Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sugar!



Sugar, the one thing that we all love to eat and the one thing that we could all go the rest of our lives without eating.  Where does sugar come from? How is it made? Why is it bad for us?  Let’s find out!

What is Granulated Sugar?
First let’s talk about the types of sugars from a chemical point of view.  A sugar molecule is an Organic molecule.  By organic I mean that it is made of only Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms.  There are three basic types of sugars that are called Monosaccharaides.   These three are Glucose, Fructose and Galactose.  Glucose shows up pretty much everywhere, Fructose is a sugar that you will find a lot of in fruits, and Galactose is the ‘sugar of the brain.’  These are the simple forms of the sugars though and are not normally found in foods.  The types of sugars that we DO usually see are called Disaccharides.
Disaccharides are made up of two sugar molecules that are bonded together.  There are three main types of combinations that you will normally see.  Sucrose is made of Glucose and Fructose.  Maltose is made up of two glucose molecules and lactose is made up of a Glucose and a Galactose Molecule.  Sucrose is, by far, the most common sugar that is in use for cooking purposes.  Whenever we use granulated sugar, it is actually Sucrose that we’re using.

Where does Granulated Sugar come from?
Granulated sugar comes from two main sources.  In North America it comes from the refined juices of sugar cane.  In Europe, it comes from the refined juices of the sugar beet plant. 
The refining process is fairly complicated, but it sums up to a few basic steps.
1.       The sugar cane/beet is crushed and the juice is taken.
2.       Lime and CO2 is added to the mix to trap the impurities.
3.       The impurities settle on the bottom and are removed.
4.       The left over syrup is boiled to remove the water and concentrate it into a yellow syrup
5.       The syrup is put in a centrifuge to settle out and remove the molasses.
6.       After this step we have what is called Raw Sugar.
After we have raw sugar, it is washed and centrifuged three more times and then decolorized.  At this point, we now have granulated sugar.
Sometimes you will see the natural food industry advertise evaporated cane juice or natural cane juice.  What this means is that instead of the three washes we see above, there is only one.  Also, this sugar is not decolorized and has a slightly gold color.  The important point here is that this type of ‘organic sugar’ is not any healthier than the regular granulated sugar.  I believe the only point in its favor is that it has been processed less, chemically.

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is simply granulated sugar that has 10% or less molasses added to it.  You often see brown sugar and golden sugar in the store.  The difference between these two is the amount of molasses in it. Light brown sugar usually has about 3.5% and the dark has around 6.5%.  Granulated sugar can be substituted for brown sugar in any recipe.  Brown sugar is only used for it's rich rustic flavor.

* Have you ever had your brown sugar harden into rocks on you?? The solution is actually very simple.  Put the brown sugar into an airtight container with a damp (not soaked) paper towel for about 1-2 days and seal the container.  The brown sugar will magically be soft again!


Icing Sugar

Icing sugar, or confectioners sugar as it also known as is made by grinding granulated sugar extremely finely and then adding cornstarch to it.  As we were saying before, sugar loves to absorb moisture, which will cause it to lump.  Icing sugar has cornstarch added (about 3%) to help absorb excess moisture preventing it from lumping.
 
Now, let’s get into why exactly Sugar is bad for us.  Why do the things that taste good always end up being so bad for us? It’s just an unfair twist of nature.  Anyway, it is important for us to understand how sugar is processed in our bodies.  Sugar, glucose in particular, is actually the fuel that drives all of our bodies processes. Without glucose we would actually be in deep trouble.  So you may ask yourself, if sugars are needed for our metabolic processes, why exactly do they make us fat?? Well, here’s the unfortunate news.  Our bodies only require a small amount of sugars to keep things running.  Refined sugars also make it far too easy for our bodies to break down and absorb simple sugars.  The easier it is to break down food, the less work our bodies do, and the less food we need to consume. 
This fact actually helps to explain why my cat is so fat.  Whenever I put a dish of food in front of her, she gets to consume a large amount of calories and doesn’t really do much to get it (other than to wake up and walk across the room).  On the other hand, if I toss her outside and make her get her own dinner, she will use up a lot more energy.  Not quite the same, I know, but you get the idea.
Okay, so, now we have a massive amount of simple sugars being absorbed and entering our blood stream.  Well, guess what. Our bodies CANNOT use an infinite amount of energy.  So now guess what happens! Our bodies, always ready to help out, decides to store the sugars since clearly we may need them later. Where? In our fat! Woohoo! Now we’ve just gained weight.

What are the Alternatives?
Well, there are a series of alternatives out there these days.  The reason why they work is because they are molecules that have been designed to activate the ‘sweet’ portion of our taste buds.  They taste right, but do they cook properly? Sort of.  Splenda is one alternative that is made from Sucralose and taste alright.  The thing that Splenda has going for it is the fact that you can actually bake with it.  Now, I wouldn’t recommend doing a straight up substitution or anything, but you can probably find a way of adapting your recipes to use Splenda.  Another good alternative is Stevia.  Stevia is extremely low in calories for the amount of sweetness it adds.  It taste pretty good and it goes a long way.  Can you bake with it? I have no idea, I have not tried yet, but for now I will simply use it in recipes where it adds sweetness rather than performing a crucial chemical reaction.

What should you do now?
Well, what you do is up to you.  You can try these alternatives and hope for the best.  You can say who gives a damn and go for the gold! Or you can do what I do.  Moderation.  Do I want to drink Diet sodas forever? No.  Will drinking regular sodas make me fat? Probably if I drink them every single day.  I would rather drink 1 regular soda once a week then a diet every day.  It’s the same as cookies or muffins or pretty much any dessert. I will not compromise quality on any of these recipes.  They can (and will) make you fat if you eat them constantly, but, if you moderate, you will be good to go.  After all, if we’re going to do something bad, we may as well do it right!

Feel free to leave me or email me any questions or comments you may have.  I have found that it is sometimes difficult finding accurate and/or useful information about food and healthy eating in the same place.  Sometimes I do, but then the recipes end up sucking.  The goal here is to let us all eat well, but be healthy.