than sucrose, which is essentially plain white granulated sugar:

Maple syrup60
Molasses70
Honey97
Sucrose (white, granulated sugar)100
Corn syrup120
Agave140
Source: The Flavour Equation, Nik Sharma

Sugar absorbs moisture

Some sugars absorb moisture more easily than others, but keep them in a cool, dry place. Terracotta sugar softeners can help prevent sugar going hard.

The scope of this post – sugars, sugar alternatives, but not diet sweeteners

This post includes information about sugar substitutes such as honey and agave syrup. It does not include information about sweeteners such as stevia, saccharin, Splenda etc.

The Sugars

Refined sugar

Refined sugars are made when:

  • Cane or beet juice is crystallised, and then put through further crystallization processes.
  • They don’t retain any original molasses content

Refined sugar includes cube sugar, granulated sugar, caster sugar, and icing sugar.

Granulated sugar – ordinary white aka table sugar

Granulated sugar is the largest size (0.3-0.55 mm) of sugar crystal generally used in baking. It can be derived from cane or beet, or a mix.

Uses

Granulated sugar is the ‘standard’, common or garden, sugar. It’s what you’ll find in sugar bowls in every restaurant. It can be put in tea, and it can be used in all kinds of baking.

Substitutes

In terms of taste the smaller-crystalled caster sugar will work; if you need exactly the same size crystal and you don’t mind a mildly caramel taste, then you can use golden granulated sugar. If it’s for putting in tea or coffee you can use cube sugar which is effectively granulated sugar compressed into cubes.

granulated sugar substitute
Granulated sugar

Caster sugar – ordinary white; aka baker’s sugar and ultrafine sugar

Caster sugar has smaller crystals than granulated (0.1-0.2 mm). It dissolves more quickly. It looks whiter. One cup of caster sugar weighs 225g as opposed to a cup of granulated sugar which weights 220g.

Uses

Caster sugar produces a lighter-textured cake, biscuits and cookies without (or with less) cracks running through them, and it’s better than granulated for making pure white meringues (although you might want to sprinkle over some demerara for extra crunch and a bit of glittering gold colouring).

Substitutes

You can put granulated sugar in your blender to grind the crystals smaller and use that. Or, if you don’t mind a mildly more caramelly taste, use golden caster sugar.

caster sugar

Icing sugar aka confectioner’s sugar, 10x sugar and powdered sugar; and fondant icing sugar

Icing sugar has been very finely milled and its crystals are tiny (less than 0.1 mm). 12x sugar is finer than 10x sugar, which is finer than 6x sugar. As a result it tends to go lumpy. To counteract that, sugar producers often add starch as an anti-caking agent (often cornflour – see baking ingredients). That’s generally helpful (you need to sieve pure icing sugar), but it’s not what you want if you’re making a wedding cake for example. The cornflour will hold moisture, and mould can grow on the moisture. Not a good look!

Tate & Lyle sell ‘icing sugar’ with is the normal type, with the non-caking agent’ and ‘fondant icing sugar’ which is pure icing sugar. If in doubt, read the ingredients on the packet.

Uses

Icing sugar is good for making a quick royal icing for fairy cakes for example, or in whipped cream, because it dissolves so quickly. It’s also good for sieving lightly over a plain cake to make it looked finished – but do this just before serving, otherwise the sugar can start absorbing moisture in the air and get sticky. Icing sugar will thicken a fruit coulis quicky because it dissolves so quickly, and also because the starch it contains helps to thicken the sauce.

Fondant icing sugar is the thing to use if you are doing something fancy, like sugar modelling, or Christmas cakes. You can obtain a softer set if you also add glucose syrup.

Substitutes

You can grind granulated or caster sugar smaller in your blender; or you can use unrefined icing sugar if the slightly creamy-sandy colour isn’t an issue.

Icing sugar

Light and dark soft brown sugar

This is a refined sugar which has had molasses added to it – the darker having double the amount of molasses, and a stronger taste.

Uses

Wonderfully fudgy, the lighter coloured sugar is great in a Dundee cake; the darker coloured sugar is good in ginger biscuits and flapjacks. It’s excellent for making butterscotch sauce. Delia Smith particularly likes to use it in pickles and chutneys.

