Sugar – empires have been built on it, fortunes made with it, and over-consumption of it kills and cripples millions of people every year. Yet for all that, it is a foodstuff loved the world over.
In 2018, a massive two billion tonnes of it was produced. On average, across the world, we each eat some 25 kilograms (55 lb) every year. In the western hemisphere, the figure rises to a startling 34 kilograms (75 lb). In terms of calories, the latter equates to nearly 300 per day.
Sugar is available in many different forms, consistencies and colors – each being used for specific purposes.
Let’s take a look at what’s available and what they are used for:
Most sugar these days is produced from sugar beet. The production process involves slicing the beet into small pieces and then mixing the pieces with hot water. This creates a syrupy liquid that contains the sugar. The syrup is then filtered to remove impurities. What’s left is heated and then seeded with tiny crystals of sugar which grow to the size required. Finally, the crystals are washed, dried and cooled.
White Table Sugar
This is the white granulated sugar that we are all familiar with. The reason it is white is that it has been refined to such a degree that it is absolutely pure. Be aware that the refining process strips out all the natural color and nutrients from the plant it was taken from. What’s left is unadulterated calories – nothing else.
As we mentioned above, most sugar these days is made from the sugar beet plant – approximately 60 percent in fact. Sugarcane is another common source. Something else you may care to note is the fact that the vast majority of the sugar beet used in the production of sugar is genetically modified.
This type of sugar is the one commonly found on dining tables and kitchens across the globe. It is the most used type of sugar for general baking and cooking.
Nutrition-wise, white sugar offers precisely nothing. It has a glycemic index rating of 63 – the highest of all the sugars. For those who don’t know, the glycemic index (GI) is a rating system for foods that contain carbohydrates. It shows how quickly a food affects blood sugar level.
Superfine sugar has a number of names that include baking sugar, casting sugar, bar sugar and caster sugar. The latter is the British term for it.
Very fine in consistency, with the smallest crystal size of all the granulated sugars, it is ideal for use in meringues, syrups and cocktails, where it adds volume as well as flavor. It is also often sprinkled over fruits and cereals.
Also known as icing sugar, this is white sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. To prevent clumping, a small amount of cornstarch is typically added and mixed in.
As it is so fine, it dissolves easily in liquid and so is ideal for making icing, frosting and whipping cream, as well as for decorating a range of foods.
This type of sugar has much larger crystals than table and superfine sugar. Because of the size of these crystals, it has a reflective property that makes it sparkle. Colored versions are also available. These two properties make it an ideal sugar for decorative purposes.
With regard to nutrient content, superfine, confectioners and sanding sugars, as with white sugar, all have none. They also have the same glycemic index rating – 63.
A fact that surprises most people is that common brown sugar is actually regular white sugar to which molasses (see below) has been added.
Brown sugar proper, on the other hand, is made from sugarcane. The production process creates a thick dark brown viscous liquid which is known as molasses. The color of the finished sugar is dependant on how much of this molasses is processed out. There are several varieties of brown sugar and the thing that differentiates them is the amount of processing they go through.
These include Muscovado sugar which is dark brown and has a very strong flavor. The minimally processed crystals are coarser and stickier than regular brown sugar. Another variety is Demerara sugar which is is popular in the UK. This is a light brown sugar with large sticky crystals. It is often used in coffee, tea and on cereals.
Thanks to their molasses content, brown sugars do offer a limited range of nutrients. Their glycemic index rating though, is the same as white sugar.
Palm sugar is produced from palm trees. As there are many varieties of this type of tree, the sugar is named after the palm that produced it – coconut palm sugar for example. Being produced from a tree that requires little in the way of water, it is the most sustainable type of all the sugars.
Years ago, it was made from sap taken from two trees – the Palmyra palm and the Date palm. And, indeed it still is. These days, however, it is also produced from the Coconut and Sago palms.
Palm sugar varies in color from dark brown to light gold. It is a very grainy type of sugar and has a crumbly consistency. The main use for it is in cooking due to it having a strong and distinctive flavor. This is a result of the minimal amount of refining it goes through.
Another benefit of the low refining level is that it has a good content of nutrients. These include minerals such as phosphorus, manganese, copper, potassium, zinc and iron. It is also rich in B vitamins. With regard to its glycemic index rating, this is a healthy 35.
