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. 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. It may be darker in color if it contains more molasses. But the darker color may also be the result of more caramel coloring.

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?

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, in 2005 the Institute of Medicine stated that daily intake of added sugars should fall under 25% of your diet, compared to the World Health Organization, which recommends that less than 10% of daily calories come from added sugars.

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.

Studies have 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.

Whether you want to substitute brown sugar because you are out, or are looking for an alternative flavor, or something with a lower glycemic index, there are a number of products that may serve as alternatives.

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.It may also be necessary to reduce the liquid content of the recipe.

Coconut Sugar

Harvested from the coconut palm tree, coconut sugar has a brown granulated appearance similar to that of brown sugar, and has a GI index at around 54. 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 may be a more natural form of sugar because there are fewer steps taken during processing, but this sweetener is still a source of sugar and 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 has a GI ranking of about 54, which is slightly lower than white and brown sugar of about 64.

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.

Given the sweetness of maple, just a small amount is enough to enhance the sweetness of a dish. If you are looking for pure maple syrup, read labels and choose versions of maple syrup that do not contain added ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.

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. 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.

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. Dates have a lower GI when compared to other sugars, therefore when substituting equal parts they may produce a slower blood sugar rise as compared to white and 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. You can also make your own at home. Use date sugar as a one-to-one replacement for brown sugar.

A Word From Verywell

Brown sugar substitutions may be warranted if you run out of brown sugar, like the taste of an alternative sweetener, or are looking to change the consistency or nutritional profile of a recipe.

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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12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  8. Big Island Bees Raw and Organic Honey. How to substitute honey for sugar in baking and cooking with printable kitchen cheat sheet and conversion chart.

  9. Asghar MT, Yusof YA, Mokhtar MohdN, et al. Coconut (cocos nucifera l.) sap as a potential source of sugar: Antioxidant and nutritional propertiesFood Sci Nutr. 2020;8(4):1777-1787. doi:10.1002/fsn3.1191

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