Oh, sorry…I started dreaming of cookies and donuts and brownies and cheesecake…ahem…let me pull myself together here.
Sugar. Yep, sugar. It’s the stuff dreams and food addictions and great date nights and insulin pumps are made of. Here in America, we have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s blamed for behavior problems, the rise in diabetes, disease, tooth decay and lowered immune systems. This villainization of sugar has led to various sugar substitutes to hit the market. Somehow, people have started thinking that these chemicals are somehow ‘healthier’ than regular old natural sugar. You can read more about that HERE. This article is about sugar. Everything in the world you want to know about some of the various sweeteners out there, so you can make an informed decision on what to use and when to use it.
A few terms first:
Fructose is fruit sugar. When your body breaks it down, it uses as much as it can for energy, then stores the rest as fat. This is especially true for fructose from sucrose. Fructose from whole fruits contain fiber and nutrients that help the body metabolize it more efficiently. What this means is that, the less processed the sugar, and the more natural it’s source, the more of the sugar the body uses, and the less goes to be stored as fat. This is important when comparing a highly processed sugar, like corn syrup, and a natural sugar, like fruit or honey.
Glucose is sugar in the blood. Carbs and certain types of sugar are broken down in the body and become glucose. Yes, this is what they test for when you drink that nasty drink during your pregnancy to see if you have gestational diabetes.
Sucrose is a combination sugar, half fructose and half glucose.
Lactose is milk sugar…YES! milk has sugar in it…not added to it, it’s part of it.
Glycemic Index (GI): this is a number given to a food that basically tells you how much it spikes your blood sugar after eating it. It is important for diabetics, but also affects those of us without diabetes. A spike in blood sugar will leave you hungry later and may cause mood swings or hyperactivity in kids and adults.
Sugar: the plain white stuff. Also called “table sugar” or “granulated sugar” you can get it in various ‘fine’-ness ratings, like fine and super fine. Notice that table sugar is always “Fine…”, never “Great” or “Fantabulous”. It’s made from either sugar beets or sugar cane. It is sucrose (now is the time to read the above definitions if you skimmed over them before… I’m not offended.) It is harvested, water is added, it’s mashed, then the liquid sugar is separated from the pulp of the cane or beet, then heated, filtered, purified and the water is evaporated. Then after more boiling, it separates into crystallized sugar and Molasses. Molasses retains all of the vitamins and minerals, so the less processed the sugar, the more good stuff you are getting. Depending on how the sugar is handled during the refining process, various ‘kinds’ of sugar can result. Sucanat is a mostly unrefined sugar that is essentially dried sugar cane juice. It retains all of the vitamins, minerals and molasses that is lost through the refining process. Raw Sugar is minimally processed, and retains a high amount of molasses in the sugar. Turbinado Sugar is a kind of raw sugar that has a very high moisture contect and is lower in calories than fully processed sugar. Brown Sugars are typically mostly-processed sugar that still retains some molasses. Chances are, the brown sugar you buy is actually fully refined sugar that is sprayed with a light coating of molasses. You can make your own brown sugar by putting regular sugar in a bag, adding a tsp of molasses and shaking/massaging until the sugar is fully coated. Powdered Sugar, also called Confectioner’s Sugar, is regular refined sugar that is ground to be very fine. GI: 70-80 (sugar) 65 (raw sugar) 55 (molasses and sucanat)
Corn Syrup is the source of much talk these days. As far as sugar villains go, it definitely has been painted a much bigger villainous moustache than refined sugar. It probably has a cooler evil lair as well. What’s all the hoopla, anyway? Well, corn syrup is created by taking corn starch and water and adding to it various enzymes extracted from water where they have grown specific bacteria and fungus ( I PROMISE I am not making this up). The enzymes react with the corn starch and create glucose. My question is, how was this not a hard sell? Those corn farmers have the best talent agents EVER! The real villain we love to hate (and eat) is High-Fructose Corn Syrup. HFCS is created by taking the glucose-heavy corn syrup then exposing it to yet another enzyme, which has been taken by yet another strain of bacteria, turning most of the glucose into fructose. So, what gives? What so bad about that? Well, I’m hurt this time, you obviously didn’t read the above notes about Fructose…I’ll give you some time…I’ll still be here. Yea! You’re back. Okay, so fructose turns into FAT. Plus it is mainly metabolized by the liver, and can create liver problems. HFCS has been linked to diabetes and heart disease. Some reports show trace amounts of mercury from companies who use hydrochloric acid in lieu of the bacteria and fungus in the refining process (I’m not sure which is worse…). GI: 62
Honey is made from honey bees who extract nectar from various flowers. It contains fructose and glucose. The ratio varies , depending on the honey, since each honey is unique to the area where it is cultivated and harvested. Honey has a very low water content, and it is nearly impossible to ferment it. Because of this, it’s a great sugar to have in long term storage for emergencies. It also contains electrolytes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. There are generally two types of honey: Pasturized Honey (or processed honey) and Raw Honey. Processed honey has been heated, which kills any bacteria present. It is important to note that the low water content of honey makes it extremely resistant to bacteria. raw honey has even been shown to be successful in killing antibiotic-resistant MRSA that is found in hospitals. The processing of the honey also kills much of the nutrients and enzymes that make raw honey especially healthful. Raw honey is also used medicinally as an antibacterial and antimicrobial, a skin salve (there is some evidence it is helpful with eczema) and eating local raw honey has been known to cure some allergies. A quick google search about raw honey will give more info than you ever want to know about the benefits of it. Plus, it tastes dang good. It may also be helpful to mention that some commercial honeys are stretched with corn syrup and water, and some honey which was contaminated with lead in china has been repackaged and worked it’s way onto our shelves and in our products. Read about that here: http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/22/tainted-chinese-honey-may-be-on-u-s-store-shelves/ your best bet for honey is to find a local source. Chances are there’s a honey farmer not too far from you who would appreciate your business. GI: 35-70 depending on variety
Maple syrup is made from the sap extracted from maple trees. It is heated until enough water evaporates to become the proper thickness, then filtered. It is mostly Sucrose. It contains some minerals, antioxidants and amino acids. I should clarify, that I’m not talking about Mrs. Butterworth’s here. That stuff is maple flavored corn syrup. I’m talking about 100% sweet-goodness-from-Canada maple syrup. GI: 54
Agave is a relative newcomer to the sugar scene. It has been hailed as a great wonder, because of it’s low glycemic index, which makes it great for diabetics (more about that in a minute..depending on how fast you read). It is sweeter than regular sugar, so you can use less, which is a bonus. The fructose-glucose ratio varies depending on brand, but tends to be higher in fructose (up to 97%). (Okay, I think you have probably already memorized the definition of fructose and it’s related problems, so I won’t bug you to read it again). Another issue with agave is that it is highly processed. It processed in a similar way to corn syrup, either by bacterial enzymes or chemicals. Even agave that is termed “raw” is still processed in one of these two ways. In the case of agave, “raw” means it wasn’t heated above a certain temperature when processing. GI: 10-30 depending on brand
Now that you have memorized the various types of sugar, you understand that sugar with more glucose with spike your blood sugar more than sugar with more fructose. However, sugar with more fructose stores unused sugar as fat. Now that you know this, as well as the various info about processing and vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in some sugars, you should know enough to give a lecture on it to any girl scout troop. Oh, and pick which sugar you think is right for various needs in your cooking and baking for your particular family.