How to reduce sugar in muffins: the 50 percent solution

Many of us enjoy a sweet treat for breakfast. Example: a warm blueberry muffin, straight from the oven, its crackly sugar top the perfect complement to the moist berries and tender cake underneath. Heaven! But with sugar acquiring an increasingly bad nutritional rep, many of us want to know how to reduce sugar in muffins — and quick breads (think banana bread), as well.

Can you just cut the sugar in your muffin recipe in half? Or leave out a couple of tablespoons?

For best results, no. Neither solution takes into account the wide range of muffin recipes out there, ranging from barely sweet to over the top. Reducing sugar by 50 percent in a recipe that’s already lower in sugar will leave you with a tasteless “treat;” and omitting just 2 tablespoons sugar from a recipe that starts with 3/4 cup isn’t making a significant difference, calorie-wise.

What's the best way to reduce sugar in muffins? The answer is simple (arithmetic). Click To Tweet

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

I recently tested a few muffin recipes using baker’s percentage (baker’s math), a simple way to both scale recipes up and down, and to adjust the balance of ingredients within a recipe.

Using this method, the weight of the flour is 100%; and other ingredient amounts are shown as a percentage of that, by weight. Don’t like arithmetic? Bear with me; this is easy, I promise.

Here’s an example: If you’re making a batch of muffins using 2 cups (8 ounces) whole wheat flour, and you’re adding 3 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) brown sugar, then your sugar level is 44 percent (3 1/2 ÷ 8 = .44; i.e., 3 1/2 is 44 percent of 8).

I decide to take three muffin recipes, assess the initial sugar level of each as the control, then test each recipe four ways: with sugar levels of 25, 50, 75, and 100 percent.

Test 1: Reducing sugar in basic muffins

Let’s start with our King Arthur Flour Basic Muffins. Seems like a good choice, right?

I toggle to the grams display, to make it easy to determine the muffins’ current sugar level. I’m using unbleached all-purpose flour, so that would be 100g sugar ÷ 240g flour = 42 percent.

I make the muffin batter without sugar, then divide it into four bowls. To one bowl of batter I add enough sugar to equal 25 percent of the flour weight. To another I add 50 percent sugar; the third gets 75 percent, and the final bowl gets enough sugar to total 100 percent of the flour weight.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

I scoop the four batches of batter into a muffin pan. The lowest-sugar muffins (25 percent sugar) are the vertical three on the far left; the 50 percent sugar version is next to them, etc.

I notice the lowest-sugar muffins don’t fill the cups as fully. What other differences will there be?

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

Once baked, the lowest-sugar muffins aren’t as brown. Which makes sense: sugar promotes browning. All of the other muffins brown nicely.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

The lowest-sugar muffins rise unevenly. The rest rise evenly, with each increase in sugar producing an increase in overall volume of the muffin.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

Texture-wise, the lowest-sugar muffins (upper left) show some tunneling. They feel a bit rubbery to the bite, and they’re definitely drier.

The remaining three muffins — 50, 75, and 100 percent — are remarkably similar, texture-wise: they’re moist and tender, with a medium grain.

And what about flavor? The lowest-sugar muffins taste similar to Northern-style cornbread: a touch of sweetness, but nothing you’d call a “sweet treat.”

The 50-percent sugar muffins are mildly sweet, and offer a hint of butter and vanilla, with some nuttiness from the flour. At higher percentages of sugar, sweetness tends to overwhelm these other more subtle flavors.

Now remember, the original recipe calls for 42 percent sugar, which seems pretty low. Why is that?

Because the recipe was developed to include add-ins: chocolate or cinnamon chips, dried fruit or fresh berries, a sprinkle of sugar on top … all of which add to the muffins’ overall sweetness.

Test 2: Reducing sugar in muffins with fruit

What about muffins with a higher degree of sweetness — and added fruit to boot? Our Famous Department Store Blueberry Muffins are jam-packed with sweet berries, and their sugar level ranges from 82 percent in the batter …

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

… to a whopping 103 percent if you add the sugar topping.

