When sugar was scarce during WWII, our grandparents turned to other sweeteners to satisfy their sweet tooth. What were these sweeteners and how did they use them? We examine ads, cookbooks, and recipes to find out.
Sugar was the first food item to be rationed in the United States during WWII on May 4, 1942. Ration Book One was issued to Americans – one to every member of the household – in order for everyone to receive a fair share of sugar.
Extra allowances were made for canning fruits, which housewives could apply for separately, but there was a limit to that too. Sugar was needed everywhere – to feed the troops, for Lend/Lease agreements, and for restaurants, bakeries, and candy makers. Most importantly, because it was during war, a large amount of sugar was needed to produce alcohol for use in explosives.
Additionally, sugar producing countries were hugely impacted by the war which greatly reduced the world’s stock of sugar. Everyone wanted sugar, but there just wasn’t enough to go around.
I go into great detail about this aspect of American rationing in my 2nd podcast episode: The Great Sugar Shuffle. You can listen to it HERE. For more resources you can read the accompanying blog post.
Americans had a huge sweet tooth, so what could satisfy their sugar cravings and why was it so important? They knew during WWII that maintaining a sense of normalcy, including comforting desserts, was important for keeping up morale not just for the soldiers, but for the civilians as well. So every effort was made to keep the desserts coming. That meant cookbooks were published with recipes lessening the use of sugar in recipes, using clever ways to stretch it, or subbing in other sweeteners to take the place of precious sugar.
It’s important to note that newspaper articles, magazines, and commercial food companies played a huge role in this campaign as well.
Americans received 1/2 a pound per person per week at first, but this fluctuated as the war went on. The sugar shortage continued even after the war ended in 1945 as war-torn countries struggled to rebuild their broken industries and crop yields came up to scratch. Sugar wasn’t removed from rationing in the United States until June 1947 when they had a bumper crop of sugar beets to finally fill the sugar need. In the meantime, to make do, they had to fill in the gaps with other sweeteners.
Swapping out a new sweetener for sugar wasn’t very straightforward. One wartime cookbook (250 Ways to Save Sugar Cook Book, 1942) laid it all out very clearly:
“The natural sugars are, of course, the best alternatives for cane or beet sugar – honey, maple sugar and sorghum when available are the first for use. Brown sugar, too, as long as it can be obtained, is a favorite. Molasses and corn sirup [sic] are old friends but need special handling. Recipes will need to be followed carefully. When substituting for sugar, as a sweetening agent honey can be substituted equally but corn sirup [sic] is only about one-half as sweet and needs to be nearly doubled. It might also be worth trying to use slightly less sweetening in custards, puddings and other desserts. Often they will be just as popular with less.”
American’s baking was so engrained with white sugar, it’s interesting to see how they had to mold and adapt to make allowances for the change. Below I talk more in depth about these various sugar replacements and include a recipe from wartime for each one so you can see how it was used!
Honey is a popular sweetener, something we think as close to nature, and it was a common sugar substitute during the war too. Bees had no idea that they were working hard for the war effort. Their honey not only helped with the sugar shortage, but the beeswax they made was used in multiple military applications.
The liquid nature of honey does affect its function in baked goods, so it can’t be substituted 1:1 with white sugar. It also causes things to brown faster, so this makes it more fickle too.
From the booklet pictured above, Old Honey Recipes, it gives the following tip for substituting honey for sugar in your favorite cake or cookie recipe: “A general rule is to reduce the liquid one-fourth cup for each cup of honey used and to have the flour measurement scant.” (Scant meaning a little less than a full measure.)
It goes on to say that cakes with chocolate or dried fruits like raisins or dates don’t need reduced liquids because of the absorption qualities of the chocolate and dried fruits. And in other types of cakes, the best results come when you only replace one-third to one-half of the sugar with honey instead of all of it. A good example of using honey more as a sugar stretcher is in these recipes below for “Super Delicious Chocolate Cake” and “French Honey-Chocolate Frosting”.
Brown sugar was rationed just like white sugar. It wasn’t as versatile as white sugar due to its molasses content, so it wasn’t as popular in recipes. For instance, it couldn’t be used for canning, and because of the molasses, it didn’t have the more pure, neutral taste of white sugar. It was still great for baking and occasionally, I come across wartime recipes that call for it.
While digging through some newspapers online, I was able to find this fascinating recipe in Polly Patterson’s column where she shares a recipe with brown sugar as the star of the show. It uses a whopping 1 cup of brown sugar! The dessert’s sweetness is also aided by the addition of raisins.
