My grandmother, Gloria, should have lived to be 120. She didn't drink soda, refused processed food, exercised, watched her salt & sugar consumption, and controlled her portions. While my siblings and I would stuff our faces at family picnics with hunks of rich sugary cake, she would eat a small sliver and be content. Gloria would only eat plain, saltless microwave popcorn, because she said the butter had bad chemicals in it. Unfortunately, she smoked, inhaling chemicals instead of ingesting them.
Today, we are more aware of the dangers of smoking, but are we aware of the items that line the grocery store shelves, like our sweeteners?
Many have adopted an alternative sweetener for health reason, be it diabetes or watching waistlines. We are facing more dietary issues than ever, causing an increase in the variety of products to choose from. As the sugar aisle is ever expanding with sweet options, are we researching before we start adding these to our foods?
Cane Sugar - Sugar cane is thought to have originated in New Guinea, and was then carried to Asia via migration. The process of transforming the sugar cane into a useable product was developed in India by pressing the cane juice out, and boiling it down to form syrup coated sugar crystals. By washing then these sugar crystals, we start down the road to refined sugar.
Cane sugar is what your grandma used to make her confections, and most likely, what you grew up on.
Beet Sugar - As sugar consumption rose to its height in the 18th century, and it became more readily available to all people, not just the upper class, it's almost as if the human race started jonesing for a sugar fix. New methods were developed for extracting sugar. Utilizing brandy to extract sugars from the white beet, a Prussian chemist, Andreas Marggraf, developed this technique to allow northern climates to grow their own form of sugar, similar to the sugar cane. It can be used the same as cane sugar, and does not have a distinctive flavor.
Brown Sugar - I always think of brown sugar as having a coating of molasses on it, as that is essentially what it is. This is sugar that has a richer flavor, giving a more caramel note, than it's refined sibling cane sugar.
Often brown sugar is chosen to enhance flavor versus sweetness.
Molasses - The dark liquid leftover from the refining process of cane sugar, molasses comes out of the crystallization process, and since this is done in steps, there are different grades of molasses. While the molasses you see on the shelf is typically a combination of these grades, there is blackstrap molasses, which is the final yield from the process of crystallization. Molasses is used more for it's rich caramel flavoring than for the sweetness factor.
Maple Syrup / Maple Sugar - Sap drained from the maple tree is then boiled, and reduced to create the syrup that is maple syrup. Due to the expense of real maple syrup, beware of imposter syrups. Always check the label as some list the first ingredient to be high-fructose corn syrup, followed by maple flavoring. Maple syrup is typically used for it's rich flavor in baked goods.
Agave Syrup/Sugar - Collecting the sap of typically the blue agave plant (yes, your tequila may also come from here as well), the common theme when sap is gathered, is boiling down the sap to create syrup.
The boom in the health food stores is agave, thought truthfully, it's not as healthy as you think. The bottle claims that agave is lower on the glycemic index, making it better for diabetic sensitive diets, however, the American Diabetes Association lists agave with other sweeteners including cane sugar, that needs to be limited in the diet. It is high in fructose, which has been linked to liver damage and obesity.
I am not a huge fan of agave, and my go to in lieu of corn syrup or agave is honey, despite honey not being neutral in flavor.
Corn Syrup - Ah! Scary! Everyone is terrified by the evil corn syrup. While it will never do anything good for your health, as with everything else in America, we have taken corn syrup and put it in everything. It's cheap to manufacture and has replaced the more expensive cane sugar and beet sugar in most cheap sweets and soda drinks. I use honey in it's place, despite the honey having a strong flavor.
Brown Rice Syrup - This syrup has the consistency and smell of honey, but you can definitely taste the rice. Plagued with an arsenic controversy, last year, organic brown rice syrup, is utilized in many health food items as a sweetener. Trace amounts of arsenic are supposedly found in many items we eat today, leftover from when arsenic was used as a pesticide. Half the sweetness of cane sugar, brown rice sugar is often used in energy bars, baby formula and cereal bars.
Brown rice syrup can be used in baking, using 1 ¼ cups in the place of 1 cup of sugar, and ¼ cup less liquid that is used in your recipe.
Honey - The oldest sweetener, honey is one of the world's oldest foods. Now found everywhere in many different forms, raw, untreated, unfiltered, unheated, bio active?
While cane sugar is merely a sweetener, honey will add a distinctive flavor to your baked goods. Honey may be used in place of corn syrup in recipes, though take note it will leave the honey flavor, where corn syrup just sweetens. Also, it is warned to not feed honey to children under a year old, due to the potential for dormant botulism spores to be carried in the honey.
I have fully understand some people need to use these sweeteners to be able to enjoy a delicious treat, however, I feel like the reoccurring topic of this sugar article must be summed up in one word "moderation!"
It is not my dream as a pastry chef, to bake with these sweeteners. Often times, since they are made with the sugar alcohols, they are much sweeter than normal cane sugar.
Most of the companies producing these sweeteners are now putting a conversion chart on the back of the bag, to indicate how much you should substitute, which is incredibly helpful for those needing to bake with these products. Some have also started producing a baking blend, where they are mixing the sweetener with cane sugar, to allow for a lower glycemic index baked good, that comes out in a similar fashion to a pastry baked with cane sugar.
Nectresse - A new no calorie sweetener, this is made from monk fruit, erythritol, sugar and molasses. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, supposedly is doesn't cause much laxative effects, but in large doses it can cause stomach rumble and nausea. Uhm...pass.
Xyla - Found on the shelf at Sprouts, it is derived from hardwood, typically birch. The sugar alcohol xylitol apparently is great in sugar-free gum, as it interfears with bacterial growth in your mouth. The back of the package carries a warning "Excessive use of Xylitol may cause a mild laxative effect." Put it back on the shelf, because that's just not a good idea.
Stevia - Hailed as a natural sweetener, as it comes from the stevia plant, the ever-popular Truvia brand still has erythritol sugar alcohol blended with the stevia extract. This can be found in liquid form or traditional granular.
Sucralose/Aspertame - The airy lightness of this sugar substitute freaks me out. I once was asked to make a gluten free, sugar free dessert for a cook. I set to work and found a bag of Splenda in dry storage. The end product was loved by the cook's grandmother, who was failing in health and could not have gluten or sugar, however Splenda does change the product you are making through the entire baking process. Like it's sister sweetener, aspartame, it is also 200 times sweeter than cane sugar.
Saccharin - Known commonly as Sweet'N Low, saccharin can leave a metallic aftertaste that borders on bitter. If you look on Sweet'N Low's website, their recipes for sweets often don't just contain their saccharin, but also utilize cane sugar.
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There is no miracle sweetener that we can eat in large quantities without consequence. Though some have to use alternative sweeteners for health reasons, I think the rest of us need to harken back to the old thought of "everything in moderation."
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.