“Ecstasy is a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.” --Alexander Pushkin

October 2011/Prepared Foods -- Of the 2,600-plus food additives developers have to choose from on the market today, salt is the number one added ingredient, and sugar is listed as second. But, with changing lifestyles and tastes--not to mention the economy--alternates to sugar and its relative, high-fructose corn syrup, are emerging as viable choices in today’s marketplace.

Sugar has a long and colorful history. Its introduction into Western Europe is traced back to the early growth of sugarcane prior to the sixth century B.C. in Polynesia. It is thought to have then been grown in India in the beginning of the fifth century B.C., where Emperor Darius of Persia noted its existence and gave it great popularity in the Arabic world.

The Crusades brought Europeans into contact with Arabic culture. The Arabic people introduced “sugar” (at that point a sticky paste, semi-crystallized and believed to have medicinal value) to the Western world. They brought both the reed and knowledge for its cultivation to Sicily and then Spain in the eighth and ninth centuries. Later, Venice began importing finished sugar from Alexandria and succeeded in establishing a monopoly over this new ingredient by the 15th century.

Sugar can be made from two main sources, either sugarcane or sugar beets. Early sugar from the cane went through a refining process in Italy; when Columbus left on his travels, he reportedly took the plants with him, which then were established in the Caribbean. The climate of Caribbean islands lent itself perfectly to sugarcane growth, since it is best grown in tropic or near-tropic temperatures. This expansion of ability to grow lots of sugarcane gradually led to the establishment of plantations throughout the Caribbean. By the 1800s, sugar (though still expensive) was widely available to both upper and middle classes.

What is “Sugar?”
 Today, sugar is a broad term applied to a large number of carbohydrates present in many plants and characterized by a more or less sweet taste. A primary sugar, glucose, is a product of photosynthesis and occurs in most all green plants. [Editor’s note: Other common ones include fructose, sucrose (a molecule that is 50/50 glucose and fructose) and lactose (a molecule that is 50/50 galactose and glucose).] In most plants, sugars occur in mixtures not readily separated into individual sugar components. One major exception is sucrose, which is commercially obtained and purified from sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) and sugar beets (Beta vulgaris).

Sugarcane is a thick, tall, perennial grass that flourishes in tropical or subtropical regions. Sugar synthesized in the leaves is used as a source of energy for growth or is sent to the stalks for storage. Sugarcane yields about 2,600,000 tons of sugar per year. The sugar beet is a beetroot variety with the highest sugar content, for which it is specifically cultivated. About 3,700,000 tons of sugar is manufactured from sugar beets. The types of sugar used today are white sugar (fully refined sugar), composed of clear, colorless or crystal fragments; or brown sugar, which is either less fully refined or which is commercially produced by the addition of molasses to white sugar.

By the end of the 19th century, the average American was consuming roughly 5lbs of sugar a year. Today, that has grown to several pounds of sugar a week. What does that really equate to? Well, in the last 20 years or so, yearly consumption in the U.S. has increased from about 25lbs to about 135lbs per person. While that may be hard to imagine, there are many hidden sources in the diet: breads, peanut butter, condiments, sauces, fruit drinks and carbonated beverages. Much of the sugar is present in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). According to several sources, cane sugar costs roughly $0.33/lb, as of spring 2010, while HFCS costs around $0.20/lb. The low cost of corn syrup makes it a popular choice for food and beverage manufacturers. Sugar prices also tend to fluctuate wildly, making corn syrup prices more predictable.

Food and beverage companies are facing adverse media campaigns citing new studies on the ills of sugar in people’s diets. Having sugary foods and drinks can cause a spike in blood glucose levels. In response, the body secretes insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF). These two substances promote cell growth and inflammation, and can increase the risk of certain health conditions.