Substitutes

You can make light brown sugar with a cup of white sugar and a tablespoon of molasses, and dark brown sugar in the same way with two tablespoons of molasses. You could also substitute muscovado sugar for dark brown sugar.

Soft light brown sugar

Sparkling sugar aka sand, or sanding sugar, pearl sugar or decorator’s sugar

This is a large crystal sugar, available in a range of colours, used for decorating. It won’t dissolve when subjected to reasonable amounts of heat. The sugar crystals are large and reflect light – they sparkle.

Uses

It adds sparkle to pretty much anything – sprinkle over cup cakes, iced doughnuts, cookies and cakes.

Substitutes

You can try making your own with food colouring and a large crystal sugar – granulated for example – but it won’t sparkle when you heat it.

Decorator’s sugar

Sugar crystals for coffee; the bigger, irregular crystals are sometimes called Krustenkandis

These are large refined crystals which have had molasses added to them.

Uses

The large crystals dissolve slowly in coffee or tea, so the drinks get sweeter as you drink it, a sort of intriguing multi-level experience, with the added pleasure of the rich caramelly taste.

Substitutes

You could try demerara but it won’t have the visual WOW! factor.

Coffee crystals

Golden syrup

This is a syrup composed of about 55% invert sugar (see section below for what that is) and 45% sucrose (ordinary refined white sugar).

Uses

Golden Syrup has a fantastic buttery taste, and it’s completely addictive in porridge! It is the essential sauce to pour over a steamed sponge pudding.

McVitie’s makes a ready made, iconic, Golden Syrup cake.

Or you can try this incredible mug cake version on Australia’s taste site.

For loads of other recipes using golden syrup go to the Lyle’s Golden Syrup site.

Substitutes

In terms of taste, there is just nothing like Golden Syrup. If you are using it in something where the taste isn’t important you can substitute corn syrup.

Golden syrup

Liquid invert sugar aka inverted sugar syrup

Invert sugar is a mix of glucose and fructose, and it’s sweeter than sucrose.

Uses

Invert sugar is used mostly by professional pastry chefs and chocolatiers. It acts as a humectant, helping to retain moisture, and because it is very soluble it lowers ‘water activity’ thus resulting in a longer shelf life. Cadbury creme eggs are filled with invert sugar.

Substitutes

You can substitute runny honey, corn syrup, maple syrup, or Golden Syrup for invert syrup – all of them contain some invert sugar, but they all have a very specific taste of their own. Invert syrup just tastes sweet.

Raw sugar

Don’t be fooled by the name! Raw sugar is not raw. Raw sugar is refined (albeit not as much as white sugar) by a single process of crysallisation, and it retains small amounts of molasses. Ordinary white caster sugar is 99.9% sucrose and a typical Demerara sugar (which is a type of raw sugar) is 97-99% sucrose. The difference is minimal, and raw sugar isn’t significantly healthier than white sugar.

However, the process for making raw sugar is different to that for making refined sugar. Raw sugar is made in a mill close to the cane fields. The cane is crushed and its juice is filtered and the water content evaporated, leaving molasses-coated sugar crystals. Most of the molasses is then extracted by using a centrifuge, but some is retained for flavour. Raw sugar typically is no more than 2% molasses.

Raw sugars vary by the size of the crystals and the amount of molasses content.

Don’t get ‘raw sugar’ confused with ‘crude raw sugar’, which is only sold to sugar refineries. Raw sugar is also referred to by a number of other terms, for example, ‘washed sugar’, ‘dried cane syrup’, or even ‘single-crystallisation syrup’. The two best known types of raw sugar are demerara and turbinado.

Demerara sugar

Demerara was originally made in Demerara, in what was Dutch Guiana (now a region of Guyana), but now it is simply a term which refers to a type of raw sugar.

Demerara sugar is slightly sticky – it has a similar moisture content soft brown sugar. It tastes more strongly of molasses than turbinado sugar.

