Choices in sugars and sweeteners

by Nancy Schatz Alton

This article was originally published in November 2008


(November 2008) — It’s easy to make lovely holiday desserts with less refined and even unrefined sweeteners. Choosing less refined sweeteners has some advantages, too.

I’m standing in front of the sugar section at the Fremont PCC store, staring at a rainbow of sweet choices. Bright in its green bag is white sugar, an old standby with a slightly darker white color, dressed up with an organic label.

Next to it are brightly colored bags of brown sugars, ranging from light to dark. The Sucanat — an organic, granulated cane juice — appears coarse and brown due to added molasses and my nutritionist says it’s better than white sugar because it’s less refined.

There’s exotic-looking demerara sugar with its chunky brown crystals; my mother-in-law loves it for its texture.

And there’s muscovado and Rapadura — dark and grainy — next to date sugar.

At the end of the shelf is xylitol, which supposedly doesn’t cause cavities and may be suitable for diabetics.

Not a health food but …
Does the color brown connote a healthier choice?

If the sugar is imported or organic, does it taste better?

And how will my holiday cookies look and taste if I make them with an unrefined or less refined sugar instead of standard white sugar?

It doesn’t take much digging to learn that sugar basically is sugar, no matter what it’s called. Refined sugars are just pure sucrose with no vitamins, minerals, protein, fats or fiber. As nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in her book “What to Eat,” sucrose is just one type of caloric sweetener, “composed of two single sugars (monosaccharides), one of them glucose (blood sugar) and the other fructose (fruit sugar).”

No sugar can be considered a health food, but unrefined Rapadura and muscovado and minimally refined Sucanat and demerara sugars do contain some trace minerals.

“Because they still have traces of some nutrients intact, less refined or unrefined sugars are not as shocking or stimulating to our system,” says Seattle-area nutritionist and PCC Cooks instructor Ami Karnosh. “They tend to be better for our bodies,” she says. “That’s not to say an oatmeal cookie will save you from a sugar rush but it’s a healthier alternative to one without oatmeal.”

Karnosh recommends consuming some protein and fiber along with sugar because our bodies require essential nutrients to metabolize sugar.

Seattle naturopath Dr. Tom Ballard explains, “Sugar is far worse than empty calories. It actually is an anti-food. It steals nutrients.

“The refining process removes fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals and requires the body to rob these essential nutrients in order to metabolize the sugar. It drains the body of B vitamins, chromium, zinc, magnesium and calcium. With fewer nutrients available, other necessary body processes suffer.”

Distinctive flavors and textures
Nutritional warnings in mind, I’m looking at the less refined and unrefined sweeteners. Karnosh says they’ll lend desserts a richer color, flavor and texture.

Of course, bakers can replace white sugar in a recipe with an equal portion of any other granulated sugar — Rapadura, muscovado, Sucanat, demerara, date or turbinado. Each will lend a distinctive texture and flavor to the finished product.

Liquid sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup or agave syrup, require reducing other liquids for the recipe to bake properly. (For details, see PCC’s Guide to Natural Sweeteners brochure in stores or online.

Less refined and unrefined sugars also have a color palette, be it shades within the brown family. These sweeteners are distinguished by the degree to which they are refined and how much of the natural molasses is separated out.

When making Sucanat (a brand name, abbreviated from “sugar cane natural”), the cane juice is heated but not to the point where it crystallizes. The molasses and sugar are not separated; the granules remain rich with natural molasses and the Sucanat is hand-paddled dry.

Sucanat retains most of its trace nutrients, including iron, calcium, potassium, B1 vitamins and chromium. Nutritionist Karnosh uses Sucanat when she bakes. “It’s still really sweet,” she says, “and will give me a cream-colored cake. It might not be as fluffy, but there’s more to it than pure sucrose.”