It is not the intent of this article to posture for or against the use of HFCS vs. sugar or the use of sweeteners, but to merely identify and highlight some facts about the use of these products in today’s manufacturing process. However, with health and wellness being more of a focal point for many manufacturers, there has been a shift away from HFCS back to brown sugar or processed table sugar. There are other sweeteners that can be used, instead of either HFCS or refined sugar. [Editor’s note: Many to all of these are consumer-friendly options for packaging labels or can add interest to menu items. In regards to composition, however, certain ones are very similar to refined sugar, and a few have fructose contents high as or higher than commercially used HFCS.]

Natural Alternatives
Some of these alternative sweeteners can be healthier than refined sugar, in that they contain additional levels of fiber and nutrients, and they taste great, also. On the natural side, there is: date sugar, molasses, sorghum, birch sugar, agave nectar, maple and palm syrups, barley malt, brown rice syrup, carob, coconut palm sugar, watermelon, dates, milkweed, honey, stevia and lo han guo, to name a few. With that in mind, the natural question is how to incorporate these natural alternatives into applications? Each has its own unique sweetness profile, but all are easily adapted to any task at hand. [Editor’s note: Some are readily available commercially, while others, such as milkweed, are more in the realm of “natural cooks.”] Here is a list of some natural sweeteners. They are characterized by a range of glycemic indexes, depending on the sweetener.

* Date sugar consists of ground dehydrated dates. It contains the same nutrient value as dried dates. The taste and appearance is similar to sugar, but it is less sweet. Date sugar works especially well in baked goods.

* Dried cane juice is juice that has been extracted from the sugarcane and dehydrated. This product is much less refined than white sugar, plus some of the minerals in the cane juice are still present. It resembles brown sugar in appearance and taste, though it is less sweet. Sucanat and Rapadura are consumer trade names for organically grown, dehydrated cane juice. Substitute dried cane juice in equal proportions for white or brown sugar. [Editor’s note: The FDA defines “evaporated cane juice” as any sweetener derived from sugarcane syrup, which could include pure sucrose.]

* Agave nectar has been growing in popularity the past few years and is available as a fluid in light, medium and amber. Extracted from the agave plant, this nectar is low on the glycemic index and sweeter than refined sugar (due to its high fructose content).

Moving to thick liquid or syrup-like natural sweeteners, one can discover the following ingredients:

* Barley malt is a complex carbohydrate sweetener made from barley that has been soaked, sprouted and cooked, until the starches in the grain are broken down and converted into maltose. Barley malt is dark and thick, like molasses, and has a malt-like aftertaste.

* Brown rice syrup is made from rice that has been soaked, sprouted and cooked with a cereal enzyme that breaks the starches into maltose. Rice syrup has a light, delicate flavor and looks similar to honey, but is less sweet.

* Honey has been used as a sweetener for thousands of years. One can also use raw, unpasteurized honey in all baked goods. Honey has a very distinctive taste that takes getting used to for some people, but once people start cooking with it, it grows on them.

* Maple syrup is made from the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Forty gallons of sap makes one gallon of syrup. Maple syrup is available in three grades: A, B or C. The temperature used and length of time cooked determine the grade. Grade A is best for pancakes and waffles; grade B has better flavor for baking, is less expensive and has a higher mineral content.

* Frozen pureed bananas can be used as a substitute, also, depending on the application and method of preparation.

* Sorghum syrup is the concentrated juice of crushed and boiled sorghum stems. The sorghum plant is a relative of grain millet. Sorghum syrup is a thick, light brown syrup with a slight molasses taste.

* Coconut palm sugar is made from the sweet flower blossom nectar of the green coconut tree, Cocos nucifera. The nectar is collected, boiled and granulated.

* Xylitol is a natural sweetener that occurs in fruits, berries and some vegetables, but is made primarily from birch bark. Xylitol is safe for use by diabetics and is thought to help prevent tooth decay.

With a little imagination and experimentation, any or all of these natural alternatives can make an interesting and sometimes evocative way to sweeten formulations or recipes. Exactly how these specific ratios work as replacements to sweeten products will vary in amount, depending on taste. However, knowing all the options might help formulators develop something unique, as well as healthier.

Just some food for thought.pf