Finally, the conclusion of a guide to sweeteners. To repeat: There is no sweetener that we can consume in vast amounts. None. There are certainly some that are better than others. There are some that even have side benefits. But the take-home message is still “eat sweets in moderation, if you eat them at all.”
According to the U.S. government, Sugar is defined, not by its agricultural origin (i.e. what plant or animal it comes from), but solely by its chemical formula. The formula is C12H22O11. The chemical is called sucrose. And it doesn’t matter whether it comes from sugarcane, sugar beets, some other plant, or a lab it’s all “sugar.” (…and then it gets confusing, because the word “sugar” refers not just to sucrose, but also to a class of compounds called “sugars,” 1 which includes sucrose, plus fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, and many more which are found naturally in sweet foods. This is why you might see an ingredient list that doesn’t include “sugar,” but a Nutrition Facts panel that still lists “sugars.”)
Anyways, to make sugar, sugarcane or sugar beets are first juiced. Mineral lime (a calcium compound) is added to neutralize acidity, while crude impurities sink to the bottom and are removed. The moisture is evaporated, and the sugar crystallized. At this stage, you have “raw sugar.”
Of course most sugar isn’t raw; it’s white. To make white sugar, the sugar syrup is run through a centrifuge before it’s crystallized, which separates out the “impurities” (a.k.a. the “nutrients.”)
Those impurities are what we call molasses. More about molasses later.
At this stage, other substances are added, which draw additional “impurities” out of the sugar. (These substances are harmless, however simple mineral derivatives). Activated charcoal is then added to remove any other traces of anything that isn’t white. This can be a problem for strict vegetarians, since the charcoal is often, but not always, derived from animal bones. There are additional rounds of centrifugation and crystallization, until finally you are left with something that is 99.99% pure chemical sucrose. Voila! just what the doctor ordered.
So how bad is sugar anyways? Some people claim it’s nutritional disaster; others, that’s it’s a healthy sweetener “from nature.”
As far as I’m concerned, here’s the bottom line: there’s nothing at all healthy about it (unless you’re starving, and just need the calories), but nothing horrifically unhealthy either. Sugar consists of pure empty calories, without a trace of any vitamin or mineral or any other nutrient to help metabolize the empty calories; and no fiber, protein, or fat to slow down the rush of those empty calories into the bloodstream.
A pinch of sugar as part of a large, complex, nutritionally dense meal, is no great tragedy. Neither is a small serving of dessert after a large, complex, nutritionally dense meal.
Large amounts of sugar, on the other hand, or sugar without nutrient-dense food to “weigh it down,” will throw you out of whack big-time. It’ll get your blood sugar fluctuating, which increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, leads to weight gain, creates hyperactivity followed by fatigue and crankiness, and is handled by the endocrine system as a form of stress, suppressing immunity as well. Sugar misused and overused is one of the worst things about the standard American diet. But it’s still not toxic.
Anyways, there are different kinds of sugar, and sugar derivatives, so let’s go over them briefly:
is what’s left from the sugarcane after refining chemically pure sucrose. Barbados, or light molasses is what’s left after the first extraction of sucrose, and is still mostly sugar. Dark molasses is from the second pressing, and has a higher mineral content (and less sugar). Blackstrap molasses is from the third and final pressing, and is only 70% sugar by dry weight. The rest is fiber, minerals (particularly iron, calcium, magnesium, and manganese) and other beneficial nutrients.
Molasses has a strong, almost bitter flavor that some of us love. And then there are those of us who love it, but don’t realize we do: when Debra changed the name of her Stark Sisters Nutty Maple Molasses granola to simply Nutty Maple it went from being her worst seller to her best even though the recipe didn’t change.
There are a million-and-one recipes for molasses, but if you want to try something weird (and sort of good, actually), try it instead of sugar in your coffee.
Demerara sugar, muscovado sugar, Barbados sugar, etc. are all different types of raw sugar.
Turbinado sugar is a type of raw sugar that’s spun thru a turbine (hence the name) while being dried, which removes a significant portion of the molasses, making this raw sugar more white than most.
Brown sugar is white sugar, with molasses added back in. Dark brown has more molasses; light brown has less. It’s stilly mostly sugar (97% versus 99% sugar) however.
Crystallized cane juice is just a fancy way of saying “light brown sugar.”
Confectioner’s sugar is just white sugar, finely powdered.
Sugar alcohols get their name because, to a chemist, concerned with the chemical structure of compounds, they’re both sugars and alcohols. To a nutritionist, on the other hand, concerned with what compounds actually do in the body, they’re not really either. Sugar alcohols are only partially digested, meaning they provide fewer calories and a more blunted glycemic spike than sugar. They also don’t feed oral bacteria, so they won’t promote cavities. Sugar alcohols are very popular in mouthwash, toothpaste, and sugar-free chewing gum.
And to a chef (or, let’s be honest here more likely a food scientist), sugar alcohols can substitute for sugar sort of. Sugar alcohols range from between half as sweet as sugar (mannitol, sorbitol) to over ¾ as sweet (erythritol), to every bit as sweet (xylitol). They absorb water and melt about the same as sugar, so they adapt well to existing recipes.
Sugar alcohols (like other carbohydrates that are poorly absorbed) may be fermented by gut bacteria, leading to gassiness, bloating, and occasionally loose stools. This will vary based on
the individual, on the type of sugar alcohol used, and most importantly, on the dose: a hard candy or two is unlikely to cause problems in all but the most sensitive individuals.
One sugar alcohol of especial note is xylitol, or “birch sugar” because it’s found in birch trees. Not only can xylitol replace sugar 1:1 in recipes, but it effectively fights tooth decay, feeds the healthy
bacteria that line the gut, and in a number of studies with xylitol-sweetened chewing gum, reduces the incidence of ear and sinus infections in school-age children.
The Yacon tuber, native to the Andes, looks like a hairy-yet-juicy sweet potato. At least that’s what it looks like in the photos; I’ve never seen one fresh. What I have seen are dried yacon slices, which are chewy and sweet, and yacon syrup, the squeezed, concentrated juice of the tuber.
On paper, it looks like the sweetener to end all sweeteners: very low-glycemic, hypo-allergenic, packed with prebiotic fiber that feeds our healthy gut bacteria, unprocessed and raw. In the real world… well, it tastes like a cross between maple and molasses and apricots and caramel, and not necessarily in a good way. And it’s not very sweet, either.