The Best Brown Sugar Substitutes

Brown Sugar

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Brown sugar is an ingredient added to sweeten specific recipes, and is distinguishable in color from the addition of molasses, a sweetening syrup of crushed sugar or sugar beets. Produced as unrefined or refined, brown sugar is mainly comprised of sucrose.

This granulated sugar is available either in natural form (sugar crystals containing molasses) or commercially made with refined white sugar and molasses. The more molasses it contains, the darker it will appear in color.

Containing around 17 calories per teaspoon, brown sugar has a similar nutritional profile to its white counterpart, both of which rank high on the glycemic index (GI) at 64 and 65 respectively, out of a score of 100.

GI Index

To put this into perspective, anything under 10 is classified as low on the glycemic index, 11 to 19 is medium, and 20 or above is considered high.

Why Use An Alternative?

Just like white sugar, brown sugar causes insulin spikes which, over time, can lead to health complications including diabetes and even brain impairment. Studies have also suggested that diets featuring high levels of sugar can put you more at risk of developing cancer, especially when brown sugar is made from genetically modified sugar beets.

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), comparatively, white sugar and brown sugar have a similar nutritional profile, although the latter does contain slightly more minerals such as calcium, iron, and potassium.

Although various organizations recommend contrasting amounts, the general consensus is that many Americans are consuming a higher amount of sugar than necessary. For example, the Institute of Medicine states that daily intake should fall under 25% of your diet, compared to the World Health Organization, which outlines less than 10%.

To compare these, a study on sugar consumption found that participants eating 10% to 24.9%, as opposed to those who consumed less than 10% daily, had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Whether you want to substitute brown sugar because you are out, or you are looking for something with a lower GI, there are a number of products available. Here is what you need to keep in mind when substituting brown sugar in your recipes.

Popular Substitutes

There are a number of options that you can use to substitute for the brown sugar in a recipe. Some can be substituted one-for-one while others will require you to tweak the entire recipe. Here is what you need to know about brown sugar substitutes.

Honey

A common brown sugar alternative is honey, and although it is sweeter, you will require a lesser quantity in your recipe. In fact, depending on the type of honey you opt for, it can be two to three times sweeter than sugar.

Many choose honey as a substitute because of its health benefits. According to research, its properties can have an antioxidant effect due to the presence of bioactive molecules known as flavonoids and polyphenols. Honey is also said to help reduce inflammation and the symptoms of asthma, as well as reduce the likelihood of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases.

With hundreds of variations readily available from different flowers, each version of honey has a distinctive taste. Plus, the darker the hue, the more antioxidants that are present. You may want to check the labels for added ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, and aim for the purest form to reap the sweet goodness, without the unwanted extras.

To substitute it in your recipe, honey manufacturer Big Island Bees recommends using 1/2 to 2/3 cups honey for every 1 cup of sugar. They also suggest adding a 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in baked goods (except yeast bread) to balance honey's acidity and allow your baking to rise.

Coconut Sugar

Harvested from the coconut palm tree, coconut sugar has a brown granulated appearance similar to that of brown sugar, yet has a lower GI index at around 35 to 42. Coconut sugar is produced from the nectar of coconut flower buds which are sliced open to release their sap.

When analyzing coconut sap, a recent study found it contains high amounts of vitamin C and a lower level of sucrose compared to palm sugar and sugarcane juices.

Coconut sugar is also unrefined, meaning fewer steps have taken place during its processing. Yet, this sweetener still contains a high amount of sugar and is, therefore, not necessarily a more nutritious choice than others.

In most cases, coconut sugar may be evenly swapped for brown sugar. But keep in mind that it has the potential to cause some baked goods to come out dry or dense.

Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup

Prepared from the sap of a maple tree that is boiled down, maple sugar contains around 90% sucrose. Therefore, maple sugar has a lower GI ranking than white and brown sugar.

In syrup form—most of which is produced in Canada and the U.S.—the sap is collected from holes drilled into the trees and heated to leave the syrup. It is identifiable by different color grades.

In terms of its nutritional profile, one study found that dark-colored maple syrup contains antioxidant compounds (phenols) that can potentially reduce gastrointestinal cancer cell growth by reducing cancer progression.

Given the sweetness of maple, just a small amount is enough to enhance the sweetness of a dish. Also, according to the USDA, maple syrup is rich in magnesium, which promotes muscle and nerve function. However, maple sugar and maple syrup do spike your insulin and blood glucose.

Make sure to source it in its purest form, rather than a refined flavored syrup by reading the labels to rule out added ingredients or preservatives.

According to the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association, granulated maple sugar can be substituted one for one anywhere you use granulated sugar. However, when cooking with maple syrup, substitute 3/4 to 1 cup of maple syrup for every 1 cup of sugar.

Like honey, you should decrease the liquid in your recipe by 2 to 4 tablespoons for each cup of syrup used, and add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, unless your recipe already calls for buttermilk, sour milk, or sour cream. Finally, reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees because batters containing maple tend to caramelize around the edges more quickly than brown sugar.

Muscovado Sugar

Although similar in color to brown sugar, muscovado—also known as "Barbados sugar"—has a very different nutritional profile. This sugar, which is an unrefined sugar with high molasses content, is produced from evaporated sugar cane juice that crystalizes.

Muscovado is comparable in calories to granulated sugar but has a higher percentage of minerals such as magnesium, iron, and calcium, and a lower GI at around 34. It, therefore, offers slightly more nutritional benefits than brown sugar, yet should still be consumed in small amounts.

Keep in mind, muscovado sugar can also be a challenge to source, and is usually more expensive than brown sugar. Generally, it can be substituted one to one for brown sugar.

Date Sugar

Granulated date sugar is formed by pressing dehydrated pitted dates from the date palm tree. Sweet in taste, the gritty texture is due to the remaining fiber. Unlike its refined sugar counterparts, date sugar requires zero processing and retains much of the benefits of dates, such as providing potassium.

It also offers other trace vitamins and minerals and retains its fiber contents, albeit you would need to consume a high amount to gain from its nutritional output. Nonetheless, dates have a lower GI than most other sugars at around 47, meaning date sugar will not spike your blood glucose levels the same as brown sugar.

Keep in mind, this option comes with a higher price tag than most other sugars and can be found in most health food stores and health markets. Use date sugar as a one-to-one replacement for brown sugar.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you are looking for a substitute for brown sugar because you do not have any in the pantry, or you are hoping to lower the glycemic index (GI) of your food, there are a number of different sugars and sweeteners you can try.

Experiment with these replacements in your favorite recipe, or try one that you have on hand. You may find that it is fairly simple to swap out one sugar or sweetener for another.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Sweeteners—sugars. Updated September 1, 2021.