Do you remember the first time you tasted sugar? Most likely, not; because you were a (brand new!) little baby. That’s right, you first tasted sugar, in mother’s milk. And since then, your brain got programmed to want more and more…and some more! Nature set us up that way. The liking for sweetness is what kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors away from the bitter, poisonous fruits and vegetables. It kept them alive. Since the energizing (sugary) foods, were hard to come by for them, their brains evolved a way to reward them, each time they ate something sweet, leaving them wanting for more. Leaving US wanting for more!
Centuries ago, sugar was a luxury only consumed by the elite and only for dessert. However today (thanks to its mass production and its omnipresence in processed foods), not only does everyone eat sugar everyday, but we have developed a new set of ailments because of the unhealthful amounts of it in our food. We have so many choices of sugar, that it takes up more than half the “Baking Supplies” aisle in grocery stores. And that’s excluding honey and other ‘breakfast’ syrups. Certain types claim health benefits while others only entice your sweet tooth. For me, buying sugar sometimes turns into a Google Search marathon. So I decided to do some solid research and break down the basic sugars and sweeteners for confused souls, who find pleasure in getting to know their food.. like myself!
(Not that I don’t enjoy spending hours at the supermarket, trying to figure out which sugar is worth getting Hyperglycemic for.. Coz I do!)
How is sugar made?
Sucrose is produced in plants, as a result of photosynthesis. For sugar production however, sugarcanes -8 to 10 ft tall stalk like tropical plants- are widely used. When they reach their prime ripeness, they are chopped down and crushed to squeeze out all their juice. This sugarcane juice is clarified with lime. Heating it under partial vacuum (to lower the boiling point), gives a thick, dark brown colored liquid that is concentrated with impurities and dissolved sugar. As more and more water evaporates (with continued heating), the dissolved sugar begins to crystallize. Like salad in a salad spinner, the brown mixture is spun in a centrifuge. This flings all the liquid out, leaving brown sugar crystals concentrated with various yeasts, soil fibers, minerals and other impurities- This is the real Raw Sugar. The FDA deems it unfit for consumption. So naturally, it needs further refinement. This is why, any sugar at the supermarket that claims to be raw, is.. well, not!
Beet Sugar– While sugarcane is only produced in tropical regions, there is another source of white sugar that can be grown in colder/temperate regions called Sugar Beets. These stubby, white colored beets provide more than half of all the granulated sugar available in America. If a sugar label does not specify that it is ‘100% Pure Cane Sugar’, it is probably beet sugar, or a combination of both.
Shades of Brown
Raw sugar is now sent from the sugar mill, to a refinery to get rid of it’s undesirable components. There, it is washed, dissolved in water, boiled under pressure, crystallized and spun in a centrifuge, like before. The crystals formed this time have no impurities, just molasses and a very tiny amount of minerals stuck to them, making them edible. This is Turbinado Sugar. The same process repeated a second time yields Brown Sugar (Light and Dark Brown sugars are degrees of refinement that depend on the amount of water added and the degree of molasses present in the sugar). Many times, brown sugar is made by spraying molasses on ordinary white sugar, resulting in the same product that a traditional method would yield. And finally, a third round of refining gives us White cane Sugar.
So these are the basic kinds. Let’s move on to other (not basic) varieties that are generally the same sugars under a different name. Like,
Demerara Sugar is a minimally refined sugar (just like Turbinado) with larger crystals. The name comes from the former Dutch colony of Demerara which is now a part of Guyana, on the north coast of South America. However, labelling a sugar ‘Demerara’ does not say much about its source, since it is NOT a Protected Designation of Origin. Most of the Demerara sugar found in supermarkets, is made from sugarcane plantations on the volcanic soil of Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.
Muscovado Sugar- The name ‘Muscovado’ is borrowed from the Spanish language (‘mascabado’ in Spanish means unrefined/natural). Since there is no legal definition of this label, manufacturers are free to use it loosely to describe any partially refined sugar with retained molasses- any brown colored sugar.
Jaggery was first sugar ever made by human kind (350 AD, in India). It is like Turbinado sugar but with a small detail (temperature) in its preparation, changed. For jaggery, sugar cane juice is boiled down in open containers (as opposed to partial vacuum), so it’s boiling point stays high. This causes the sugars to caramelize at a higher temperature and evolve more complex, fudge like flavors. A higher temperature also breaks down some of the sucrose into glucose and fructose, making jaggery sweeter than plain sugar (sucrose). It is then pressed in the form of blocks, for sale.
Coconut, Palm and other ‘It’ sugars
Like sugarcane, many other plants store sucrose in their trunks/stalks and some manufacturers use juices from these plants to make sugar. False advertising has led many of us to believe that these somehow, are healthy sugars and that it is okay to consume generous portions of them. However, like any other partially refined sugar, it is sucrose, along with a small amount of molasses and minerals stuck to it. The belief that it is healthy because of the tiny amount of nutrients in it, has no basis. You’d have to consume truly unhealthful amounts of this sugar, to reach your minimum daily requirement of those nutrients. And they are nothing you won’t get from other truly healthy sources.
