Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Sweet Stuff, Part 2: White, Brown, and Sparkly Crystals

Part 2 in a 3-part series on sugar and sugar substitutes.

Last week, we discussed artificial sweeteners and the latest packet to join the caddy rainbow: stevia. But, if you’re me, or like me (or love me), you are equally confused about natural sweeteners. Hopefully, by the end of this post, the fog will have cleared, or at least dissipated somewhat.

Let’s start with the one everybody knows and loves (and hates): granulated white sugar.
Derived from the sugar cane plant, which is native to tropical climes, white sugar is processed until a sweet, mild, crystalline residue remains.

The process doesn’t seem so innocent when you take a look at environmental impacts, bone char, and a 27-step flow chart

Plus, no nutritional value remains at the end of the white-sugar-refining process. All the molasses, and therefore, all the B-2 and other trace minerals are removed. The extruded molasses is sold as cattle feed or to alcohol manufacturers. Wee!

Beet vs. Cane
The U.S. grows sugar from sugar beets and sugarcane. Only 4 states have the climate required to sustain cane crops: Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas. However, sugar beets can be grown in more temperate climates, like the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, in states like Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, among others.

Some companies buy sugar from a variety of refiners, so one batch may be cane sugar, while the next will come from beets. It’s hard to know the which is which. On a basic level, there is little difference between the two. 

But some bakers and confectioners have noted a distinct difference in the texture and consistency of baked goods and candies. If you’re concerned about your cakes, check out this handy list of manufacturers.

Photo: Uwe Hermann via Flickr
Which Sugar Is Which?
Refined Sugar
These sugars are all derivative of cane or beet sugar. The average calorie content is 16 calories/teaspoon.

Granulated white sugar: Highly refined coarse-grain sugar from either sugarcane or sugar beets in the U.S. used at the table and for baking/cooking.

Caster sugar/superfine/baker’s sugar: Fine, granulated white sugar that dissolves quickly in liquid.

Brown sugar: Granulated white sugar (from which the molasses has been removed) with molasses added—my head just exploded. Most commonly used for baking.

Confectioner’s sugar: White sugar, ground fine with corn starch added (about 3%). Most commonly used for icing and pastries.

“Unrefined” Sugar
To call these sugars “unrefined” is misleading. Only gnawing on a stalk of sugarcane will give you unrefined sugar. But this class of sugar, that falls into the evaporated cane juice category, is considerably less refined than its refined cousin.

Because less of the molasses is removed, more of the original flavor and trace minerals of the sugarcane remain. Plus, some of these sugars have the benefit of being lower in calorie than refined sugar.

Demerara: Demerara sugar is named for its region of origin in Guyana. It comes from the first pressing of the sugar cane, after which the juice dehydrates, leaving behind a golden-yellow, large-crystal sugar with a rich molasses flavor. It is a bit stickier than turbinado sugar, and the calorie content is about 15 calories/teaspoon.

Muscovado: Processed the same as demerara, but with a more pronounced molasses flavor and finer grain, muscovado sugar is what dark brown sugar wishes it was. The calorie content stacks up between 11 and 15 calories/teaspoon.

Photo: Will Ellis via Flickr
Sucanat and Rapadura: Sucanat and Rapadura are trade names for unrefined sugar that is derived from a trademarked process. First the sugar cane is crushed to remove the juice. The juice is then heated and cooled by stirring until crystals form. Both Sucanat (Sugar Cane Natural) and Rapadura have a distinct molasses flavor, since nothing is removed in the processing, and are used like granulated sugar at the tale and for cooking/baking. Both have about 15 calories/teaspoon.

Turbinado: Turbinado sugar, like demerara and muscovado, comes from the first pressing of the sugar cane, after which the water is evaporated, producing a large, dry crystal, a light brown color, and a noticeable molasses flavor. It is used like granulated sugar. Turbinado logs in at about 11 calories/teaspoon.

Alternative granulated sugars
Date sugar: Date sugar is made from dates that have been dehydrated and ground fine. Since date sugar does not dissolve in liquid, it is used in bake goods that benefit from it’s flavor and texture. It clocks in at 10 calories/teaspoon.

Jaggery: Jaggery is an Indian sugar from sugarcane or palm sap, historically the date palm, but more commonly now, the coconut and sago palms. The raw cane or palm sap is boiled in large cast iron pans and then pressed into blocks. When needed, the sugar is grated into recipes or used for medicinal purposes. It has about 12 calories/teaspoon.

