Sugar has withstood much slander of late, and I am tempted to defend it in some sense. Yes, sugar is problematic in the human diet, but not solely because of its chemical structure. You see, we are abusing it. We are junkies. We are addicts. We are fed sugar under the guise of many splendid culinary treasures and we refuse to acknowledge its presence. Though I hate to place blame, I think it is our species and not the chemical compound that must shoulder the responsibility for failing health.
And so I present, not a defense, but an exploration of sugar. Knowledge is power, information is delicious. Eat. Think. Be Merry.
Sugar is not new. The ancient Persians and Greeks were using it by the 4th century BC, referring to sugarcane as the reeds that produce honey without bees. What is newer, by comparison, is our ability to refine sugar so precisely. That process has opened doors to our bakers and confectioners, and it has caused trouble for our bloodstreams. But before we dive into that history, let us take a quick peek into the chemical side of things.
Sugar, or sucrose, is a disaccharide compound. That means we are actually dealing with two sugars in the white, crystallized table sugar that is ubiquitous in America. Sucrose is a blend of glucose and fructose, two naturally occurring sugars that are essential to life. In fact, those two compounds can be found in nearly every living being plant or animal. Sucrose is a solid, soluble, crystalline carbohydrate. Sweet, huh?
Nearly 80% of the world’s sugar comes from cane plants. The plants grow in warm, tropical climates, and accumulate a thick syrup between the nodes (or joints) of each reed. The process of changing that syrup into the white crystal we know and love determines exactly what kind of sugar you end up with.
Let’s move from lightest to darkest, beginning with the ubiquitous white sugar. White sugar is made by extracting the sap (or syrup) from cane plants, boiling it down, spinning it in a centrifuge, filtering it, and then vacuum crystallizing it under pressure. The centrifuge is the most important part of the process. A centrifuge separates substances of different densities by spinning them at incredibly high speeds. Importantly, in the centrifugal process we are separating sucrose crystals from molasses. Indeed, molasses and water content are mostly to blame for the syrupy texture of the cane harvest.
Next up we have something that looks identical to cane sugar. This is beet sugar! Sometimes sold as a healthy alternative to cane sugar, do not be misled. Beet sugar is chemically the exact same thing. It was developed in the mid 1700s as a way for colder climate countries to enter the sugar trade. It is still grown throughout North America, France, Germany, and Russia. The process is nearly identical to sugarcane. A syrup is extracted, boiled, centrifuged, filtered, and crystallized.
Moving down the line we next encounter Turbinado or Demerara sugar. These, you will note, are light brown in color and the crystals are larger. This is what we call raw sugar, which is quite a misnomer. The sugar is still processed, but not as much as traditional white sugar. It is spun in a centrifuge, but only once and without as much attention to molasses separation. The residual molasses is responsibly for the brown color of this sugar.
Continuing down the line we have Muscovado sugar. Where might that come from? You can see it is significantly darker than the Turbinado sugar. Let’s spin this out etymologically. Muscovado, perhaps of Muscovy? Muscovy was the ancient French word for a region in Russia we now know as Moscow. Seems like a good lead to follow! Unfortunately it is also a red herring. Muscovado sugar has nothing to do with Russia (Russia wasn’t a major producer of sugar until the first harvesting of Sugar Beet in the 1700s).
The word Muscovado is a bastardization of the Spanish Mas Acabar (poorly made, bad finish). Muscovado was, for decades, viewed as an inferior sugar. It was less expensive than the more refined sugars that began to hit shelves and markets in the 1800’s. And what is that bad finish? Well, it is nothing more than sugar that has not been centrifuged. It still goes through boiling and crystalization processes, but because the molasses largely left untouched we have a wetter, darker sugar. Something eerily similar to American brown sugar.
Lest ye be tempted to think brown sugar is just unrefined sugar, I will pull back the curtain on that product as well. Similar in color to Muscovado sugar, brown sugar is actually refined white sugar mixed with molasses. Yes, the sugar is separated from molasses, filtered, crystallized, then mixed back in with molasses. This maintains a fine grain in the final sugar product, something that is commercially desired though practically ridiculous.
Now we move into the molded sugars. These are sugars that are so unrefined that they must be poured into molds and allowed to set. Many countries around the world produce products of this sort, and your preference will depend on how grainy and molasses-y you like your sugar. For a darker, grainier sugar, use panela or piloncillo from Cental and Latin America, known as rapadura in Portuguese. If we head to India we have jaggery in multiple forms. Jaggery is lighter in color and finer in texture, it is sold in bricks and balls. In China unrefined cane sugar is sold in multiple forms as well, mostly in bricks of dark, fine sugars.
Perhaps the most popular (currently) molded sugar is palm sugar. An ingredient popular throughout Southeast Asia, this sugar is made by tapping palm trees and boiling their sap. The thickened sap is then poured into molds and used in dishes both sweet and savory. Palm sugar is soft, fine, and light in color. It is also known as coconut sugar, there is no difference in the products. In the last few years granulated coconut/palm sugar has started appearing on shelves as well. This is a natural product that is subjected to refining processes similar to those used in cane sugar production. The sugars are boiled, then desiccated, and finally granulated, before being packaged. The finished product is dark and caramelly, a result of the heat applied in the drying process.
Maple sugar has been popular in North America for centuries, though its price tag is prohibitive for many bakers. It is expensive because it is rare (as we know with the price of maple syrup). Similar to coconut sugar, the trees are tapped, then the sap is boiled, and finally dried and granulated. It is light in color and has a strong maple flavor (no surprise there).
Date sugar is a staple of health-food stores, but is also the least sugar-like substance in the bunch. Until now we have been discussing soluble products, every sugar explored so far will dissolve in water. Date sugar is not soluble. It is, in fact, just dried and ground up dates (often processed with oat flour or something similar to help maintain the desiccation). As such, it will sweeten your food, but it will never disappear into the batter (so to speak).
The slings and arrows suffered by processed sugar are a result of the glycemic index. This index measures the amount of carbohydrate (anything ending in -ose) present in a product and indicates how quickly an item is likely to spike your blood sugar level. The higher the number on the index, the more quickly said sugar enters your bloodstream. In general, the more processed a sugar, the higher its glycemic value. Sucrose (white sugar) is rated at 65. Its individual components are significantly different: pure glucose is rated at 100 and pure fructose is valued at 25.
The less refined a sugar is, the more vitamins and minerals are present in the final product. These extra chemical compounds account, partly, for the slower absorption into your bloodstream. Maple syrup receives a 54, cane juice is rated at 43, and coconut sugar is valued at 35. Of course, you will note that sugar products not processed from the cane plant are less likely to have a high glycemic index value. Cane sugar presents us with a unique product, chemically potent and devoid of many other buffering compounds. It means we can do extraordinary things in the kitchen, it also means we must beware its potential.
As with most food on my plate, the less refined the better. I personally love coconut sugar in little pucks for melting into sauces and bubbling into caramels, but I also have a fondness for the wide range of unprocessed cane sugars. Piloncillo and jaggery are both present in my kitchen, as is their Chinese sibling. These sugars carry with them flavor and color, something we avoid in commercial and artistic baking (white sugar is a perfect carrier for colors and other flavors). Learn these ancient sugars, bring them into your kitchen. Cook with them. Eat. Think. Be Merry.