Uses

Demerara sugar has quite large crystals which add a delightful crunchy texture. So it goes well in flapjacks, cheesecake bases, and, especially, crumbles. Also good sprinkled on shortbread.

Substitute

Substitute turbinado (you may need to add a bit more if it’s the flavour you are after, and it won’t give you so much crunch) or light brown sugar.

demerara substitute
Demerara

Turbinado sugar

In comparison to demerara, turbinado is dryer and has smaller crystals – it’s more sand-like. The name comes from the Portuguese – a reference to the turbines which spin the sugar in a centrifuge. Today the sugar is more often refined by steaming rather than using a centrifuge.

Uses

Turbinado sugar is good in hot drinks and on cereals.

Substitute

Substitute demerara sugar which will give you a bigger crunch.

Both demerara and turbinado have crystals which are usually a bit too big to successfully use in baking.

Unrefined sugar

Don’t imagine, for a moment, that unrefined sugars are unrefined! They are just less refined that refined sugars. This is a good thing – they’ve been refined sufficiently to ensure that all the impurities have been removed, that the sugar is fit for human consumption.

Most unrefined sugars don’t have the molasses removed by the use of a centrifuge.

If you really want to eat unrefined cane sugar the only way is to chew the sap of a sugar cane stalk. Having effectively tried this (OK, there was a machine on hand to help crush and extract the sap) I can confirm that it is not especially special.

Caldo de caña
Here I was, trying caldo de caña, sugar cane juice in a market in Rio. You can see the sugar cane inside the van.

One important point about unrefined sugars is that they are vegan. Refined sugars use bone char in the refining process. Bone char is an animal (cattle, mostly)-derived natural charcoal.

Unrefined sugars include rock sugar, jaggery, panela (and other Latin American terms), kokuto (Japanese), molasses, whole cane sugar, and Muscovado.

Muscovado sugar, aka khandsari and khand sugar

Muscovado sugar has a sort of bossa nova sound to it, but it doesn’t come from any particular place, and it has no protective geographic regulations. In fact, by far the largest consumer and producer of muscovado sugar is India.

Muscovado sugar is an ‘unrefined’ (see above) sugar with a higher than most molasses content which gives it a rich toffee flavour. As a result it is much darker than most brown sugars, and it’s also coarser and stickier. It comes in lighter and darker variants.

Uses

This is the sugar (especially the lighter variant) to emphasise a toffee flavour: in toffee itself, in a sticky toffee pudding, or in a toffee-caramel ice cream.

Substitutes

Substitute dark brown sugar for muscovado if you can’t find it.

muscovado sugar
Muscovado sugar

Jaggery aka gur

This is an unrefined sugar obtained either from sugar cane; or (more unsual) from the unfermented sap of various trees.

The jaggery which comes from sap is darker and a very different, more caramel, taste.

Available either as a solid block (which is awkward to deal with – you sometimes need a hammer!); or as a powder.

Uses

Commonly used throughout India and Asia.

Substitutes

Try either soft light brown, or soft dark brown, sugar.

For a post on jaggery giving more information follow this link.

Jaggery

Panela aka piloncillo, chancaca, rapadura

An unrefined sugar made by concentrating sugar cane juice into a solid. It can be harder, even, than jaggery. One way to help soften it is to put it in the microwave for a few seconds.

Tastes a bit like molasses, the dark oscuro having a much stronger taste. Usually available in cone shapes.

Uses

Used throughout Latin America, as a sweetener in all sorts of situations, it’s available in two different grades: blanco (light) and oscuro (dark).

Substitutes

Either soft light brown, or soft dark brown, sugar.

different types of sugar substitutes
Piloncillo

Molasses, black treacle, miel de caña

Molasses is a biproduct of the sugar refining process. Sugar is formed from a crystalisation process of the cane or beet juice. The syrup which remains after the crystals have been removed is called molasses.

Different grades of molasses develop as a result of boiling. After the first boiling it becomes light molasses. After the second boiling it becomes dark, or medium, molasses. After the third boiling it becomes blackstrap molasses.

Blackstrap molasses has an intense, bitter, spicy, liquoricy taste and much less sugar. Use only when specified.

