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A Chefs Guide to Sweeteners

Aug 17, 2007
The Industrialized world is obsessed with diets, and yet has the raging sweet tooth of a child. Everybody wants non-fattening food that tastes fat. And so here we are in the industrial age, working our laboratories round-the-clock to come up with a way to have the taste without the calories. This has given us a host of sort-of, one-off-from, and flat-out substitute sugars. The bewildering variety of them needn't drive you to shudders - here we present you with a sanity guide:

First, to dispel a myth, while sugars do indeed lead to a wide waistline, there is no conclusive evidence that actual sugars cause hyperactivity in children or diabetes. These are chronic diseases that you're either prone since birth to get or aren't - no matter if you eat nothing but sugar or eschew it zealously. And all sugars are carbohydrates and contain four calories per gram. If it says 'sugar' on the label, this rule applies.

The aspect we refer to as 'sweetness' can come from five general sources: sucrose, glucose, fructose, honey, and corn syrup. The various sweetener substitutes that we use all start with one of these five basic forms.

Sucrose is more easily known as common table sugar. It comes from the evaporation of moisture from the juice of either sugar cane or sugar beets. The next step in the refining process is purification, which is to remove any impurities, making the sugar white. Other forms of sucrose include raw sugar, brown sugar, confectioner's sugar and granulated sugar, plus a special one made for the baker's industry which is finer than regular sugar. Confectioner's or powdered sugar is simply made by taking regular table sugar and grinding the crystals down to a fine powder. While being sifted, a mixture of about three percent cornstarch is added to the sugar to prevent caking.

Sugar that is only partially refined is what we call brown sugar. It retains some of the molasses syrup and parts of sugarcane, which gives it that distinctive maple-ish flavor. Light brown sugars are used more in baking and making glazes. Dark brown sugars are good in gingerbread, fruitcake, and other densely-baked treats. All brown sugar contains more moisture than white sugar and tends to clump.

The naturally occurring sugar that makes fruit and produce sweet is called fructose. It is made into two forms: one is a crystalline version make from cornstarch, and the other is a combination of fructose and glucose. The combination of fructose and glucose is called 'high fructose corn syrup', abbreviated as HFCS. Because it comes in a syrup form, it is very cheap and easy to use. HFCS makes up a whopping forty percent of all caloric sweeteners that are used in drinks and food.

HFCS is the ingredient that alarms scientists and brings out the protesters. For one thing, considering that corn growers have such muscle in the halls of politics, it seems that the corn growers have a food monopoly when you reflect that nearly every food product contains some form of corn. Then there is concern over genetically-modified corn, a breed of 'supercorn' which is wiping out all the native strains of corn - all it takes is for one disease to come along and exploit a weakness in this strain and we have a 'corn famine' on our hands. Finally, HFCS does not stimulate insulin the same as regular sugar, and insulin triggers a hormone called 'leptin' that tells the body it is full. Thus, a pro-corn diet leads to over-eating, which is ironic when you think about how HFCS was originally intended as a diet food.

We'll leave you holding your measuring spoon and bottle of corn syrup in the kitchen to ponder these weighty moral issues. Going on to other sweeteners:

There are currently just six low-calorie sweeteners approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. These are acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and tagatose. Aspartame is sometimes called by its commercial names of NutraSweet and Equal. Because it is sweeter than sugar (ignoring the label hype about how many times sweeter it is), less can be used in foods and drinks, allegedly lowering the number of calories overall.

Acesulfame potassium, the substitute with the scariest-sounding name, was approved in 2003, and its commercial names are Sunett and Sweet One. Because it is stable in heat and improves the taste of foods with no calories, it is used in cooking and baking. Saccharin was the first approved artificial sweetener and contains no calories. Sucralose is the only low-calorie sweetener that comes from real sugar. It has been approved for use on the tabletop, in food, drinks, cooking and baking. It is also said to be sweeter than sugar. Its commercial name is Splenda.

Just because its a sugar substitute doesn't mean that it's going to cook like sugar. The texture and principle attributes of these substitutes varies from one application to another. Then again, there is no escaping the fact that sugar substitutes do not taste exactly like sugar. Try a packet of saccharine some time - some say it has an aftertaste like chewing an aspirin. Factors of taste and texture make a difference in how the substance dissolves on the tongue, how it mixes in coffee and tea, and whether it will make or break your cookies when they bake.

And then there's the health issues. Saccharine is almost extinct, so maligned was it for its link to cancer. There are people who are allergic to corn sweeteners. This is difficult to screen for, but medical studies have finally confirmed it. Bear in mind that corn is a "New World" food, unknown amongst the people of the Eastern hemisphere until it was discovered in the West.

This means roughly half the human race evolved without a tolerance for corn. Corn sweeteners may be the cause of more problems than we even know about yet. Other sweeteners have only had moderate testing. The fact is that we cannot know what kinds of side effects may come up in twenty or thirty years from the usage of all these sweeteners we've been using which have only been invented in the last ten.

What the heck; stick with sugar. I've heard a spoonful of it helps the medicine go down.
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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