Imagine a cup of coffee without sugar or plain yogurt with muesli. Not too appealing? There are reasons for our sugar cravings. Sugar amps up the flavor of food by balancing flavors of other ingredients. It acts as a preservative by reducing the water in food, making it inapt for microbes. It improves the appearance and texture of food, making eating more pleasurable.
If you believed all the hype about sugar, you’d be led to believe that it is solely responsible for the epidemic rates of overweight and obesity, sky-rocketing diabetes, heart disease, and cancer or that sugar is as addictive as cocaine and heroin.
Don’t get me wrong, eating too much added, or refined, sugars isn’t healthy. And I’m talking about all forms of sugar that is extracted from whole foods and added to the food supply.
Don’t fall for garbage marketing that suggests coconut sugar, or turbinado sugar and the like are healthier than good old-fashioned white sugar. Your body treats it all the same and your consumption of sugar does need to be watched but not obsessively.
Excessive sugar consumption has indeed been linked to poorer health outcomes, no one is denying that, but sugar as it’s traditionally been used isn’t the problem. Small amounts used in coffee or tea hasn’t lead to our current issues of obesity.
Have you ever tried oatmeal without sugar? It ain’t gonna happen; you know it and I know it. A couple of teaspoons of brown sugar is just the thing needed to get those tasty and nutritious grains down the gullet. The same thing goes for plain yogurt and muesli or even fresh berries; no one would begrudge you for adding a little honey to bring out and enhance foods natural flavors.
There’s More To Sugar Than Sweetness
I was recently invited to a workshop to learn specifically about sugar’s functional role in cooking. Something that many don’t know anything about. Sugar is so much more than sweetness and calories!
It has been many, many years since my days of food science so this was a great fresher on the culinary properties of sugar.
Sugar In Foods: 4 Main Functional Properties
- Sweetness – probably the best known use of sugar is it’s role of adding a sense of sweetness in baked goods, confectionery, cereals, yogurt and beverages.
- Flavour Perception – sugar helps to mask the flavor of certain foods. For example, it doesn’t make a difference from a added sugar point of view if sugar is added by the food producer or honey is added to plain yogurt by the consumer. Sugar helps to cut the tartness of yogurt for those who prefer their yogurt that way. Same thing goes for the natural bitterness of whole grains, whether it’s brown sugar, honey or maple syrup, sugars help to make foods taste better.
- Flavour Enhancement – sugar helps to enhance the flavor of dishes by helping to balance the flavors of other ingredients such as the sourness in vinegar or the acidity in tomatoes. Tomato sauces and dishes or salad dressings are balanced with a little added sugar whether it’s white, brown, honey, syrup, and the like.
- Preservation And Fermentation – sugar helps to lower the ‘water activity’ in recipes by reducing the amount of available water, thereby, reducing microbial growth; like salt, sugar is a natural preservative. Jams, jellies and fruit cakes can actually last a long time before molds can grow specifically because of the presence of sugar. Sugars also provide a source of food for microorganisms which ferment the sugar to produce a desired end product like kefir, beer, pickles, or bread and yeast-leavened baked products. Sugars help to produce carbon dioxide which helps baked good to rise and provides some effervescence or bubbles to thing like kefir.
- Caramelization – heat causes sugars to change and form brown colors and a nutty flavor; caramels, toffee and sauces, caramelized onions, potatoes for example.
- Millard Browning – color and flavor changes with heat and amino acids helps to provide a sense of visual appeal, flavor and pleasure with eating that we get with baked goods like bread, muffins, toasted marshmallows, pretzels, pan-fried dumplings, seared steak, etc.
- Crystallization, Boiling Point Increase And Lowering Of Freezing Point – being able to control the crystallization of sugar allows for confectioneries to create different texture for different treats and candies. Sugar can also be used to increase the boiling temperature to allow for better control of consistencies and textures of food. Without this ability, common foods that we eat would be unpalatable; sponge cake would not be tender and ice cream would not be smooth but rather have little crystals of sugar – yuck!
- Texture And Appearance – sugar helps to increase the pleasure of eating, or ‘mouth feel’ as food scientists call it. Sugar makes it possible to have crunchy pickles, light and fluffy meringues, or spongy angle food cake.
During the workshop, I had the opportunity to eat Vanilla Genoise Cake with Swiss Meringue Buttercream made with, and without, sugar. I can tell you I almost gagged when I tried the sugar-free version. The cake was dense and flavorless and tasted what I imagine wallpaper paste must taste like. The icing was like plain, unsalted butter – no thanks.
What About Our Sugar Consumption?
If you believed everything you heard or read without checking out the facts, it would seem that Canadians are eating buckets of sugar every year. It’s true that sugar consumption has increased over the past 100 years. And it’s also true that teenage boys are the largest consumers, but the evidence suggests that Canadians aren’t doing too badly at all.
Unlike our US neighbors who tend to consume far more soft drinks and other sweetened beverages like iced tea, lemonade, etc Canadians are consuming about 11% of their total energy/calories from added sugars, well below the Institute of Medicine’s suggested maximum of 25%.
Not only that, but Canadian consumption of sugar has been declining over the past four decades. On average, Canadian adults consume nearly 1/3 less added sugars that US adults.