You may think that apple crisp, cookies, meatloaf, baked beans, pie, and barbecue sauce don’t have much in common, but there is one key ingredient they all contain — brown sugar.
From sweet to savory dishes, brown sugar is a common ingredient thanks to its flavor-enhancing prowess. However, it’s similar to white sugar, so you know what that means: You’ll want to find a brown sugar substitute to avoid wrecking your keto diet.
Read on to find out what brown sugar is, why it’s not keto-friendly, and what your options are for tasty alternatives that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
What Is Brown Sugar?
Like regular white granulated sugar, brown sugar is also made from sugar cane or sugar beet. The main difference, which also explains the brown color of brown sugar, is molasses. Brown sugar contains molasses, while plain white sugar doesn’t.
Molasses is a sweet, thick, sticky brown byproduct of the refining process for white sugar. It has a sweet and slightly bitter taste on its own and is used in a number of baked goods such as chocolate chip cookies and gingerbread.
The ratio of sugar to molasses will determine whether you have dark brown sugar (more molasses) or light brown sugar (less molasses). Molasses also allows the sugar to absorb water in the cooking or baking process, which makes food extremely moist.
Brown sugar is thought to have more health benefits than regular white sugar because of its molasses content and the different vitamins and minerals it provides.
Some of the key vitamins and minerals in molasses include vitamin B3, vitamin B6, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, copper, iron, and phosphorus[*]. However, the concentration of these nutrients is so small in brown sugar that it’s almost insignificant[*][*]. And any traces of nutrients don’t offset the damage that eating sugar can have on your body.
Make no mistake: Consuming sugar — including brown sugar — is not conducive to weight loss, brain health, or staying in ketosis.
A Quick Word on Molasses
If you’re interested in the nutrients molasses contains, you might consider skipping the brown sugar and using straight molasses. Blackstrap molasses in particular is high in magnesium, which studies have shown aids in insulin sensitivity[*]. Insulin resistance is a step toward type 2 diabetes, so it’s important to maintain good magnesium levels in addition to watching your carb and sugar intake.
While it’s not a zero-carb sweetener, the mineral content in blackstrap molasses could make it allowable in very small doses on the keto diet. Be careful though, it’s not a one-for-one switch, and blackstrap molasses could add a flavor you’re not used to in baking recipes.
Make sure to look for recipes that specifically call for blackstrap so that you know you’ll get the outcome you’re looking for. You’ll likely end up using one of the sweeteners suggested below in addition to the blackstrap to get a more palatable flavor.
Why Isn’t Brown Sugar Keto-Friendly?
Just like regular white sugar, brown sugar is a high-carb food. This is true for sugar by its many other names including agave nectar, coconut sugar, turbinado, raw sugar, maple syrup, and honey.
Some of these sugars might have a slight nutritional leg up from regular white refined sugar, but they’re all high-carb foods that impact your blood sugar and will kick you out of ketosis. Of these, coconut sugar has the lowest impact, but most keto experts still recommend leaving it out.
When it comes to nutritional value, brown sugar is exactly what someone following a low-carb or keto diet should avoid. A quarter cup of unpacked brown sugar contains a total of 137 calories, 35 grams of net carbs (all sugar), zero grams of fat, and zero grams of protein.
Brown sugar wreaks havoc on your blood sugar, glucose, and on ketosis in general.
4 Low-Carb Brown Sugar Substitutes
If you absolutely must have a brown sugar substitute (and you haven’t been able to kick those carb cravings), there are a few options.
Chances are you can find low-carb sugar substitutes in the baking section of your local grocery store or you can even make your own brown sugar at home that fits your keto macronutrients perfectly. The top low-carb brown sugar substitutes include:
- Sukrin Gold Brown Sugar Alternative
- Truvia Brown Sugar Blend
- DIY Brown Sugar Substitute
- Brown Erythritol
Sukrin Gold Brown Sugar Alternative is mainly made up of erythritol, a sugar alcohol that’s a great low-carb substitute for sugar. It also contains malt and a little hint of stevia. Sukrin Gold offers a flavor, aroma, and texture of brown sugar without having any effect on blood sugar.
Along with being low-carb, this brown sugar substitute contains all-natural ingredients, is gluten-free and low-calorie. It’s the perfect brown sugar substitute for recipes. One gram of Sukrin Gold Brown Sugar contains zero calories, zero grams of fat, zero grams of protein and one gram of net carbs.
Try Sukrin Gold when making your own keto barbecue sauce. It will offer the delicious molasses flavor of regular brown sugar without kicking you out of ketosis.
Another store-bought low-carb substitute for brown sugar is Truvia Brown Sugar Blend. This blend is made up of Truvia Natural Sweetener (stevia leaf extract and erythritol), a small amount of regular sugar, and molasses.
While most of the ingredients in Truvia Brown Sugar Blend have no effect on blood sugar, the one gram of sugar per half a teaspoon counts toward your daily carb count. Ideally, you won’t be eating so much Truvia that this will throw you out of ketosis, so just make sure you’re paying attention. In most cases, this amount of sugar is insignificant.
One teaspoon of Truvia Brown Sugar Blend contains a total of 10 calories, zero grams of fat, 4 grams of carbs, and zero grams of protein.
A prepackaged brown sugar substitute can be convenient, but the options don’t stop there. You can make your own low-carb brown sugar substitute at home. If you’re interested in creating your own brown sugar recipe that’s low-carb and keto-friendly, all you need is a few simple ingredients that you’ll likely find online.
These ingredients include:
- One cup of granulated erythritol
- One teaspoon of your favorite maple extract
- One teaspoon of stevia glycerite
Combine all of these ingredients into a food processor and blend thoroughly. While the final ingredient (stevia glycerite) is only optional, it does help maintain the soft texture of regular brown sugar. It also helps kick up the sweetness. This recipe contains zero calories and zero carbs, perfect for a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
Although slightly harder to find, another low-carb substitute for brown sugar is brown erythritol. Brown Erythritol is a prepackaged brown sugar alternative that fits perfectly within the low-carb lifestyle, but you might have to order it online. For a serving of two teaspoons, this low-carb brown sugar sweetener comes to a total of 8 calories, zero grams of fat, zero grams of protein, and zero grams of net carbs.
Easy Brown Sugar Substitutes for Every Recipe
When you’re looking for that perfect low-carb alternative to sugar, these options do the trick. They’re a great addition to your favorite keto ice cream recipe and other low-carb treats but they won’t kick you out of ketosis. So the next time you’re at the grocery store, check out the baking aisle to pick up one of these keto-friendly brown sugar substitutes and enjoy the sweet life — without the sugar.