Sugar is also produced in various liquid forms. The simplest is nothing more than white granulated sugar that has been dissolved in water. Other types are more complex.
Corn syrup is a refined sugar syrup made from corn starch and is flavored with vanilla. As it has hygroscopic properties, it is very useful as a means of retaining moisture in baked goods. Consisting of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, corn syrup is nearly as sweet as honey.
Because of it’s hygroscopic properties, it is used in a huge range of products that include bread, sauces, cakes, cereals, salad dressing and cookies to name just a few. Basically, it is found in virtually all processed food. It is also commonly used in carbonated beverages.
Agave syrup is a liquid sugar that has a consistency similar to honey. It is extracted from several species of the agave plant which are commonly found in South Africa and Mexico. The syrup is 1.5 times sweeter than normal sugar.
In color, it is a yellowish-orange with hues ranging from light to dark, depending on the degree of refining. Agave syrup’s main property is that it dissolves very easily. This makes it ideal for use as a sweetener in drinks of various types, such as cocktails and smoothies. It is also used as a topping for waffles, pancakes, etc.
Note that, as with palm sugar, agave syrup has a lower glycemic index rating than white sugar.
Rice syrup, also known as rice malt, brown rice malt and brown rice syrup, is a natural sweetener made from cooked brown rice. It is commonly used in asian cooking. The production process involves saccharification which converts the starch in the rice to sugar.
The main selling point of rice syrup is that it has a low content of fructose – a known cause of obesity and related illnesses. However, it has to be pointed out that it contains almost twice the amount of calories that normal white sugar does. Furthermore, it is very low in nutrients.
Molasses is a thick, brownish-black, honey-like substance that is a byproduct of the refining process used to make sugar from sugarcane. In the USA it is commonly known as blackstrap molasses, and in the UK it is known either as treacle or black treacle.
While it does have inherent sweetness and so can be used as a sweetener, molasses is more valued for its high mineral content (iron, copper and calcium especially), strong flavor and rich color. Its prime use is in baking and making candy. It is also the base ingredient for the manufacture of dark rum. Blackstrap and other low grades of molasses are used in animal feed and in the production of vinegar and citric acid.
With regard to its calorie and nutrition content, these are similar to that of white sugar.
Maple syrup is made from the spring sap of certain types of maple tree. These include the Sugar maple, the Black maple and the Red maple. The sap is boiled until most of its water content has evaporated, leaving a thick, sugary syrup. This is then filtered to remove any impurities.
There are several different grades of maple syrup, all of which are characterized by their color. The darker syrups (made from sap extracted later in the season) have a richer flavor and so are usually used in baking. The lighter syrups are commonly used on waffles, pancakes, french toast, cereals and porridge.
Nutrition-wise, the syrup is rich, particularly in manganese and zinc. However, it also has a high sugar content with a glycemic index of 54 – not much below regular white sugar (63).
Produced by the honey bee, honey is a viscous mixture of sugars and other compounds – mainly fructose and glucose. Its flavor, color and viscosity varies, depending on the flowers available to the bees that produced it and the production method used.
Natural, unprocessed honey is simply taken from honeycombs, strained to remove any impurities and then bottled. Processed versions, on the other hand, are subjected to a pasteurization process designed to increase the product’s shelf life. Unfortunately, as with most food processing techniques, it also removes much of the nutrients.
Honey is available in a huge range of flavors, many of them specific to a country. These include acacia, clover, eucalyptus, orange and lemon blossom, lavender and the most famous of all, Manuka from New Zealand.
Both natural and processed honey can be used in salad dressings, drinks, smoothies and marinades. It can be poured over fruit salads and yoghurts. It is also a very good baking ingredient as it adds both sweetness and moistness. Cooking apart, and unlike most other sugars, honey can be used for a number of purposes. These include as a salve to heal burns and prevent infections, treating Psoriasis (a common skin condition) and treating hemorrhoids.
The nutrition content of honey depends to a certain extent on where the honey comes from. Typically though, it is rich in calcium, copper, iron and zinc, as well as B vitamins. It’s sugar content is also dependant on its source and can have a glycemic index rating of between 45 and 65.