Syrups, extracts and honey can offer sweetness and color to baked products.

Matchmaking with natural sweeteners
Honey often is referred to as nature’s invert syrup; however, unlike sucrose, its fructose-to-glucose ratio varies. This means its functional properties vary as well. Further, with more than 3,000 varietals of honey worldwide, honey comes in many flavors and colors. This provides bakers the ability to create multiple sensory experiences by varying just one ingredient.

“This all-natural sweetener comes straight from nature: from the bee to the hive to a bakery,” said Catherine Barry, director of marketing, National Honey Board. “Compared to sucrose, honey is slightly sweeter, allowing bakers to achieve a targeted sweetness with less volume.”

But honey offers more than sweetness. The ingredient smooths or masks the flavor profile of functional ingredients that carry off flavors. Honey also caramelizes during baking, adding a golden color to a variety of products.

Like other hygroscopic sweeteners, honey’s fructose retains moisture and keeps baked foods moist. And, unique to honey, its acidity (average pH of 3.91) inhibits mold growth.

Sweeteners work well in bars due to their binding, color and flavor attributes.

Agave nectar is another natural viscous sweetener gaining traction among many bakers. Made from the agave plant, it’s about 1.5 times as sweet as sucrose. Available in a range of colors, the nectar tends to be thinner than honey but thicker than simple syrup.

For hundreds of years, bakers have used malt products made from a variety of cereals, with barley the most common. Many forms are available with malt extract, also called malt syrup, the most commonly used in baked foods. Malt extracts may function as a yeast food, dough conditioner and sweetener while also masking whole grain bitterness, imparting a range of brown shades and improving the nutritional profile of breads.

“Because malt extract is derived from a whole grain, much of the nutrition found in the whole grain flows into the extract,” Mr. Casper explained. “Malt extracts range in color and flavor. They are about half as sweet as sucrose.”

Depending on the temperature employed during the manufacturing process, the ingredient may contain active enzymes known as diastatic malt. It also may be void of active enzymes, also known as non-diastatic malts.

Honey and other natural sweeteners offer a variety of flavorful and functional benefits.

The two behave very differently in baked foods. In yeast bread, for example, the enzymes promote yeast growth, often improving both the flavor and appearance of the bread. The enzymes also create a finer texture and help the bread stay fresh longer. Non-diastatic malt is simply added as a sweetener.

“Diastatic malt will break down damaged starch granules to provide a fermentable sugar,” said Jim Gluhosky, technical services manager, Red Star Yeast. “This is convenient for products that have no added sugars. It will also provide a nice crust color as well as an improved flavor and texture.”

Sometimes bakers do not want a viscous sweetener to contribute color and flavor to a product. In such instances, natural rice and tapioca syrups make sense. These syrups can be colorless, completely clear and have a neutral flavor.

“Oat extract is a light orange-brown colored syrup that provides flavors of caramel, toffee, dates and sweet cereal,” Mr. Casper said. “This material provides humectancy, browning and, depending on use level, can improve the vitamin and mineral content on the Nutrition Facts Label. This extract is about half as sweet as sucrose.”

Bakers who want to differentiate their products may consider matching “like” sweeteners with the same grains in the formula. For example, a soft oatmeal bar could be sweetened using natural oat extract, creating a truly oat-based product. This may also enhance oat flavor without added flavors. Malt extract, for example, can enhance baked goods featuring nuts.

“For every application, instead of thinking about specific materials first, think about your ideal carbohydrate profile,” Mr. Casper said. “Then from there you can find the right combination of materials to deliver that profile and other desired attributes.”