How do I reduce the sugar in my cooking?

I am not a sweets person. I don’t like sugary desserts or high-sugar baking, but I know that people like their treats, and so I have developed some techniques for cutting sugar in both baking and cooking. You’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to reduce this particular ingredient with minimal impact on the end product. (I am not a dietitian, however, so if you have diabetes or other diseases related to sugar, consult a doctor.)

I never add sugar to pastry; the filling usually has enough. In any cake recipe, you can cut the sugar by one third without altering the texture. It will be slightly less sweet, and because sugar aids in browning, it may be a little pale. I serve it as is, but if the aesthetic bothers you … cover your cake with fruit.

Bananas, which are high in sugar, can also be used as a sweetener. Let them get very soft, and then substitute an equal amount of mashed banana for up to half the sugar by volume but not more than 1 cup, in a recipe.

Puréed dates or dried figs in baking, or stirred into a sauce, also add sweetness; the calories may be similar but the fruit is healthier and adds some fibre, too. Purée soaked fruit with a little of the soaking water to incorporate more easily. This is especially good in muffins as long as you cut the sugar way down.

In cooking, I omit sugar in most recipes or add just a pinch if it really needs it. Thai food, for example, can have a lot of added sugar, but when I was travelling and dining in Thailand, I did not have the same kind of sweet food I often have here at home, so I make Thai dishes with much less sugar than recipes call for.

Other sweetening options to consider: Coconut sugar has had a mixed reception. Studies done in the Philippines, the main exporter of coconut sugar, show it is lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, but it was a tiny study. Honey, maple syrup and molasses contain similar calorie counts to sugar but their process is more natural.

Some don’ts:

  • Do not use high-fructose corn syrup. Maple syrup is a more natural option.

  • I don’t use artificial sweeteners or stevia, which is a processed product. They are considered safe in moderation, so it is a personal choice. However, I have never successfully baked with them, and sweeteners leave an aftertaste to me.

  • Don’t eat processed foods, which often contain added sugars and/or high-fructose corn syrup. After all, sugar is addictive.