Molasses is the brown sweet, earthy liquid that is left behind with each of the 3 stages of refining/crystallization. Molasses from the first crystallization is light brown in color and has a sweet, subtle flavor. It is generally used as table syrup. The second crystallization yields a syrup, that is darker and robust. it is used in cooking. Molasses from the third crystallization is called ‘blackstrap’, it is dark/black colored bitter liquid. A by-product of the sugar industry (molasses), is a basis for the Rum industry. Rum is made by ageing the distillate of fermented molasses.
Maple Syrup- Originating in North America, Maple syrup is made by tapping the trunk of a maple tree to collect its sap. It is then boiled down to concentrate its sugars. It is graded A for the lightly flavored, less concentrated syrups. Grades B & C are more concentrated and have a strong caramel flavor, generally used in cooking.
Corn Syrup is made by breaking down the starch in corn kernels with enzymes into glucose, maltose (a unit of 2 glucose molecules) and other polysaccharides(a chain of several glucose molecules). Polysaccharides cause the syrup to be thick. Maltose and Glucose are not as sweet as sucrose is, so corn syrup does not taste as sweet as cane sugar does. So, in order to sweeten soft drinks, another enzyme is introduced, that converts glucose into fructose, which is about 30% sweeter than sucrose. This makes it a “High Fructose Corn Syrup”. Cane and beet sugar production is more expensive than corn, making it an easy choice for American soft drink manufacturers.
Aspartame is a sweetener about 100-200 times sweeter than sucrose. It is found in NutraSweet and Equal. Made with 2 proteins (aspartic acid and phenylalanine), it has the same amount of calories as sugar, but since it is sweeter, a small amount is enough. A genetic disease (Phenylketonuria-PKU) causes the body to not be able to produce the enzyme required to digest Phenylalanine. 1 in 16,000 people have this condition. So, Aspartame sweeteners must always carry a warning on their label -“Phenylketonuric: Contains Phenylalanine”.
Saccharin, a sweetener found in Sweet’n Low is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. It has been banned on and off, due to the studies that found saccharin responsible for bladder cancer in rats. However, it has never been proved to be a carcinogen to humans.
Acesulfame K, 130-200 times sweeter than sucrose, is the main ingredient in Sweet One and Sunnet. It sometimes gets a bad rep because of its chemical similarity to Saccharin.
Sucralose, more popular as Splenda, is a chlorinated derivative of sucrose and is up to 600 times sweeter.
Sugar Alcohols (Sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol, lactitol, any name with suffix -itol) are natural sweeteners, found in small quantities in many fruits and plants. A small change at the molecular level of ordinary sugars makes our body use them differently, causing a slower increase in sugar levels (as opposed to the sudden increase caused by sucrose) and dropping its caloric intake to 50-75%. Sugar alcohols have a property of retaining water and are not fully digested by our bodies. This causes digestion problems such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhea (yikes!).
Agave Syrup- Derived from the Agave plant in Southern Mexico, it is generally used as a vegan alternative to honey. The syrup is produced from the sap of various species of Agave. The sugars in this syrup are 70% Fructose and 20% Glucose, making it sweeter than regular sugar. Agave syrups are sold in light, amber and dark varieties. Agave is known more for its distilled product- Tequila.
Stevia is a small shrub that bears sweet leaves. All sweeteners available as stevia in the supermarkets, are made using the extract of these leaves. It has been used in Brazil, Paraguay and Japan as a sweetener for years. After some studies that showed it might be carcinogenic, stevia was banned by US FDA in 1991. However after additional studies, the FDA approved (in 2008) specific glycoside extracts as food additives. The active compounds of stevia –steviol glycoside (stevioside and rebaudioside)- are 150 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose) and have a negligible effect on blood glucose. All sweeteners marketed as stevia (Truvia, Purevia) are generally made mainly with Erythritol (a corn based genetically modified sugar alcohol), Rebiana (extracted from Stevia, is used in a very small amount) and Natural flavorings (the term ‘natural’ is not regulated by the FDA).
For some years now, there has been an ongoing ‘war’ against plain sugar in the health community. So, many manufacturers introduce so-called ‘healthy’ alternatives (and will continue to do so in future). Since many of these alternatives have not been fully studied and some of them have long-term side effects (that we haven’t had the time to test), it is wise to stick to the ‘devil’ we know (plain ol’ sugar!) and bring healthy changes to our diets and lifestyle, instead of giving-in to unchecked fads and food trends.
So that’s most of the sugars found in Supermarkets. If you came here hoping to read about these sugars and sweeteners, as they relate to cooking & well being, it is a subject that requires more research and deserves a dedicated blog. So, I suggest you hit the ‘Follow’ button, coz it is coming soon!
‘till then, know what you eat & eat what you know!