We laugh at the scene in Elf when Buddy douses his spaghetti with maple syrup, but this probably isn’t too much of an exaggeration of how much sugar Americans are consuming (the USDA estimates roughly 32 teaspoons of sugar daily, nearly 100 pounds annually). Like Buddy demonstrates, this is way too much. Rather than remind you (and myself) of the horrendous health effects that excess consumption of processed sugar can have, let’s instead dissect the refined sweet stuff stashed in your cupboard, and then examine the alternatives that have a bit more to offer our taste buds and overall health.
From field to table
More than 60% of the world’s production of refined sugar comes from sugar cane – a delicate grass that grows between 6-23 feet tall and 2” in diameter. The remainder comes from sugar beets, which weren’t regarded as significant sources of sugar until after the 18th century.
Once sugar cane/sugar beets are harvested, the plants are sent to the refinery where they are crushed (sugar cane) or sliced (sugar beets) and the blackish juice is extracted. From there the juice is concentrated via boiling. Then it is purified (using lime and carbon dioxide, phosphates or sulfuric anhydrides) and the yellow-tinted syrup is then decolorized and then lastly turned into crystallized sugar either by evaporation or the use of centrifugal machines.
The quantity of information I had to sift through and the amount of detail I neglected to include in the above description is an obvious indication for me that I would rather opt for something a bit closer to its natural state. Natural sweeteners are much less refined, and may still contain nutrients found in sugar cane. Don’t believe me? See for yourself. This image shows a clear difference between natural and processed sugars.
(Left to right - organic brown sugar, refined brown sugar, organic cane sugar, granulated processed sugar.)
A few of my favorite natural sweeteners:
- Blackstrap molasses – My tastebuds automatically think gingerbread. This full-bodied sweetener is black as tar and is produced from the successive boiling of sugarcane. It is rich in calcium, iron, B6 and potassium. Thanks to the rich flavor of this sweetener, I have gotten away with cutting volumes in half in recipes.
- Date Sugar - Ground dehydrated zahidi dates that often works well in baked goods or as a seasoning-type sweetener. Full of the nutrients you would find in dates – fiber ,calcium, iron.
- Natural Cane Sugars – Sucanat and Rapadura are pure dehydrated sugarcane juice that resemble brown sugar in appearance and have retained some minerals due to shorter processing.
- Maple Syrup –What is the difference between the $3 Mrs Butterworths and the $15 organic real maple syrup? Well, to produce the real deal it takes 40 gallons (from 9 trees) to yield one gallon of syrup. It takes a lot of heat energy to then convert the sap into a syrup, also contributing to the hefty price.
Honey – I love the floral flavors and variability of honey, but the fabrication of this sweetener by bees is equally captivating. Have you seen the movie Bees? The bees first gather nectar, store it in a special pocket in their esophagus where it mixed with their saliva, and is then converted to honey by way of enzymes in saliva and gastric juices which convert sucrose into glucose and fructose. The sweet nectar is then deposited into cells of the beehive. After about 20 minutes of ventilation, the honey is then ready for consumption. For the numbers people: 5 gallons of nectar (400,000-2,000,000 trips for the bee) are required to produce 1 gallon of honey. (You can check out the movie Vanishing of the Bees for more information.)
When cooking, if a recipe calls for 2/3 cup or more of sweetener (automatic eyebrow lifter), I typically cut this in half and use a natural sweetener and spices to make up the flavor. For replacing white sugar in a recipe, you can substitute exact volumes (likely less if taste preference allows) with a natural granulated sweetener. If using a liquid sweetener, decrease the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. If there is no liquid called for in the recipe, then simply add 3-5 tablespoons of flour for each ¼ cup of sweetener you are using to replace a white granulated sugar. If you are using date sugar or dried cane juice in place of a liquid sweetener in a recipe, simply do the opposite (decrease recipe by 3-5 tablespoons of flour or increase liquid by ¼ cup).
Before you get all hyped up on this sugar-talk, remember that just because natural sweeteners are closer to their natural state, this doesn’t mean that these can be consumed in excess with no consequences to your health. Everything in moderation.