Sugar, ah honey honey. You are my candy girl, And you’ve got me wanting you.
So J. and I are trying to be more green by eating local, organic, bulk, unprocessed etc etc. With that comes the responsibility of researching the options out there and determining what really is green. Unfortunately just because Whole Foods sell something in the bulk bins that doesn’t mean it is the best option out there.
One of the most difficult decisions for us was choosing which sugar to purchase because to be completely honest we both have huge sweet tooths and a week doesn’t go by that we don’t make cookies, cupcakes, pastry etc etc. We have found a local source for honey and in some instances honey can replace sugar quite well but we shall get into that later.
The first thing you may ask yourself when contemplating sugar is where does sugar come from. Sugar can be made from sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar cane is grown primarily in tropical countries and Hawaii and constitutes 70% of the world’s production. The remaining 30% comes from sugar beets which are currently grown in 11 states in the USA.
The second question you may ask yourself is how is sugar refined? What chemicals and processes are involved? Sugar is harvested and then shipped (which uses gas and causes pollution) to a bulk refinery usually in the country where it will eventually be sold. The first step in processing is called affination to soften and then remove a layer of liquid surrounding the crystals (ie molasses). The next step is carbonation which removes the non-sugar solids by introducing chalk or phosphates (chemicals). Now that the sugar is relatively “clean” it is decolorized (why?). There are also two common methods of color removal in refineries, both relying on absorption techniques with the liquor being pumped through columns of medium (more chemicals). One option is to use granular activated carbon [GAC] which removes most colour but little else. The carbon is regenerated in a hot kiln where the colour is burnt off from the carbon. The other option is to use an ion exchange resin which removes less colour than GAC but also removes some of the inorganics present. The resin is regenerated chemically which gives rise to large quantities of unpleasant liquid effluents. (Are you ready for some cookies now?) The final step for the sugar is boiling. In the pan even more water is boiled off until conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. In the factory the workers throw in some sugar dust to initiate crystal formation. Once the crystals have grown the resulting mixture of crystals and liquor is spun in centrifuges to separate the two. The crystals are then given a final dry with hot air before being packed and/or stored ready for dispatch (more gas and pollution involved to transport to your local grocery store). So what happens to the rest, you ask? Well the liquor left over from the preparation of white sugar (I still don’t understand why the sugar needs to white…) and the washings from the affination stage both contain sugar which it is economic to recover (otherwise they would dump it into a river I’m sure). They are therefore sent to the recovery house which operates rather like a raw sugar factory, aiming to make a sugar with a quality comparable to the washed raws after the affination stage (I couldn’t find out how exactly this is accomplished but I’m sure more chemical processes are involved). As with the other sugar processes, one cannot get all of the sugar out of the liquor and therefore there is a sweet by-product made called refiners’ molasses. This is usually turned into a cattle food or is sent to a distillery where alcohol is made. (Anyone want milk with your cookies?)
Now that our science lesson is over here is an interesting fact about this whole processes. Raw sugar contains molasses and in order to make white refined sugar that molasses is removed. But in order to make light and dark brown sugar they don’t skip the refining, no they refine the sugar and then add molasses back in! You can make your own light and dark brown sugar by adding your own molasses to sugar in a food processor and skip all the chemicals involved in the factory as well as the extra packaging.
Since we know that refined sugar is “bad” what are the alternatives? There are numerous types of sugars as well as sugar substitutes some of which you may be able to purchase locally. For a complete list of sugars, uses, and processes you can check out the Joy of Baking website. I could relist all that information here but then I would really lose what few of you are still reading this. The bottom line is that all sugars have been refined to some extent. And by using your food processor or mortar and pestle you can take course grained “raw” sugar and make superfine sugar, confectioners sugar, and brown sugar with a little elbow grease. This is important because sugar doesn’t just impart sweetness in baking which is important remember when you want to start using alternative sweetners like honey and agave nectar.
Delicious Organics has more information about different types of sugars as well as all the substitutes available. Personally I never realized there were so many different options available. Did you know you could use Date Syrup as a sugar replacement? However, if you want something you can find a lot of information on swapping out with sugar your best bets are probably honey, maple syrup, and now agave nectar is growing in popularity.
J. and I have decided to give up refined sugar and purchase turbinado sugar which is steam cleaned and eventually we would like to swap it out with honey that we can buy locally but that will be a slow process as we learn which recipes work and which don’t. If you have any good tips or recipes please share!