Can you bake a delicious cake without sugar?

If you want to reduce the added sugar in your cakes it can be difficult to know where to start. Many sugar substitutes are expensive and cutting out sugar can ruin a bake.

Happily there are some easy ways to reduce added sugar, or even eliminate it, and still make cakes that are a gorgeous treat.

Sugar-free carrot cake with orange cream cheese frosting
This no-added-sugar carrot cake uses dried fruit and ground almonds to sweeten. For the recipe, search for 'spiced carrot cake' in the recipe bar at the top of the page.

The effect of sugar on your cake

Sugar adds more to cakes than a sweet taste. It also affects the texture, colour and how well they keep.

  • A light and airy cake texture is usually down to tiny air bubbles becoming trapped around the rough edges of the sugar crystals, which expand as the cake cooks.
  • The golden-brown colour of many cakes owes much to white and brown sugar caramelising as it cooks. Other sugars, such as honey, brown faster and make much darker cakes. Artificial sweeteners often don't caramelise, which can result in a pallid-looking cake.
  • Sugar helps cakes stay moist after baking. A completely sugar-free cake will dry out quickly, so wrap cooled cakes in cling film to prevent moisture loss.

Baking with less sugar

Cakes are meant to be sweet and the only way to make a cake without any type of sugar is to use artificial sweeteners, which many people feel uncomfortable with. You can make lots of cakes without table sugar if you are happy to add other ingredients that contribute sweetness.

Sugar alternatives

  • Try making cakes with ground almonds or grated vegetables. These add a more complex texture, keep cakes moist and boosting flavour with their natural sweetness.

  • Natural sugars, such as honey or maple syrup. Although these are still essentially sugar, they contain small amounts of vitamins, trace minerals and beneficial enzymes. Using natural sugars can produce heavy, dark cakes, but they also contribute good flavour (unlike many alternatives to table sugar). As honey and maple syrup are about 20 percent water, you need to reduce the liquid elsewhere in the cake batter (for example by using less egg white). Honey is sweeter than table sugar so you can use 25–50 percent less. It contains both fructose and glucose but the ratio depends on the variety. Maple syrup has a similar fructose-glucose ratio to table sugar, but tastes less sweet. However, most products sold as maple syrup are actually manufactured using cheaper syrups and flavoured to resemble the real thing, so beware. Genuine maple syrup is expensive.

  • Icing tends to be very high in sugar, and the easiest way to reduce sugar in cakes is by using less icing, buttercream and fillings. These are usually packed with sugar and can easily triple the calories in a slice of cake.
  • Sweeteners that have been formulated in laboratories. The most commonly used sweeteners in baking are sucralose (used in Splenda), aspartame and acesulfame K (both used in Canderel). These are 200–650 times sweeter than table sugar and as such either extremely low calorie or calorie-free, making them suitable for diabetics. They often have a bitter aftertaste and they do not aid browning or incorporate much air into the cake. However, the products formulated specially for baking do contain other ingredients, which go some way towards solving these issues and can be used as a straight swap for table sugar.
  • Sweet extracts that are naturally derived, but still highly processed. These can make cakes dense. Stevia is 250-300 times sweeter than table sugar and almost calorie free. It has a licorice flavour, so is often used in combination with other sweeteners. Rice malt syrup is mild tasting and fructose free. However, it has a much higher GI than table sugar, is less sweet (so you need to use more) and higher in calories. Agave nectar is slightly higher in calories than table sugar but about one and a half times sweeter, with a clean, sweet taste. It is roughly 70 percent fructose to 30 percent glucose, so it contains more fructose than table sugar, but is relatively low GI.
  • Sugar alcohols will not make you drunk. They are found in fruits and vegetables, but are mainly produced industrially. They can be used as a straight swap for table sugar in heavier cakes, but need to be combined with other ingredients to make light cakes. Xylitol is probably the best known, but it has a minty taste that makes it unsuitable for baking. It's a common ingredient in chewing gum because it helps protect against tooth decay. Mannitol and sorbitol have similar properties. Erythritol has a clean, sweet taste. It has 70 percent of the sweetness of table sugar but only 5 percent of the calories. It is not absorbed into the bloodstream so doesn't affect blood sugar levels. Erythritol is mixed with stevia to make Truvia. Pure erythritol is available online and in some health shops.
Low-fat and sugar chocolate cake, made with apples
This chocolate cake has grated apple in the sponge which means you can use less added sugar. Search for low-fat chocolate sponge cake on BBC Food.

The best way to reduce sugar in your favourite cake

  • Chocolate cake. Cocoa can be bitter so you'll need to add some sweetness. Add healthy sweetness with grated fruits or vegetables such as apple or beetroot. This will produce a moist cake that also needs less frosting and added sugar.
  • Sponge cake. The light texture and delicate flavour is tricky to achieve without table sugar. Stick with table sugar, but use up to 20% less and incorporate as much air as possible into the batter. Swap 1–2 tbsp flour for cornflour to further lighten.
  • Carrot cake. Grated vegetables add sweetness and a more robust texture. You don't need much sugar – if any – especially if your recipe includes dried fruit. The texture suits natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup.
  • Gluten-free cakes. These cakes often contain ground almonds instead of flour making them very adaptable because of their heavier crumb structure and deep flavours. Ground nuts add sweetness so you don't need much more. If recipes use beaten egg whites to incorporate air, take care when incorporating thick syrups and honey.