by Alicia Lundquist Guy
This article was originally published in December 2003
Sweeten holiday baking naturally
(December 2003) — For most of the year, I can’t recollect where the sugar is in my house. Desserts are a special occasion reserved for birthdays and company. But during the holidays, I can’t resist the urge to dig out cookie sheets and family recipes like Swedish Cardamom Coffee Bread, laden with all of the butter and sweets in scarcity the rest of the year.
A little cloud has always hung over the festive construction of gingerbread houses, as I’ve been reluctant to buy questionable holiday baking ingredients such as powdered sugar, the optimal mortar for solid confectionary architecture. Large conglomerate sugar producers with a dubious environmental reputation traditionally produce many of these ingredients.
Fortunately, as the demand for organic and natural foods has increased over the years, companies with a focus on sustainability, such as Rapunzel and Woodstock Farms, have begun supplying the idealistic baker with organically grown and minimally processed versions of fluffier, once-a-year baking “necessities.”
Rapunzel Pure Organics, started in Germany by three friends in 1974, is a longstanding supplier of organic products throughout Europe and the creator of the first 100-percent-organic chocolate bar. A true pioneer in sustainability, Rapunzel implemented the Hand in Hand Fair Trade program in 1989, long before Fair Trade had developed as a recognized consumer issue in the United States.
According to Rapunzel’s mission, “The Hand in Hand Fair Trade program ensures farmers in developing countries are paid based on a fair pricing structure independent from the world market.” Rapunzel applies this program to all of its 100-percent-certified-organic commodities, not just coffee, tea and chocolate. It now produces more than 600 products and works with thousands of sustainable organic farmers in 35 countries. Rapunzel Pure Organics first came to the American market in 1996 with its sumptuous organic chocolate bars and now imports and distributes many organic products.
One of Rapunzel’s best products, Rapadura unrefined and unbleached whole cane sugar, is a more natural one-to-one substitute for standard refined sugar in most baking recipes. The sugar is not separated from the molasses stream during the squeeze-dried processing. Refined white sugar is often chemically extracted in conventional sugar production. (Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with some molasses added back in.) The sugar cane is harvested from sustainable family farms in Bolivia. The cane fields are not burned after harvest and crops are rotated with rice to maintain soil health.
PCC also carries Rapunzel Kokoa, organically grown cocoa powder produced with beans from small farmers’ cooperatives in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. No holiday would be the same without a little extra dose of chocolate; PCC carries a full line of Rapunzel organic chocolate bars.
To the relief of many holiday pie-makers, Rapunzel also offers a 100-percent-organically grown cornstarch, completely free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Corn, along with soy and canola, is one of the most common genetically modified crops in the United States.
The natural bread baker will be thankful for Rapunzel’s most recent addition — Rize baking yeast. It’s the first certified-organic and non-GMO dried baking yeast. Conventional yeast production often uses harsh chemicals such as ammonia and sulfuric acid, causing heavy wastewater contamination. For more information about Rapunzel products and sustainability practices, see www.rapunzel.com.
For those occasional uses of more refined sweeteners, PCC’s new vendor Woodstock Farms offers organically grown refined white sugar, brown sugar and powdered sugar. Woodstock uses organic, non-GMO cornstarch in its powdered sugar. All powdered sugar contains cornstarch, added for it’s anti-caking properties.
According to Ron Lautrup, National Commodities Director at United Natural Brands, which markets Woodstock sugars, “All of the sugar is fully ‘green harvested,’ meaning no burning is involved during harvest or post harvest … The company we are sourcing the sugar from is working aggressively to expand the production of organic acres and is converting existing conventional growers to organic as well as adding new growers. The company works with networks of grower cooperatives, and all the farmers, both conventional and organic, are paid fair prices.”
Sugar always has been in the hot seat in the PCC community. In the 1970s, a member vote narrowly defeated an initiative to ban refined sugar from PCC stores. Yet the sweet tooth endures. No one would recommend regular use or over-consumption of sugar, but most would acknowledge that a rich, extravagant chocolate brownie every now and then is one of life’s little pleasures.
The fact that small and ever-increasing elements of the sugar industry are putting a focus on sustainability and organic production is icing on the cake. Holiday bakers can now pay tribute to a treasured family recipe for iced cookies while at the same time keeping true to their own sustainable shopping ideals.