Uses

Molasses goes well in both savoury and sweet dishes. It contains calcium which stops food softening and it’s the molasses that prevents baked beans from becoming mushy. It works well with smoky tastes, so it’s often included in bbq sauce. In the south of Spain, around Malaga, they make a miel de caña, which is essentially a type of molasses, and it’s served with fried aubergines, a fabulous pairing – go to this post for more on that. The SD team also uses it very successfully in a sauce for chicken.

Molasses is also used to make rum and cachaça; and to brew some stouts. Follow this link to see how them make cachaça.

Substitutes

You can substitute dark brown sugar, maple syrup, or dark corn syrup.

Golden granulated, golden caster, and unrefined icing sugar

These are all sugars made from unrefined sugar, to the same size of crystals as their refined counterparts. Some molasses is retained. The effect is sort of ‘lightly tanned’ in terms of colour (Delia Smith describes the granulated and caster versions as having ‘the golden sparkle of champagne’), and the taste is slightly buttery.

Uses

You can use these in everything, dependent on the size of the crystal. Golden granulated is good on cereal. With regard to the caster, Delia Smith comments:

“The caster is suitable for a sugar shaker when you need an extra bit of sweetness on fruit. It’s also an absolute star in meringues, and I now won’t make a sponge cake with anything else.”

Delia Smith, Delia Online
Substitutes

Obviously, if it’s the size of crystal you need, then just use the refined counterpart.

Golden caster sugar

Sap derived syrups and sugars and and honey

Honey

There is much to be written about honey – indeed, whole books have already been written about it. Try A Book Of Honey, by Eva Crane. Honey will be the subject of a post all of its own in Saucy Dressings in the autumn. Suffice to say that it’s produced by bees from the nectar they harvest from flowers. The flavour varies considerably depending on the flower.

Honey is mostly made of sugar. Refined sugar, sucrose, is made of equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Honey is made of about 30% glucose and 40% fructose. The rest is composed of about 20 other sugars, many complex, and a starchy fibre called dextrin. These take the body a bit more energy to digest. Some honey may contain some trace elements which could be good for you.

But basically honey is sugar.

Uses

It’s wonderful at breakfast over yoghurt; and at the end of the day, if you have a bad cold, in a hot toddy. And it’s good too at all kinds of other times in between. A good addition to a vinaigrette, a marinade, or over ice cream.

Substitutes

Much depends on which honey – they have very different tastes. For a light floral honey you could try Golden Syrup; for a dark, bitter honey such as that made from the nectar of the strawberry tree in Sardinia, a dark molasses might be better. For chestnut honey try maple syrup or light molasses. But really there is no substitute.

Chestnut honey, a slightly burnt caramel taste

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is an unrefined liquid derived from the sap of maple trees in Canada and the USA.

Uses

It goes well poured over pancakes and waffles. It also works well in a vinaigrette. It’s good as a glaze for carrots or caramelised shallots, or in a sauce for chicken.

Substitutes

A substitute for maple syrup might be a strong, bitter flavoured honey such as chestnut honey; a light molasses; or muscovado sugar.

For a post on maple syrup, follow this link.

Maple syrup

Agave syrup aka agave nectar aka maguey syrup

Comes from the inside of the blue agave plant. It’s been used in Mexico for hundreds of years, where the sugars of the agave plant have been used to make tequila.

Agave syrup can contain as much as 85% fructose – a much higher fructose to glucose ratio than ordinary sugar. It depends on the type of agave. Blue agave contains 56-60% fructose.

The result of high fructose levels is a low gycemic index and doesn’t spike blood sugar levels so much. However, only the liver can metabolise fructose, and the resulting adverse effects of too much fructose are serious. You can read more about this on the Healthline website, suffice to say their concluding comment is:

In fact, agave nectar may be the least healthy sweetener in the world, making regular sugar look healthy in comparison.

Additionally, a study carried out at Princeton University indicates that people are more likely to put on weight with fructose-high sugars.

Blue agave is 1.4-1.6 times sweeter than sugar. It comes as light, amber, dark, and raw. The darker the syrup, the more caramel the taste.

