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Sugar Has Company

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By Lois Hoffman | Mar 3, 2020

Sugar is in the news a lot lately. It’s bad for you, cut down on it. Don’t eat sugar at all. Try sugar substitutes. It all can be confusing.

With all the choices, it is hard to tell what the best choices are. Honey, molasses, sorghum, maple syrup and many more can be whole food sugar substitutes. I have sort of muddled through this field, sampling different ones here and there without really knowing what I was doing. So, I decided to give it some serious thought.

I remember my uncle growing sorghum and pressing it into this thick, gooey substance that he, my Mom and the rest of the family loved over pancakes. To me, it was anything but a sweetener. Bitter is more the word that I would use.

Still, sorghum and its cousin, molasses, are often used as sweeteners. Many folks think they are one and the same although they are two distinct products.

If you ask most folks today, they haven’t a clue what sorghum is. A cereal grain, it is the fifth most important cereal grain in the world. With its natural draught tolerance, it can be grown in dry climates and is versatile as a food, feed and fuel. In the United States, besides human consumption, it is used as livestock feed and in ethanol plants.

It is naturally gluten-free and, unlike other grains, has an edible hull. It is high in antioxidants and the wax surrounding the sorghum grain contains policosanols which research is showing promise in its ability to lower cholesterol as well as statins. A couple generations ago it was the staple sweetener in southern dishes because it was cheap and plentiful.

Sorghum is made from the green juice of the sorghum plant, extracted from the crushed stalks, then heated to steam off the excess water, leaving the syrup behind.

Molasses, on the other hand, is a by-product of processing sugar cane into sugar. Sulphured molasses is made from green sugar cane and is the highest quality because only a small amount of sugar has been removed. Molasses from the second boiling is darker in color and less sweet. Blackstrap molasses is from the third boiling and is high in iron and is used in the manufacture of cattle feed and in medicine.

Molasses is usually preferred for cooking and baking whereas sorghum is popular as a syrup. Ironically, sorghum has more calories in equal measure than molasses, maple syrup or honey.

Maple syrup is made by boiling down the sap of various maple trees. It is one of the oldest sweeteners and is mild and fragrant. It can be substituted for sugar in baked goods by adding 3/4 cup maple syrup for one cup of sugar, decreasing the liquid by 3 tablespoons and adding 1/4 teaspoon baking soda.

Honey has been called “nature’s golden nectar.” It is made from flower nectar that bees gather, take back to the hive, where worker bees process the sweet syrup and store it in the honeycomb. How honey tastes and looks depends on what kind of flower the nectar comes from and weather conditions. It is 20 to 60 times sweeter than sugar and can be substituted in baking by using a very scant cup of honey for sugar and adding 3 tablespoons of liquid and a 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda.

That brings us back to sugar itself. There is white sugar, light and dark brown sugar, powdered sugar and raw sugar, just to name the main ones. What’s the difference?

Even white sugar is not simple. Crystal size is what makes the difference in types of granular sugar. Different sizes are used for different applications. Table sugar is characterized by fine crystals and a paper-white color.

Raw sugar is what is left after sugar cane has been processed and refined. It is sugar before the molasses has been removed. It is served in coffee bars as coffee and tea sweeteners and is often used as a finishing sugar.

Powdered sugar is regular white sugar that has been ground into a powder. It is perfect for creating foods with a smooth consistency, for dusting desserts and in frostings and icings.

Brown sugar is simply sugar that has molasses added back in, giving it that brown or caramel color. The difference between light and dark brown sugar is the amount of molasses that it contains. It has .25 fewer calories per gram than white sugar.

As with most subjects, there are different views on whether any of these natural sweeteners are actually better than sugar itself. Some say that the less processed sugars are healthier than regular sugar. Some, like honey and sorghum do contain nutrients that regular sugar does not. Others say sugar is still sugar, in whatever form.

Even though a sweetener contains some vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes, even in trace amounts, that still does not justify eating large quantities of them. Perhaps the main basis for choosing a sweetener is on its taste. Different ones work better for different recipes and applications.

Variety is still the spice of life and so it is with sweeteners too. Sometimes I make my cinnamon rolls with white sugar and sometimes with brown. Where would gingerbread be without molasses or honey rolls without honey? Different strokes for different folks go for us sweet tooths too!

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