sugar-free brown sugar substitute

Best Sugar-Free Brown Sugar Substitute

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Brown sugar is an extremely unique sweetener that not many people talk about. It adds a beautiful golden color to the dishes it’s used in, adds a unique caramelized flavor like no other, and can help create an overall more complex profile that pairs well with a multitude of rich flavors.

But what are the best sugar-free brown sugar substitutes that will help you make healthier dishes? To start, you need to figure out how you will get the brown color and caramel flavor. For that, you can virtually only use golden monk fruit sweetener or Yacon syrup. Alternatively, you can add a sugar-free maple extract.

Then, you can also leave out the color and flavor aspect of it. In this case, your popular sugar-free sweeteners like Stevia, Erythritol, and Xylitol will work just fine. But again, add some maple extract to give it a better brown-sugar flavor and appearance.

In today’s article, we will not only discuss all your options but when and how to best use them. We will also take a look at how to add a caramelized undertone to any one of these with a sugar-free and sugar-containing addition.

What Does “Sugar-Free” Really Mean?

Now, unfortunately, the term “sugar-free” carries different meanings to different people. Some look at “sugar-free alternatives” as alternatives that don’t contain ANY type of sugar, natural or processed (refined).

sugar-free

This means that they even exclude alternatives like fruit because of its sugar content. This limits your options and these substitutes are often very costly.

Others consider a “sugar-free alternative” as anything that isn’t straight-up granulated sugar or some other form of it. This includes castor sugar, sugar crystals, or powdered sugar as well. Even simple syrups aren’t included.

For us, a sugar-free brown sugar alternative is anything that isn’t refined sugar or refined sugar product. 

Why?

Because finding something that is completely sugar-free is almost impossible these days. Let alone an alternative that can work as a substitute for brown sugar!

So, while our options are more limited than looking at sugar-free substitutes for white sugar, there are still options nevertheless.

How to Choose the Best Substitute

First things first, you have to think about what you are looking for. 

Are you wanting to lower the calorie count of the recipe? Are you wanting to cut out refined sugars completely? Do you need to avoid a spike in your sugar levels because you are diabetic?

All of these questions will help you narrow down which options can work best for you.

Another REALLY important question: Do you need to keep the caramelized flavor of the brown sugar?

So, How Do These Questions Apply to Your Options?

First, if you need to retain the caramelized color and flavor, you will need to add either maple extract (which is sugar-free) or molasses (which is not sugar-free). Obviously, the option you choose here depends on the first set of questions: How much sugar can you ingest?

If none at all, maple extract (Mapoline) is your go-to option. It is a little more difficult to find and a bit pricey, but the only way we know of that will add the caramelized flavor and color.

If you can ingest small quantities of sugar, molasses is a better option. It does contain sugar, but less than granulated sugar. And, it’s really the best way to add color and a caramelized flavor to the substitute.

Now, if you DON’T need the caramelized color and flavor, you can also opt to leave out molasses or maple extract completely.

In this case, your substitute options are much broader and easier as well.

Why Aren’t There Easy Sugar-Free Brown Sugar Substitutes?

It’s actually really simple if you understand what brown sugar is.

This type of sugar is made with refined granulated white sugar that has added molasses.

To mimic the caramelized flavor, most people caramelize regular white sugar. What happens during this process is called the Maillard reaction. A chemical reaction occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars.

This gives the white sugar (and other kinds of food that contain sugar) a brown color and caramelized flavor.

There are very few flavors on earth that mimic that of molasses and caramelization. Let alone flavors that are sugar-free.

Best Sugar-Free Brown Sugar Substitute

First, we will take a look at the best sugar-free brown sugar substitutes that can work in recipes for baked goods, beverages, sugars, and sauces. 

But remember, few of these will add a similar caramelized flavor or golden color. You will need to refer to the section below if you need to add those elements still.

1. Golden Monk Fruit Sweetener

If you have looked into sugar-free or zero-calorie sugar alternatives before, you’ve likely come across monk fruit before, also called Buddha fruit. Yet, still, not many people realize what an incredibly handy and healthy alternative this is.

Golden Monk Fruit Sweetener

And, when it comes specifically to a substitute for brown sugar, it’s your best option today. Here’s why:

First, golden monk fruit sweetener has a similar golden brown color and granulated texture to light brown sugar. This makes it a fantastic option that won’t dramatically affect the recipe.

Secondly, this substitute has a similar flavor to light brown sugar. It is sweet with maple syrup undertones.

Third, it is completely free of sugar or refined sugar and contains zero calories. It is also considerably sweeter (between 100-250 times) than regular sugar. But don’t worry, it’s often mixed with sweeteners like erythritol to reduce the intense sweetness, making it easy to use still.

Fourth, it’s loaded with other nutrients. It contains antioxidants, anticancer properties, and anti-diabetes properties. 

Now, the downsides? As with all of the substitutes today, you will need to adjust the quantity for your recipe.

It’s also a more difficult to find an alternative that the others on the list today. And, it comes at a steeper price because it’s not yet mainstream. But don’t worry. Because you don’t use it a lot at a time, it will last you quite a while.

How to Substitute

It depends on the product you are using. If you are using regular monk fruit sugar, you can substitute 1 cup of brown sugar with 1/3 cup of monk fruit sugar. The only exception is if the package indicates otherwise.

Some golden monk fruit sweeteners, like this option from Lakanto, use a 1:1 replacement, making the swap effortless.

2. Stevia

Okay next up, a sugar-free alternative, but one without any caramelized or molasses-like flavors. By now, Stevia is a well-established alternative to refined sugar.

stevia

It comes from the leaves of a plant named “Stevia Rebaudiana.” It’s incredibly sweet and contains almost no calories at all (at least, there are SO few that it is classified as a zero-calorie sweetener).

