Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How sweet it is, all about sugar

     In preparation for canning season, I have been doing a little research on various subjects, pectin, food safety and sugar. I wanted to be able to post articles that were informed and informative that would help answer some of the questions that come up when you are starting to make your own home preserves. I had no idea what I was getting into.

     The debate around sugar has been raging for decades. I went out in search of some concrete facts, what I found was a lot of talk with not a lot of substance. As it turns out, everyone has their own agenda and it is very difficult to sort fact from fiction about sugar and it's alternatives. This is what I found out and is no way the definitive answer but hopefully will spark some discussion or make you think about your own sugar consumption.

Sugar in all it's glory

     First a brief explanation of just what sugar is, a carbohydrate. It is naturally occurring in various amounts in all plants and is our source of energy. It falls into two broad categories, mono/single/simple and di/complex saccharides. Examples of mono saccharides include fructose, glucose, galactose and dextrose. Some of the complex are sucrose, a glucose and fructose combined, lactose, a combination of galactose and glucose and maltose which is a double glucose ( and you use it to make beer, Hurray). Here's the thing, most plants contain both kinds, simple and complex. So where does that take us?

     We'll start with sucrose or common table sugar. It is referred to as refined sugar, bleached white, crystallized and sweet. The body breaks it down into its component glucose and fructose and goes to work. Insulin metabolizes glucose and it can be used by any cells in the body. Only the liver can metabolize fructose.

Sucrose molecule, glucose on the left, fructose on the right

    In and of themselves, neither is particularly good or bad for the body if you are in good health. Here is where the problems arise. During the refining process, sugar is stripped of all of it other minerals and nutrients (impurities). For the body to process it, it needs to draw on stores that are already present. If you over indulge you risk nutrient deficiency in other areas. If you are diabetic or have liver problems, you can't process one or the other properly and that leads to problems, some with severe consequences.

     The vegetarian angle, which I didn't know, is about 25% of the bleaching that occurs in commercial production in done through bone char. Not animal friendly.

     What are your alternatives? Brown or raw sugar? Nope, it is illegal to sell unrefined sugar, I don't know why, so all sugar is processed in some way. Brown sugar is made by re introducing molasses to white/refined sugar in varying amounts. Seems redundant to add it back but it is to maintain consistency of product, consumer driven. It is marginally better for you because the molasses contains some of the nutrients processing stripped out but only marginally.

     Honey, succinat, maple syrup, agave nectar? Healthy? Not necessarily, all are high fructose and too much fructose is as bad as too much sucrose, just in different ways. Here's the kicker, all sugars have the same calorie count. There is no such thing as a "good" sugar.

     No sugar pectin? The first ingredient is dextrose, another name for glucose. There is another type of product that gels with calcium so true no sugar pectin exits. The other normally is marketed as "no sugar added", 'cause it's already in there.

     Where does that leave us? We need sugar of some sort to exist, it is our energy source after all. Is one better than the other? Yes and no. Getting your sugar by eating fruits and vegetables means you are getting other nutrients and fibre as well so is definitely better for you but you can still over indulge. Basically, much like sodium intake, be aware of what you are eating. Everything in moderation.

     There you have it, my much over simplified post on sugar. If you are interested in a more in depth look, click here. It is one of the better articles on sugar that I found.

     Are you sweet enough? Let me know what you think about sugar, how you use it, alternatives etc. Lively debate is always interesting. Take care.


  1. what about Stevia? I used it in my coffee when pregnant because it doesn't affect blood glucose and I had gestational diabetes. Some brands can have a bitter aftertaste if you are using high quantities..so how would that affect your baking/canning, etc. I wonder?

  2. I have never used Stevia but have seen very mixed reviews on using it all over the web. Most people combine it with other sweeteners to cut the bitter aftertaste when using it in jams, jellies and baking. I'll do some more looking at it later and let you know what I find out.


Thanks for your comment, I hope you enjoyed your time in the "Kitchen".