Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Sweet Stuff, Part 3: Nectar of the Gods

Part 3 of a 3-part series about sugar and sugar substitutes.

Over the past two weeks, in our quest to unlock the mysteries of sweeteners, we have covered the calorie-free-but-mostly-chemical (though I still heartily vouch for stevia’s naturalosity if you buy organic) and real sugar, both refined and raw(ish). But there remains a pantheon of sweeteners yet unexamined: the gooey, sticky syrups.

Liquid sweeteners are versatile and ubiquitous. But, just as it goes with their crystalline cousins, few liquid sweeteners are untouched by human hands before they reach our supermarket shelves or farmer’s market stalls.

So what’s the buzz about the sticky sweetness?

Photo: Vicky Brock via flickr
Honey is produced by the synergy between bees and flowers. Bees collect nectar from the flowers in their mouths, mixing it with enzymes, and then deposit the resulting sweet stuff in little pockets of wax back at the hive.

Before it’s processed, raw honey is loaded with phytonutrients, trace minerals, and antioxidants depending upon flower diversity. Honey has been shown to relieve cough and treat cuts, but should not be given to children under the age of one.

Molasses, as we covered briefly last week, is made from cane or beet sugar. The juice is extracted, the remaining crystals are removed, and a dark, thick syrup remains. Also known as treacle, molasses is most commonly used in baking and cooking. A gingerbread man would not be the same without rich molasses.

Molasses comes in three grades:
Light or Barbados Molasses: From the first pressing of the sugarcane, this is the lightest in color, sweetest, and mildest variety, often used as pancake syrup or to sweeten beverages.
Dark Molasses: From the second pressing of the sugarcane, dark molasses is less sweet and has a stronger flavor than light. It is most commonly used in baking and cooking.
Blackstrap Molasses: From the third processing of the sugarcane and used mostly as an iron supplement, blackstrap molasses is considered too strong and bitter for baking. Trust me, my favorite ginger cookies and I learned this the hard way.
Unsulfered vs. Sulfured: Unsulfured molasses is free of sulfur dioxide, a preservative to improve shelf life. Sulfured molasses is not quite as sweet as unsulfured.

Photo: My Lil' Rotten via flickr
Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, the pride of the Great White North, is produced from the sap of maple trees. The process is fairly simple: sap is collected from a tapped tree, boiled to evaporate the water, and poured through a filter to remove any nasty bits. The longer the sap is boiled, the darker and sweeter the syrup.

Maple syrup, with its myriad uses, is classified into four grades, based on color, not quality:
Grade A Fancy or Light Amber: light golden color, subtle maple flavor, used for the table
Grade A Medium Amber: golden color, more distinct maple flavor, used for the table
Grade A Dark Amber: light russet color, rich maple flavor, used for the table and cooking/baking
Grade B: deep russet color, strongest maple flavor, used for the table, best grade for cooking/baking

Corn Syrup
Oh corn syrup. There is so much confusion about you. First of all, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are different beasts. Corn syrup is derived from cornstarch, and while often called glucose syrup, the latter can be made from the starch of just about any other grain.

Corn syrup, both the dark and light varieties, is a Southern staple for making pecan pie. My grandmother’s pantry was never without it. We used the “maple” version for pancakes too. Light corn syrup is often used in candy making. Bonus Halloween Fake Blood Recipe: Mix 3 parts corn syrup to 1 part clear dishwashing liquid. Add red food coloring until desired color is achieved. Apply wherever fake blood is required. (Since it’s partially soap-based, it will wash out of clothes.)

Corn syrup’s evil twin, high fructose corn syrup, is corn syrup that as been chemically altered to increase the percentage of fructose which heightens its sweetness. HFCS became widespread in mass food production because a little bit goes a long way. So much so that a recent Princeton University study showed that “[a]nimals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet.”

Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is another highly controversial sweetener. Juice (or sap) from the agave cactus is boiled down, and, depending on the processor, treated with enzymes to increase sweetness and viscosity. Whether this process is as highly refined as that of table sugar or more “natural” is still up for debate.

Agave nectar can be found in light and dark varieties and, because of its neutral flavor, is a favorite in cooking and baking. It also dissolves easily in cold fluid, so it works well as drink sweetener.

Agave’s problems arise from being touted as a “low-glycemic” sweetener, perfect for diabetics and people watching their blood sugar. Well, agave nectar is primarily fructose, and the glycemic index only measures glucose. Do you see where I’m going? So while it rates low on the GI scale, it’s still a sugar, with the same calories as sugar, and and should be eaten in moderation, just like sugar. Sorry for the buzzkill; or maybe I just made your day.

Sweeteners, Health, and The Glycemic Index
The Glycemic Index ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 1 to 100 by the amount they raise our blood glucose levels. According to the Glycemic Index Foundation, “Choosing low GI the secret to long-term health, reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes and is the key to sustainable weight loss.”

* Low GI = 55 or less
* Medium GI = 56 – 69
* High GI = 70 or more

Cane sugar scores about 65, while agave comes in around 27 and HFCS around 89. Maple syrup is the most competitive, logging in at 54, while honey ranks between 65 and 83. You can see why, at a glance, agave nectar and maple syrup look healthier.

But not everyone agrees that the Glycemic Index is the best way to judge a food. It doesn’t account for how food is prepared, how much is eaten, or the fiber content of foods. For instance, there is a huge difference between the way your body metabolizes an agave-sweetened iced tea, a maple-syrup-sweetened granola bar, or a sugar-sweetened cookie.

In some ways, natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are the healthier choice than refined sugar. Since their production processes are less intense, the trace minerals remain. But they are still sugars, and the moderation song keeps coming on the radio because it has universal appeal. It might not be the most danceable tune, but it’s one we can all sing along to.

The Sweet Stuff in Action
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, how do we apply this knowledge in the kitchen? Well, I found two great guides to sweetener substitutions for cooking and baking: this simple, straightforward chart (thanks JBF!) and this more in-depth table, complete with notes on flavor and how to tweak baking soda quantities. Here’s a quick and dirty summary:

Alternative to Refined White Sugar Ratio
1 cup to 1 cup : turbinado, Sucanat, demerara
3/4 cup to 1 cup: honey, maple syrup, agave nectar; decrease liquid by 3 tbsp to 1/4 cup
1 1/4 cup to 1 cup: molasses; decrease liquid by 5 tbsp

Now go bake something sweet, healthy, and good!

Resources/Further Reading
The World’s Healthiest Foods
Mayo Clinic Expert Answers: Diabetes
A Sweet Problem: Princeton researchers find that high fructose corn syrup prompts significantly higher weight gain
Fooducate: Eight Facts about Agave Nectar
Grist: The Low-down on Agave and Other Natural Sweeteners


If this article tipped your canoe, float on over to
The Sweet Stuff, Part 1: A New Color in the Packet Rainbow
The Sweet Stuff, Part 2: White, Brown, and Sparkly Crystals
Mmm...Is for Maple Ginger Applesauce

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