We’re on a bona fide sugar binge in this country. And understanding how sugar behaves in recipes will help you avoid the chances of a baking disaster.
Last month, we talked about flour and all of the many varieties available these days. Similarly, scanning the shelves of the many different sugars (or Lord help us, the Pinterest “clean-eating” recipes) can also be a major headache, as eating less sugar and opting for sugar alternatives is all the health food rage lately.
Considering that our cells depend on sugar for energy, it makes sense that we evolved an innate love for sweetness. How much sugar we consume, however — as well as how it enters the body and where we get it from in the first place — has changed dramatically over time. We add sugar in one form or another to the majority of foods we eat — everything from bread, cereals, crunchy snacks and desserts to soft drinks, juices, salad dressings and sauces — and we are not too stingy about using it to sweeten many raw and whole foods as well.
Here’s a simple guide on sugar, from what processed sugar actually is, to different brown sugar varieties, and finally to sugar alternatives like coconut sugar, agave, and even pure maple syrup or applesauce.
Granulated White Sugar
This is the sugar that can be found in almost every pantry; from cookies to cakes to muffins, granulated white sugar has been the go-to choice for decades. Granulated white sugar is made from the sucrose within two types of plants: sugarcane and sugar beets, with the majority coming from sugarcane. During processing, all raw sugar begins brown in color due to the presence of molasses, but granulated white sugar is the result of a refining process that removes all of the brown molasses.
Now, this is where it can get a little weird. Vegans, pay attention: sometimes the use of “animal bone char” is employed to bleach sugarcane crystals pure white. The resulting granulated white sugar does not retain any of this char in the final product, but it does come into contact with it during processing. But to make it even more confusing, some companies do not use bone char to process their sugarcane sugar, relying instead on other animal product-free methods. Unfortunately, it can be impossible to know which one is which when using a nondescript sugar packet in a coffee shop, or consuming packaged foods with ambiguous ingredients.
But fear not, vegans. The refining process for sugar beet sugar never uses bone char because it does not require the same amount of extensive de-colorization. Sugar beet sugar, however, can act and taste differently during cooking or caramelizing, so be aware. Also important to note, there is no nutritional difference between sugarcane or sugar beet sugar; both should be consumed in moderation, as they have each been refined by some method and are void of any sort of nutritional value.
Powdered sugar is granulated white sugar that has been milled into a powder. Simple enough, huh? It also usually contains trace amounts of anti-caking agents to prevent clumping. Because it is so fine, powdered sugar is ideal when sugar needs to be absorbed into a mixture quickly, like when making a buttercream icing.
Also called superfine or caster sugar, baker’s sugar is very finely ground granulated sugar (but not quite powdered). Baker’s sugar is often used in light and airy baked goods, like angel food cake. It also absorbs more readily into egg whites, making for an excellent meringue.
Sparkling sugar is course white sugar that is extra large in granular size, making it ideal to sprinkle on baked goods like pies or sugar cookies before popping them in the oven. If you can’t find sparkling sugar at the grocery store, local craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s keep it stocked on the baking and cake-decorating aisle.
First off, let’s clear up what “raw” means. In the case of sugar, “raw” does not mean 100 percent unprocessed in the same way uncooked vegetables can be “raw,” or unpasteurized cow’s milk can be “raw.” Legally, sugar cannot actually be sold “raw” because it naturally includes impurities like dirt, insects, molds, and other contaminates that are eliminated during processing. Raw sugar, as it is marketed and sold, is simply sugar that has been partially but not totally refined like its white sugar cousin.
Contrary to popular belief, sugar in the raw is also not necessarily any better for you than refined white sugar (gasp!). Raw sugar does retain some of its original molasses content — meaning it also retains a bit more plant calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium — but the amounts are so negligible that there’s no real health benefit over white sugar. The main difference between raw and white sugar is that because of the molasses presence, raw sugar will have a more caramel-like taste.
Environmentally speaking, however, raw sugar is a better option, as there is less processing involved and therefore less water use and less harmful impact on the environment. There’s also no confusion around whether or not additives like bone char or other dyes and chemicals have been added, which is a huge plus. Raw sugar is also referred to as turbinado sugar, and demerara sugar is also raw sugar but made from sugarcane on an island off the coast of Madagascar, where it is grown in volcanic soil.
Brown Sugar (light and dark)
Not to be confused with raw sugar, brown sugar is often refined white sugar that has the presence of molasses added back in to control the shade, flavor, and texture. The coating of molasses is what makes brown sugar softer and more malleable because molasses is incredibly hygroscopic — meaning it absorbs moisture well (which is also why your brown sugar dries out when you leave the bag open). The molasses added back in will create either light or dark brown sugar, depending on the amount.
Most common recipes call for light brown sugar, but some call for dark. Dark brown sugar will create a richer, more complex flavor, tasting of caramel or toffee. When in doubt reach for the light brown sugar, but the two may be used interchangeably in a pinch.
Many recipes these days are calling for coconut sugar as a substitute for cane sugar, but is it that much better? Nutritionally, the short answer is no, not really; just like regular sugar, it should be eaten in moderation. But ethically and environmentally, the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations has recognized coconut sugar as the most sustainable sweetener grown in the world. The processing method is much more natural, involving only two steps: the liquid sap is collected from a cut made on the flower of a coconut palm, and it is then placed under heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. Sustainability and minimal processing are the main benefits of coconut sugar, but it does also contain a slightly higher nutrient count in minerals like calcium, potassium, and zinc (although not enough to make it leaps and bounds “healthier” than regular sugar).
Agave syrup may not be the miracle sweetener that health gurus once touted it to be. Made from the blue agave plant that grows in Mexico, processing methods involve chemicals, heat, and enzymes to convert aguamiel into agave syrup (though organic varieties include low heat and no chemicals). Though agave is low on the glycemic index, it is dangerously high in fructose, making it one of the worst — if not the worst — sweeteners according to some health professionals. It gets complicated.
Made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant in South America, Stevia is 10-15 times sweeter than sugar but with zero calories. Stevia does however have a distinct taste that some people do not prefer, and it also has not performed well in studies done on animals (Canada and United States) suggesting that Stevia may cause male infertility or genetic mutations. But highly purified versions of Stevia — branded as Truvia and PureVia — have been deemed safe in Canada and the U.S.
Any way you shake a stick at it, your body is better without consuming large amounts of sugar, no matter what it is. There are many less-sweet and less processed alternatives to start experimenting with in your recipes including mashed bananas (great in oatmeal), applesauce (great in muffins), pure maple syrup, organic honey, dates, or pure vanilla extract.
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