Furthermore, Stevia does have some health benefits including lowering your blood pressure as well as your blood sugar levels. 

Now, the downsides of using Stevia pretty much comes down to the fact that it isn’t anything like brown sugar. It works great as an alternative to castor sugar or white sugar but doesn’t have that caramelized flavor or golden color of brown sugar.

So, here is where some tricks come into play.

If you don’t mind a little bit of sugar in the mix, you can add molasses. Alternatively, add maple extract, which again, is sugar-free. 

Both of these solutions will give you a golden color and a slightly caramelized flavor.

How to Substitute

Stevia is incredibly sweet, so you should only use 1-2 teaspoons of Stevia per cup of brown sugar. 

Reduce the quantity if you are adding molasses to the mix as well.

Now, as you can see, you are drastically reducing the volume of the sugar in a recipe. For some baked goods, this won’t work and will affect the final texture of the item. After all, in many recipes, sugar is functional, not just for flavor.

But, in recipes like a cheesecake, the sugar merely acts as a sweetener for the cream cheese. So, adding less won’t affect the final outcome much.

3. Erythritol

Erythritol is a sugar that appears naturally in many fruits. While you can find all-natural options out there, many (if not most) are industrially produced.

This alternative is completely free of any sugar, contains no calories, and won’t cause a rise in your blood sugar or insulin levels.

erythritol

Now, while it does have fewer side effects than other sweeteners, it’s important to note that ingesting too much of this sweetener can still cause digestive problems. Mainly this includes gas. But on extreme levels, it can cause diarrhea. But again, less likely than other sweeteners.

So, how does it work as a sugar-free alternative to brown sugar?

It’s definitely free of any refined or added sugars. However, as with Stevia, it doesn’t have a caramelized flavor or golden brown color.

Again, you will either need to leave it out completely or use one of the tricks we’ve listed below.

How to Substitute

The exact substitution depends massively on the product you buy. That’s because they will all have relatively different sweetness levels.

The swap can be anywhere between 1/4 cup to 1 cup for every 1 cup of brown sugar.

In this case, it’s best to check out the package instructions. And again, if you do add molasses (which doesn’t make it sugar-free anymore), you can reduce the amount of Erythritol you substitute.

4. Xylitol

Xylitol is a fantastic sugar-free alternative, but only if it is used correctly.

xylitol

First, know that when consumed in too large quantities, it will cause mild to severe stomach issues. So, it’s best to use this substitute in recipes like sauces, drinks (coffee or tea), or where the sugar purely acts as a sweetener, like cheesecake or custard.

If you use it as a substitute for cakes, it can make you ill.

That being said, it’s still an option. 

It isn’t completely calorie-free but does contain almost half the amount of sugar. It is completely free of added or refined sugars.

And as with most alternatives on today’s list, you also need to add maple extract or molasses to give it a golden color and brown sugar flavor.

How to Substitute

Xylitol is used in a 1:1 ratio of brown sugar and white sugar. You can reduce the quantities if you’d like, especially if you are adding molasses.

And again, don’t use this alternative in recipes that calls for large quantities of sugar. For example, if you add 1 cup of Xylitol to a cake recipe (instead of brown sugar), it will most likely cause some sort of discomfort (at the very least).

5. Yacon Syrup

Last, but certainly not least, you can also try Yacon syrup. It isn’t a well-known sweetener, but one that works great and is completely sugar-free. It also contains soluble fibers that help promote healthy bacteria in your digestive tract.

yacon syrup

Now, because this option is a syrup, it will only work in certain instances. You can still use it in drinks, in sauces, or anywhere that the brown sugar would have been melted. But, it won’t make an easy swap if you are trying to use it as a granulated substitute.

While this option may sound limiting or challenging, here’s why we love it: it also has a brownish color and caramelized flavor, just like brown sugar does. This does make it one of the easiest substitutes IF you use it correctly.

How to Substitute

You can pretty much use a one-to-one substitute for this alternative. Some people do find it too sweet and reduce the amount they use.

Now, if you are trying to replace granulated brown sugar with Yacon syrup, it’s best to start with half the amount. So, if you need 1 cup of brown sugar, use 1/2 cup of Yacon syrup. You can always increase the amount later.

Adding a Caramelized Flavor and Color

We’ve been hammering on about “use these tricks” or “add this and that.” But what are they and how do you actually use them?

Maple Extract

First, let’s look at the only sugar-free option here, maple extract. Also commonly called Mapoline, it’s a sugar-free flavoring (like vanilla extract) that will help add a caramel flavor and potentially (depending on the brand) a brownish color.

maple extract

You don’t need to add a lot. Start with 1/4 teaspoon depending on the quantity of base sweetener you use.

So, let’s say you are using 1/2 cup of Xylitol. You can start by adding 1/4 teaspoon of maple extract and increase the quantity as you see fit. Some people add as much as a teaspoon at a time! It depends on your preference.

You can also add it directly to the sugar or directly to the wet batter or mixture.

Molasses

As we’ve repeatedly mentioned, molasses is not sugar-free. But, if you simply want to cut back on sugar or calories, you may still want to add it.

molasses

It’s likely the best option to get an accurate brown sugar flavor. 

Again, start with a little. Only add 1/2 teaspoon to start with. Then, increase as you see fit.

Now, 7 grams (1 teaspoon) of molasses contains about 5 grams of sugar. In comparison, 7 grams of brown sugar (little under 2 teaspoons) contains 6.2 grams of sugar.

So, as you can see, molasses is far lower in sugar, which is why you don’t need a ton to add some flavor and color.

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