Sugar has a complicated mystique. It’s a superb chemical feedstock that can be used in gasoline substitutes, drug delivery and plastics. It also makes for a fine food ingredient.
“Sugar” is a chemical designation, the discrete molecular units that make up carbohydrates. Many sugars have the formula C6H12O6 but they are joined at different parts of a generally hexagonal ring structure. They may be oriented in more than one plane. Different connections yield different types of sugars.
Sugar can be derived from virtually any plant source, but most sugars come from cane, beets and sorghum.
|Turbinado is the first pressing of cane juice that is crystallized and sometimes steam-cleaned to retain traces of the original molasses.
Carbohydrates that contain only one sugar unit (monosaccharides) or two sugar units (disaccharides) are referred to as simple sugars. Simple sugars are sweet in taste and are broken down quickly in the body. Two of the most common monosaccharides are glucose and fructose.
Glucose is the primary form of sugar stored in the human body. Fructose is the main sugar found in most fruits. Both glucose and fructose have the C6H12O6 chemical formula but have slightly different structures.
Disaccharides have two sugars bonded together. For example, common table sugar is sucrose, a disaccharide that consists of a glucose unit bonded to a fructose unit. The caloric content of sucrose – 4 calories per gram – is the standard against which all sugars and artificial sweeteners are measured.
Connect enough sugar molecules and you get starches. These complex carbohydrates, which are long chains of glucose units, are broken down by enzymes. Unless the sugar units are arranged so human enzymes are not effective in breaking down the chain, the caloric loads of sugars and starches are the same.
Except for sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols, also know as polyols, are much less sweet than sugars, contribute fewer calories (anywhere from one third to one-half fewer) and are converted to glucose more slowly. This makes them good bulking agents. Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.
Enzymes are used to affect the structure of sugars. When some of those enzymes are not found in the human body, the sugar is indigestible or only slowly digestible. One example is trehalose, which is only partly digestible; so are some of the D-sugars.
Depending on the way the sugar units are oriented, the sugar can be digested easily, slowly or not at all. And the uses and manufacturing of the products can be highly technical or as uncomplicated as adding sweetness to coffee. Depending upon the source and the processing care, the end results even can be certified as organic.
New: Organic sugars
A real holdup to manufacturing many organic products has been sugar. The chemical processing needed to transform sugars into pure, white crystals was outside the definition of “organic” or “natural.” But no more.
Domino, Florida Crystals and C&H Sugar (now owned by the same firm, Domino, www.dominospecialtyingredients.com), have found a way to use a single crystallization step, without added chemicals, to process organically grown sugar cane which is pressed the day it’s cut. It meets the requirements of the USDA’s National Organic Program and is certified organic by Quality Assurance International. It looks like regular sucrose.
|Only recent advances in processing have enabled white, crystalline sucrose to be made in a process that satisfies organic standards.
Along with organic sucrose, there are other forms of natural or organic sucrose offered with some slight alterations. Turbinado (sometimes spelled turbanado) has been around for centuries. It is a first pressing of cane juice that is crystallized and sometimes steam-cleaned to retain traces of the original molasses. Color in different products ranges from amber to dark brown, and it has a more “natural” image and has been described as healthier than refined sucrose. It contains traces of minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and iron.
Popular in the United Kingdom is Barbados sugar, a very dark brown sugar with a strong molasses flavor. The crystals are coarse and sticky. Another variation is demerara sugar, also popular in England, which is light brown with big golden crystals. The crystals are a little sticky, and the product generally is used in hot beverages and on hot cereals.
Muscovado is a very dark brown sugar with a strong molasses flavor, originally crystallized from the first boiling in the mill. The crystals are larger than brown sugar but not as large as turbinado or demerara sugar crystals and very sticky.
Last fall, Wholesome Sweeteners (www.wholesomesweeteners.com) of Sugarland, Texas, introduced its entry into the organic arena: Sweet & Fair. In addition to being organic, this sugar is produced under international “fair trade” standards, which guarantees fair prices to farmers, particularly in developing nations, and also supports a safe workplace (usually precluding the use of pesticides), the right to unionize and the prohibition of child and slave labor.