The recipe was written in a conversational long form style, so I condensed it down into this recipe card for you. Note that no rising agent is used in the recipe, so this is great as an egg-less recipe and could easily be adapted to being vegan by changing out the type of milk.
There are some really fun maple-based recipes from wartime! You can read about some of them in a vintage autumn recipe series I did on my history blog, History: Preserved, where all the recipes were maple-themed.
Maple sweetening came in various forms. There were the big two: maple syrup and maple sugar. There was maple-flavored sugar syrup, maple syrup/sugar blends, and then there was Mapleine which was its own thing. Mapleine was a strong maple flavoring which was used in cooking and baking and in making the famous Mapeline syrup which had a variety of its own recipes. I’ve tried a couple of these recipes and they are a tasty, economical substitute for maple syrup. In fact, they taste almost identical to today’s modern pancake syrup!
Wartime recipes usually call for maple sugar or maple syrup. Maple sugar is most favored, I find, probably because it’s in a dry form. With maple syrup you have to account for it being a liquid and change liquids in the recipe. Maple flavored syrup was used as a topping for pancakes and waffles, etc. And like I mentioned before, Mapleine was a thing unto itself. I could do a whole post on Mapleline!
This Maple-Sugar Graham Cracker recipe is so good and super simple to make. Kids would have fun making this too! I liked using pecans and almonds instead of walnuts.
I lump molasses and sorghum together because they taste and look very similar, even if they are made from different plants. Molasses is made from sugar cane while sorghum is made from the cane of the sorghum plant. Food and Wine gives a fascinating history of the use of both molasses and sorghum in America and how the plants arrived here. I also found this instructive video by Sandhill Farm on how they produce their sorghum syrup.
Molasses has a deeper, darker flavor while sorghum is a little lighter, a little tangier, but still has those rich undertones that remind you of molasses. They’re both thick syrups and are great for use in baking. I haven’t found many wartime recipes that call for sorghum, though I imagine it was in local/regional cookbooks and newspaper column recipes. Molasses was much more common and is easier to find today. So, I thought I’d share this wartime recipe using a unique, vintage pairing of molasses and lemon.
Corn syrup tends to get a bad wrap these days, but it’s been around for a long time. The process for making corn syrup by converting corn starch into a syrup was created by a Russian chemist of German origin, Gottlieb Kirschhoff, in 1811! High fructose corn syrup is a more modern invention and sometimes gets confused with regular ol’ corn syrup. It’s a completely different product and isn’t found on grocery store shelves. It’s sweeter and more concentrated, and it’s made by a different process. So, when a candy or wartime recipe calls for corn syrup, you can know there’s a difference.
In wartime cookbooks and recipes, corn syrup is one of the most popular sweeteners and replacements for white sugar. The interesting thing is that it’s one of the less sweet sugar alternatives. So when replacing sugar with corn syrup, the final product won’t taste as sweet. Not even close. Recipes that call for corn syrup alone barely register on our modern sweet taste buds. In 250 Ways to Save Sugar Cook Book, they say that corn syrup is half as sweet as sugar, so 2 cups should be used in place of 1 cup sugar. It was better when corn syrup was helped along by another sweetener or used as a white sugar stretcher like in the recipe below.
Sweetened condensed milk is an almost “magical” ingredient. It’s thick, creamy, and comes already sweetened. All of these qualities lent themselves really well to wartime baking. And even though this product was processed, it wasn’t rationed, which made it the perfect pantry staple for housewives.
Sweetened condensed milk could be used for everything from salad dressings to ice cream and made recipes quick and easy. Boil it for a few hours in water and it transformed into a caramel! It even had an “indefinite shelf life” as touted by the Borden company. It really was, and still is, a pretty amazing product.
One way to save on sugar and make use of dry, days old cake or cookies would be to repurpose them into a new dessert. These recipes aren’t as common in wartime cookbooks, but they do come up occasionally. I tried the recipe below for Crumb Pudding using spice cake crumbs that I left overnight to dry out. It made the most incredible dessert ever and paired perfectly with some canned English custard I happened to have on hand. Note the use of either honey or sugar in the recipe. (Try experimenting with different types of cake. I think chocolate cake would be incredible!)
Dried fruits weren’t typically used to exclusively sweeten recipes, but they were huge helpers in reducing needed sugar. Dried fruits have concentrated fruit sugars which go a long way in baked goods and desserts, satisfying the sweet tooth without needing much sugar to help them. Popular dried fruits in the 1940s were raisins, dates, prunes, apricots, figs, and currants, with the most popular being raisins, dates, and prunes.