Turbinado sugar is known for its large, crunchy, golden-colored crystals. It’s made the same way as white sugar but without the last extraction of molasses, so it’s actually closer to white sugar than unrefined sugar. Pastry chefs like to use mild-flavored turbinado — or its cousin demerara known for its larger crystals — as a finishing sugar, for instance, topping ginger snap cookies.

Alice Medrich, a San Francisco-based pastry chef and the author of “Pure Dessert,” uses demerara in shortbread and butter-cookie recipes. She reduces some of the sugar in a recipe to replace it with demerara and doesn’t add it to the batter until she stirs in the flour or nuts. This gives her cookies a satisfying crunch.

Medrich also warns against using refined sugar made from sugar beets. Pastry chefs don’t find it to be as consistent as sugar from cane, blaming it for errors in the kitchen. During a cane sugar/beet sugar baking test performed by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999, the white beet sugar in a crème brûlée “refused to caramelize on top.”

It’s not always possible to know which sugars are made from beets; the package label may not tell you. Usually, cheaper refined sugars are beet-based. Look for “pure cane sugar” on labels to avoid genetically modified beet sugar, which is expected to hit the market this winter.

Muscovado sugar comes in both light and dark varieties, both featuring a high molasses content. Unlike conventional brown sugars, which are refined white sugars with molasses added back in, muscovado is made from unrefined evaporated cane juice with all its natural molasses, vitamins and minerals intact. Muscovado has a pronounced flavor and is especially popular in England with coffee and tea.

In “Pure Dessert,” Medrich says, “Dark muscovado has a deep, wonderful, smoky, fruity flavor.” Her flan recipe uses refined sugar in the custard and dark muscovado in the sauce. “The result is simpler to make than a classic flan but dramatically flavored with muscovado,” she says. “I was going for juxtaposition, so the flan tastes of eggs, milk and cream … and you get this flavorful aroma with the muscovado.”

Light muscovado has a more subtle, delicate flavor. Both muscovados can be used in any recipe calling for light or dark brown sugar, either as straight or partial substitutions. Muscovado also can be used for savory cooking. Elsie Fineberg, a pastry chef for Taste SAM in Seattle, uses it instead of white sugar in her Vietnamese sauces.

Specialty sugars
Powdered or confectioners’ sugar undergoes pulverization to achieve its powdered state, which readily dissolves in hot or cold liquids and fats. Because moisture from the air will make powdered sugar clump, cornstarch or tricalcium phosphate typically is added to it. PCC sells organic powdered sugar, ensuring we can avoid genetically modified cornstarch.

Holiday cookies wouldn’t be the same without sparkling or sanding sugar, also known as pearl or decorative sugar. This coarse-grained sugar, used for decorating desserts, cookies and biscuits, comes in beguiling tones. Consider trying Raspberry Red or Periwinkle Blue, sold by Seattle-based India Tree, a purveyor of sugars and spices from around the world.

“This started with parents not wanting to put artificial dyes into their children,” says Gretchen Goehrend, the president of India Tree. “You’ll never get a true Christmas red from this, but the color palette is truly beautiful.”

A purpose in the pantry
The varieties of sugar are vast and their properties vary but each of these sweeteners can have a purpose in your pantry.

Dark muscovado now adds a rich sweetness to the crumble topping on my apple pie, which is sure to please my Thanksgiving guests. And I’m looking forward to trying organic Sucanat in my sugar cookies. The result may not look like the traditional white holiday treats, but I know they’ll be just as delicious.

Also in this issue

News bites, November 2008

Co-ops raise $30,000 for flooded farmers; The origins of Thanksgiving; American Thanksgiving; and more

Organic and sustainable: simple words, complex ideas

As encroaching development converts more of Washington’s farmland into houses and shopping malls, we at the PCC Farmland Trust strive to preserve farms for future generations. What exactly do we mean when we use the words organic and sustainable?

Letters to the editor, November 2008

Edmonds fan mail, Aerial spraying of pesticide, Sweeteners in the diet, and more