Let’s see what happens when we bake these muffins using four different sugar levels.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

The 25-percent sugar muffins are, once again, slightly dry and rubbery. And again, I find myself choosing the 50-percent muffin (no sugar on top), which really accents the flavor of the blueberries. If I decide to go for a sweeter treat sometime, I’ll add the sugar topping rather than add sugar to the muffin itself.

Test 3: Reducing sugar in chocolate muffins

What happens when you introduce unsweetened cocoa powder into the equation? Since chocolate itself is bitter, will the 50-percent rule still apply — or will I need to use more sugar?

Our Chocolate Breakfast Muffins recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups brown sugar; my calculations tell me that reducing that amount by about two-thirds, to a scant half cup sugar, will bring me to the 50-percent mark.

Is this going to produce an acceptable muffin?

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

Yes — though the muffins are helped immeasurably by adding chocolate chips to the batter, which offsets the extra bitterness in the chocolate. Without those chips, I think the muffins will be a bit too austere, as far as sweetness goes. As for the sugar on top — not necessary if you use chips, but it does add pleasant crunch and, of course, additional sweetness.

Test 4: Reducing sugar in banana bread

Since muffins and quick breads are interchangeable, batter-wise, I decide to test my 50-percent solution with an old favorite: banana bread.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

This proves a bit more challenging, since our Banana Bread recipe includes four sources of sugar: brown sugar, honey, apricot jam, and the bananas themselves. As you can see, this test takes a bit of figuring!

The original recipe checks in at 109 percent sugar, so I test loaves with 25 percent, 50 percent, and 75 percent sugar. I include the original amounts of bananas and honey in each recipe; leave out the jam, and adjust the brown sugar to reach the desired sugar level.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

The loaves are similar in appearance but again, texture is where I see the biggest difference. Despite the moisture of both honey and bananas in each version, the lowest-sugar version is rather dry. Flavor-wise, I like both the 50 and 75 percent versions; neither is overwhelmingly sweet.

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

Just because, I do one more test using no sugar at all, relying solely on the bananas themselves for sweetness. At left is the no-sugar bread; at right, the full-sugar control (see the rivulet of melted sugar oozing from the top?)

No-added-sugar banana bread is, surprisingly, more than edible — if you’re willing to warm the bread to increase its moisture, and to spread it with a spot of jam.

Are you ready to reduce sugar in muffins?

First, manage your expectations. If you want cake, eat a cupcake. Muffins should be less sweet than cake. And once you taste a muffin with less sugar than a cupcake, you’ll realize what you’ve been missing: the flavor of other ingredients, like butter and cinnamon, fruit and nuts, previously hidden by sugar’s dominant sweetness.

Next, decide what degree of sweetness you’re after. Is barely sweet acceptable to you and your family? Would more sugar go over better? Are you able to strike a successful balance between your family’s sugar intake and their desire for cupcake-like muffins?

Finally, be willing to get over any math anathema. Get out your calculator; this isn’t rocket science. (I can say this because I know several honest-to-God rocket scientists.) Find your favorite muffin recipe. Determine the weight of the flour and the weight of the sugar. If the sugar’s weight is more than half the flour’s weight, reduce the sugar to just 50 percent of the weight of the flour. THERE. You’ve mastered baker’s math — congratulations!

How to Reduce Sugar in Muffins via @kingarthurflour

How to reduce sugar in muffins: key takeaways

  • Reducing sugar in muffins affects not just their sweetness, but their texture and volume.
  • Reducing sugar to 50 percent in muffins that begin with a higher amount of sugar (over 50 percent) will yield muffins with sufficient sweetness; moist, tender texture, and balanced, interesting flavor.
  • Reducing sugar in muffins whose recipe calls for a lower amount of sugar to begin with (50 percent or lower) will yield muffins with bland flavor and increasingly poor (dry, tough) texture.
  • Topping lower-sugar muffins with a sprinkle of sugar adds a nice hit of sweetness in each bite while only raising the sugar level of the muffins slightly.

Practice this method for reducing sugar in muffins, and you’ll soon be treating your family to muffins you can all enjoy — you for their lower sugar content, everyone else for their muffin-y goodness!