Uses

Agave syrup can be used in the same way you might use maple syrup (over pancakes for example) or corn syrup. Remember though, that agave syrup is much sweeter than maple syrup (see the sweetness index table at the top of this post). You won’t need nearly so much.

Agave syrup is vegan.

Substitutes

A substitute for agave syrup would be corn syrup, maple syrup, or honey.

Agave syrup

Coconut sugar aka palm sugar

Palm sugar is made from the sap of sago and coconut palm trees. It varies in colour from gold through amber to dark brown. It’s grainy and usually not very processed, so quite a bit of flavour is retained – it’s a dark, slightly earthy flavour. It has a lower GI than sugar.

Uses

It works well with warm, Christmasy spices and with chocolate. It also goes well with anything coconut, or using coconut milk.

Substitutes

For flavour, you could try a light brown sugar.

Coconut sugar

Fruit derived syrups aka pomegranate or date molasses

These are highly viscous, dark liquids, made by extracting sugar from sweet fruits such as pomegranates, dates and grapes. Water is added to the fruit and then it’s all boiled for a long time until it becomes concentrated.

Originally used in Persia, and throughout the middle-east and north Africa, now they are popular everywhere.

Uses

They give a wonderful tangy flavour to all sorts of savoury food, and also, for example, drizzled over strawberries.

Substitutes

They substitute quite well for each other, but there is nothing really quite like them.

For a post on pomegranate molasses follow this link.

pomegranate molasses
Pomegranate molasses

Starch derived syrups

Liquid glucose aka glucose syrup

Liquid glucose is made, like corn syrup, from the hydrolysis of starch, but in the case of liquid glucose maize/corn is not used. Instead most liquid glucose is made from potatoes or wheat.

Uses

The liquid glucose used in confectionary (as opposed to industrial liquid glucose) contains 10-43% glucose.

It’s used to soften texture and keep products moist. Commercially it’s also used to thicken, and, of course, to sweeten. It’s used to make royal icing and keep it soft.

Substitutes

Liquid glucose is an invert sugar, so you could substitute with other invert sugars such as Golden Syrup, corn syrup, or runny honey.

Liquid glucose

Corn syrup

Corn syrup is a biproduct of the production of cornstarch. It comes in three grades: light (flavoured with vanilla), dark (flavoured with caramel), and a high fructose corn syrup.

Like agave syrup it’s usually high on fructose – typically 55% fructose to 45%, so it’s probably less good for you than ordinary refined sugar.

Uses

Corn syrup is used industrially to make ice cream as it prevents the crystalisation of sugars.

Substitutes

Try agave syrup, corn syrup, or a light honey.

Malt syrup, extract of malt

One of the very earliest sweeteners, malt extract is a thick, dark liquid derived from barley grains and water. It is packed with sugars, but it also contains vitamin A and riboflavin…. It’s probably because of the vitamin A that Kanga (a character in A A Milne’s Winnie The Pooh books) gives it as ‘strengthening medicine’ to her son, Roo – in the same way that Popeye eats spinach because of the beta carotene it contains which his body can convert to vitamin A. Forget the fact that vitamin A doesn’t make you stronger, but it does help maintain a healthy immune system. In any case, there are much better ways to get vitamin A if you need it!

Uses

Roo wasn’t the only child to be given extract of malt, but these days it’s used mostly in home brewing.

Substitutes

If you are using for brewing you could try honey or molasses.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

Radish leaf pesto

It seems a long time ago now since lockdown number one. Every cloud has a silver lining, at that time there were grave concerns about…
Read More

Surprising and Forbidden Dark Easter cookies

Ok, so how do I justify the alluring name for these Easter cookies? Surprising They are definitely surprising, unless you are either the creator of…
Read More

A history of cranberries

“America doesn’t have much in the way of native fruits grown at any commercial scale”Gwynn Guilford, in Quarz Guilford is right, but the notable…
Read More

Sign up to our Saucy Newsletter

subscribe today for monthly highlights of foodie events, new restaurant at home menus, recipe ideas and our latest blog posts