America’s sweet tooth becomes all too evident when you realize just how many types of sugar are available on the market. Blame it on technology, which allows us to refine tons of barley, corn, fruits, rice, and sorghum into concentrated sugars readily available year-round. Or you can point fingers at how simply sweet and good it tastes as the cause. But when it comes down to defining its differences, refined, unrefined, etc., sugar is sugar, whether white, brown or raw. Some claim important nutrients that are necessary for the digestion of the sugar are lost in the refining process. Either way, too much of any kind of sugar will likely cause health problems, so use all kinds of sweeteners sparingly. Since sugar provides little in the way of vitamins, minerals or antioxidants, health experts suggest we limit our sugar consumption and stick to fruit.
Professor Ian Macdonald, chair of the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition told The Guardian: “The evidence is stark – too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back. The clear and consistent link between a high-sugar diet and conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes is the wake-up call we need to rethink our diet.” His advice applies to consumption by those ages two and over of so-called “free sugar,” which includes table sugar, the sugar added to food and drinks, and that found naturally in fruit juices, syrups and honey. So how well do you know your sugar varieties and is there a difference between raw sugar and demerara for instance?
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First let’s start by dividing things into three types of sugar: more-refined sugars, less-refined sugars and sugar alcohols. Perhaps the most famous sugar is granulated sugar (or table sugar). It’s white, highly refined and used in baking. Dark brown and light brown sugars, though touted as “healthier” are also refined whites sugar, but with different amounts of molasses mixed in making it either darker or lighter brown. Other refined sugars include: confectioners’ sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, maltose, malt syrup, polydextrose, sucrose or syrup.
Those who watch what they eat gravitate to less refined sugars, though technically they are no better for you in the long run. This category includes raw sugar, which has a higher price tag and marketed as a purer sweetener. Raw sugar is technically called Turbinado and is a type of minimally refined raw cane sugar. It has large to medium-brown crystals, and is often mistaken for brown sugar, though it’s not the same thing. Like refined sugar it comes from sugarcane (though refined sugar can also be made from beets). The main difference between the two is in the boiling of the cane juice: The juice for refined sugar is boiled several times to remove all the molasses, whereas Turbinado sugar is boiled only once. The residual molasses gives Turbinado sugar “some flavor and texture other than just sweetness,” Katherine Zeratski, a registered dietitian with Mayo Clinic told Mother Jones. But it doesn’t provide any significant nutrition.
Demerara sugar is a variety of raw cane sugar that is minimally refined. It has an amber color, and a subtle molasses flavor. Other less-refined sugars, as per The Kitchn.com, include agave nectar, amasake, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown-rice syrup, cane juice, date sugar, demerara, fructose, fruit-juice concentrate, honey, lactose, maple syrup, muscovado, and sucanat.
Finally, there are the sugar alcohols, which, according to the Martha Stewart camp, come from plant products such as fruits and berries. The carbohydrate in these plant products is altered through a chemical process. So when you read the label and it says erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, or xylitol, then it’s a sugar alcohol.
Next time you find yourself reading the label on a bag of cookies or for a recipe, you´ll know exactly what kind of sweetener you are dealing with. Ain’t that sweet?