Want more information on reducing the sugar in your baking? Read these posts:

How to reduce sugar in cookies and bars
How to reduce sugar in cake
How to reduce sugar in yeast breads
How to reduce sugar in pie

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Deb

    Thank you for this information! I am looking to ways to bake with whole grains and less sugar. Am I understanding correctly — for your (most excellent) whole wheat blueberry muffin recipe (kingarthurflour.com/recipes/100-whole-wheat-blueberry-muffins-recipe) since there are 283 grams of ww flour, I could reduce the brown sugar from 213 to 142 grams and still get good results?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That sounds like a great plan, Deb! And if you find that they aren’t quite as flavorful or tender as you’d like, you can always add a little bit more back the next time you make a batch. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Adrienne

    As a diabetic, I need to know your end result with how
    many grams of the end product. Can you calculate that for us?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Adrienne, since you will be reducing the sugar in your muffins according to your own preferences and tastes, we’re not able to calculate the total grams of sugar in your muffins. Your dietitian should be able to walk you through the process of how to calculate this, however. The nice thing is that, once you settle on your adapted recipe, you already know the amounts and don’t ever have to do the math again. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  3. Deborah Deas

    Thank you! I made a cranberry nut bread, reducing the sugar by an unmeasured amount, just shaking some out of the measuring cup – what could it hurt, and we were eating so much sugar…Now I know WHY that was not a good idea. It absolutely affected the texture and flavor.

    Reply
  4. André Chénier

    Thank you for this information

    I don’t have a kitchen scale and would like the recipe measurements in volume not grams. The button on top of the recipe instruction do not work. Is your recipe in volume measurements available elsewhere ?

    Reply
  5. Mark Lewis

    Loved the article and experimentation on cutting sugar. I’m a diabetic and need to cut my sugar and carb intake so your article was a wonderful read. I’m a male that loved and still do love to eat and bake biscuits bread and muffins but I had to sharply curtail my intake. ☹️ Also I purchased your sourdough starter about 2 years ago and still use the original batch, haven’t used it much lately but still keep it in the refrigerator. My question is how many carbs does sourdough have per cup or oz etc. ?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Mark, the answer depends on how you’re feeding/maintaining your starter, as well as how you’re using the sourdough starter in the recipe. If you’d like to get a complete estimate of the nutritional information of what you’re baking (including any adjustments you might make, like adding sourdough starter), enter the ingredients in the recipe into a free nutritional calculator. We especially like this one from VeryWell and this one from Spark People. We hope that helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Yes, you can use the same amount of our All-Purpose Flour in place of the White Whole Wheat flour in the Banana Pumpkin Bread recipe. You can use just 1 tablespoon of orange juice or water, as you won’t likely need the additional liquid when substituting All-Purpose Flour. (Add it if the dough feels stiff.) Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  6. Heidi

    Is there a way to offset the dryness created by less sugar? Increasing another ingriedient or adding something else? More milk or liquid or using buttermilk or yogurt? An extra egg?

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Heidi, it’s worth a try to increase some of the liquid; I’d recommend adding a up to 2 tablespoons more of yogurt or a fruit or vegetable puree if that works with the flavor of the muffin. Applesauce, pureed prunes, or pumpkin are all worth trying. A muffin is a good place to experiment, because they get a lot of support from the muffin tin and there is less worry about ruining the structure. An extra egg is not as good an idea; they tend to have a drying effect. Let us know how it goes. Susan.

  7. Tessy

    Great article. What I would like to see is, after you add the extra sugar for each group, use the same weight of batter to make the muffins. You added more sugar to each muffin which automatically made each muffin larger, the more sugar it had. I would like to see the baked muffins using the altered sugar amounts but keeping the same weight of batter.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      I see what you’re saying, Tessy, but I honestly don’t think the difference would be noticeable. If you reduce the sugar by 1/2 cup (which is actually a large reduction), you’d reduce the batter for each muffin by just 2 teaspoons. That said, if you do this test yourself, please be sure to come back and share your results, OK? It’s great when we can all learn from one another. Thanks for connecting here — PJH

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