Palm sugar: Palm sugar is also made from the sap of coconut and sago palm trees. Because of it’s minimal refining process, it is high in minerals like potassium and calcium, has a deep, rich flavor, and can be used like brown sugar. The calorie content is around 11 calories/teaspoon.

So let’s recap: refined sugar is pretty bad and technically not vegetarian, if you’re strict; “unrefined” sugar is less bad and tastes a lot better. The unrefined sugars can be used, for the most part, interchangeably with refined sugar in recipes.

Readers, do you have any experience using these “unrefined” sugars? Do you love demerara or do we have to pry your Domino from your cold, dead hands? Share any experiences or recipes in the comments. You know we love to hear from you!

Next week, we will delve into the sticky sweet pool of liquid sweeteners and try to solve the riddle of the Glycemic Index.


References/Further Reading
The World’s Healthiest Foods: Cane Sugar
Sugar Alliance: American Sugar Industry Map
Quirky Cooking: Rapadura? Sucanat? Muscavado? Turbinado?


If you dug this article, you may dig:
10 Modern Food Myths: Busted
26 Common Food Labels Explained
How to Lose Weight and Keep It Off: 10 Rules to Live By

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Diane said...

I cook a lot of Indian and Thai food, so I use both palm sugar and jaggery a lot. They are rich and almost caramel-y, but I wouldn't use either for baking, in coffee, or anything like that. But they are great for those types of cuisine.

My basic "go to" refined sugar is evaporated cane juice, which they sell in bulk at my supermarket. It looks like a cross between white and brown sugar. It's more caramel-y than white sugar, and also larger-grained, but not as dark/sticky as brown sugar. If I am making something really refined like a pavlova I will whiz it up in a blender for a bit so it is more fine-grained and blends better.

Corinne said...

Really the difference between the "healthy" sweeteners and the "unhealthy" is very small. We should all be eating sugars as a very small part of our diets anyway, so I don't understand paying three times the price.

Annie Jones said...

I have tried turbinado, Sucanat and evaporated cane juice crystals. I like the evaporated crystals the best of those three.

Paige said...

I use sucanat in place of brown sugar and turbinado or crystalized cane juice in place of white sugar. I like their flavors, the fact that they have a flavor, something regular white sugar can't claim. I may also admit to a slight sweetener obsession ... molasses, maple syrup, and honey are basics in my pantry in addition to the above mentioned sugars. Just because I gave up white sugar doesn't mean I gave up sugar. I'm not crazy.

Kelly said...

I've tried using sucanat (its sold in bulk at our co-op grocery store) - I agree with Diane, its too caramel-y and leaves a funny after taste when used in coffee. I haven't tried many others because of the HIGH prices. I will have to look a bit harder for the others you've mentioned at reasonable prices.

Cori R. said...

I'm rather confused. I guess I don't know very much about strict vegetarianism - how is refined sugar not strictly vegetarian? Is it processed with animal products in some way?

Autumn609 said...


I asked the same question when my friends switched to a vegan lifestyle. Apparently some brands of refined sugar are filtered through bone char, thus "contaminating" them (so to speak)

I really like evaporated cane juice crystals, because it tastes so much more like sugar, and I find that in baking I can use a couple of TBSP less per cup because of that.

Leigh said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Diane, great tip about the blender. Palm sugar and jaggery are on my next-to-try list.

Kelly, try the bulk bins at your local natural food store. Mine carries turbinado in bulk, making it much cheaper than most brands.

Cori R: yes, Autumn609 is right; some sugar manufacturers use crushed animal bones (bone char) to filter their sugar, and those following a strict vegan/vegetarian lifestyle look for alternatives. There are plenty of mainstream brands that use carbon filtering.

Preach it, Paige!

eatclosetohome said...

It is also worth knowing that almost 100% of conventional beet sugar is now made with GMO beets. But the good news (if you're against GMOs) is that the approval of GMO sugar beets has just been revoked, and more testing will be required before any more GMO beet can be planted.

Maria Sol said...

What are your thoughts on agave?

Jeanette said...

Thanks for the clarification on all the different types of sugar.

I've used date sugar in baking, and it works just fine as long as it's in the batter of whatever you're making. It's not as sweet as cane sugar, however. I've also tried using it to make the topping for an apple crisp, and it does not melt the same way.