With the government targeting refined sugar as part of its drive to cut obesity, bakers can use syrups to create sweetness in baked goods, but what complications do they bring?

In the ongoing clamour to cut sugar from the nation’s diets – given fresh impetus by last month’s Public Health England findings (see p6) – baked goods need special consideration as sugar does a lot more than sweeten – it adds texture, crumb and colour, and helps keep them moist.

But when it comes to reducing the sugar content of baked goods, syrups offer potential as they are sweeter and have other benefits.

“Depending on the exact type of syrup used, they are around 40% sweeter than sucrose (granulated sugar) so less syrup is needed in a formulation,” says Ben Eastick, director at sugar and syrups supplier Ragus. “Syrups also perform the role of a binding agent, moisture attractant and flavour enhancer, as well as aiding and controlling colour development in baking.”

Treacles, for example, can add a robust flavour, are a natural food colourant and are high in minerals (iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium), he explains, while cane treacle is a natural food supplement with over 5% of vitamin B6 daily requirements. 

And although syrups can cost around 20% more than sucrose, Eastick says this should be countered against their advantages. 

“Syrups are ready to mix, so reduce pre-mixing time, energy and labour costs,” he explains, “And depending on volume and application, they can also reduce raw material volume held in stock and costs.”

Yolande Stanley, pastry chef and consultant to the Maple from Canada campaign, has been using maple syrup as a substitute for sugar. “Maple syrup provides a quick, convenient and tasty alternative to making syrup from sugar with no mixing, boiling and worrying about crystallisation and then having to cool the liquid before use,” she says.

Stanley adds that as an alternative to refined sugar, maple syrup should always enhance the baked item, not overpower it. “Maple syrup should be used sparingly,” she explains, adding that the hotter and longer the syrup is heated, the more concentrated the sugar. “Different boiling points will achieve different effects – for example, toffee and caramel – just as with refined sugar.”

Given the potential benefits of using syrups, why does granulated sugar remain so popular with bakers?

“I would say granulated sugar is more valuable to the baker than syrup because you can manipulate it in more ways than you can with syrup: it’s easier to store, with a longer shelf life and can be used in a wider range of products,” says Eastick, although he adds that syrup substitutes could definitely be used more in baking.

John Danby, director at Corcoran Chemicals, points out that bakers need to be wary of the potential impact when using syrups to substitute sugar crystals in a recipe. “Sugar crystals aid the creaming process by abrasively creating air pockets, thus leading to a good rise,” he explains. “A move to a non-crystal type alternative in syrup form does not facilitate such aeration and yields denser goods.”

He adds that commercially available syrups are “very much on trend based on GI, antioxidant properties and nutritional pedigree and are an excellent contributor to the sweetening profile of baked goods”. 

“But in practice there are limitations based on the non-crystal nature of the products and their unrefined nature.” 

Syrups work particularly well in small-scale baking because it’s relatively easy to trial how they may impact a bake, but Danby says that in a commercial setting, limitations on functionality and commercial restraints could prevent them from replacing sugar altogether.

Types of syrup

Honey: China is the world’s largest producer of honey but nearly 75% of its production is used locally. Turkey is the next largest supplier, followed by the US. Honey is sweeter than sugar so less is needed in baking and, because it is a liquid, less fluid is required in the recipe. 

Other things to remember when cooking with honey are to add baking soda, which helps counteract honey’s natural acidity, and to closely monitor baking times as products baked with honey tend to brown faster than with sugar. Honey is good for flapjacks, cakes and cookies.

Maple syrup: Most of the world’s maple syrup comes from Canada. There are four grades of Canadian maple syrup, with the lighter syrup harvested earlier in the season. They are: Golden (delicate taste); Amber (rich taste); Dark (robust taste); and Very Dark (strong taste). Bakers can use the different grades depending on the flavour profile required. Maple syrup works well in cookies, pies and cakes.

Treacle: Formed as a by-product of sugar production, treacle is typically either the paler golden syrup or the darker black treacle/molasses. Golden syrup has rich honey and caramel tones, which are excellent for baking, particularly in puddings, sauces, biscuits and flapjacks. Black treacle/molasses is less sweet than golden syrup and the darker the molasses, the less sugar it contains. It has a slightly bitter flavour and is best used in rich fruit cakes and gingerbread.

Agave syrup: Commercially produced from several species of agave plant, it is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar. Sold in light, amber, dark and raw varieties, it works well in chewy flapjacks and sticky cakes.

Invert syrup: This has a clear appearance and light flavour so is suited to goods that require little flavour or colour development, such as buns, muffins, fondants and icings.

Glucose syrup: This has a clear appearance and light flavour. Ideal for buns, muffins and bakery products that require binding with little flavour or colour development.

Caramelised syrup: This has a dark brown appearance and rich, strong flavour. Good for biscuits and cereal bars requiring a strong burnt sugar flavour and dark colour.