The recipes below star dried fruit without the use of any sugar! It’s from a government pamphlet that came out right at the dawn of American sugar rationing in May 1942. For the Dried-Fruit Sandwich I’ve also seen a variation using cream cheese.
This category sounds very specific, and it is! Wartime recipe makers and food product companies were very clever in using the sugar that was already sitting on grocery store shelves while touting their products at the same time. These products included:
Food companies were already allocated sugar to make their products, so why not find more ways to get these desserts to American tables and save them sugar points?
The recipe below for Peach Gingerbread Shortcake is a great example of using one of these ready-made gingerbread mixes in a clever way to create a fantastic dessert without using sugar. Much better than just plain gingerbread! The vanilla ice cream would probably have been purchased, which was also not rationed. Ice creameries had their own headaches which I explain in my Ice Cream Goes to War podcast episode.
This category is similar to the last one, but with its own distinction of being finished, processed foods. These products included:
In 250 Ways to Save Sugar Cook Book it gives some great ideas and advice about finished processed foods: “These, many times, will save the day as well as sugar. Besides their use in food preparation these products will lend themselves to numberless uses where sugar was previously called for. Lemon drops in hot or iced tea; cinnamon drops or balls for coffee and for sweetening cooked apples whether baked, coddled or made into sauce; peppermint candies for pears, ice cream or sherbets; cream patties, when you can get them, for frostings. The imaginative budgeteer will find endless uses for these and protect her sugar ration at every point.”
Using jam or jellies was a popular (and more “patriotic”) way to frost or fill cakes. Bar candies were added to cookies for a delicious twist and to save on sugar. Fruit butters made a great filling for cookies. Marshmallows were added to desserts, salads, and made into “puffed rice cereal candy” or what is commonly known today as “Rice Krispie Treats” coined by the Kellogg’s Company. (The cereal icons Snap, Crackle, and Pop were known in the 1940s too!)
Many cookbooks encouraged homemakers to save the syrup from canned fruits to use for other dessert uses. Heaven forbid you throw that free sugar down the drain! A fascinating way of using fruit juices or canned fruit juices was to replace the liquid in the recipe with the fruit juice and omit or reduce the sugar.
There really were countless ways to use these products, and I run into ads in wartime magazines all the time. Companies were always sharing ideas of how to use their products to save on sugar, recipes included. It’s a treasure trove out there – you just need to hunt for them!
Below is a yummy cookie recipe I’ve tried for Baby Ruth Cookies from 1942 as featured in the McCall’s ad at the top of this category. You need to chop that candy bar into really tiny pieces or they melt right out of the cookies and make a mess. They still taste good no matter what they look like though! Take note that these cookies are “snack cookies” and are very tiny. The dough is scooped out by the 1/2 teaspoonful. The recipe makes 75!
I gathered these wartime sugar saving tips from various wartime cookbooks and pamphlets in my collection: Baking on Your Sugar Ration, 250 Ways to Save Sugar Cook Book, 300 Fascinating Desserts, and Betty Crocker’s Your Share booklet.
Finally, I wanted to share with you one of my all-time favorite wartime recipes using sugar replacements: Nestle’s Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies…without sugar. (Plus a bonus side recipe for Brownies made with honey!) This cookie recipe uses only honey and maple syrup! Note, once again, these are “snack cookies”. The recipe makes 100 very tiny cookies. I recommend buying mini chocolate chips for maximum chip distribution.
You might be thinking, I’ll just make the cookies bigger. Nope, don’t do it. The liquid from the honey and maple syrup make this cookie dough on the thinner side and they spread out. They bake quickly too. Putting them on parchment paper to bake also helps save your sanity. And using a mini silicone spatula to move them to a cooling rack comes in handy.
All that effort is so worth it, though! I love these little guys. They could almost be a cereal. Just put a handful in a bowl with a healthy splash of milk. I won’t tell…
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about American wartime sugar substitutes. You now have a plethora of recipes to experiment with, so I hope you go forth and have fun in the kitchen!
**Did you enjoy this post? Please comment and share! I put many, many hours into this special topic, pulling images and research from my wartime cookbook collection. If you do share, please cite my webpage and please ask for permission before using any images. Thank you!
Wow! This is a fantastic resource. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.
You’re welcome! Thank you for reading!
I can tell you’ve spent time researching. A great blog.
Thank you so much!