25 May 2010

Table Sugar versus “Raw” Sugar: Some Surprising Facts

I started out this post intending to outline some various natural sweeteners on the market today. Then I started reading about conventional and raw sugars out there, and found out some interesting stuff.

Why do people usually choose raw sugar? Same reason you choose anything unrefined, I suppose. It's less, well...  refined, which usually indicates a more healthful product (after all, that premise applies to rice, flour, oils...). So imagine my surprise when I realized that the stuff being marketed as "raw" is actually quite refined. And that the difference between the level of pure sucrose in conventional table sugar versus so-called raw sugar is as little as 2%.



Table Sugar

About:

Packing 387 Calories per 100 g, pure table sugar comes from extracting and refining the natural sugars in either sugar cane or sugar beets. It is filtered and highly refined; compounds such as lime and carbon dioxide are used to bleach the sugar crystals, which are then passed through beef bone char for an even brighter white. Once fully processed, the final product is nearly 100% pure sucrose, giving you almost 4 Calories per gram, with no additional nutritional value (hence the phrase “empty calories”).

Pros: 

Neutral flavor, adds sweetness without affecting delicate or subtle flavors. Adds a crispy texture to baked goods.

Cons:

100% of the sugar beet crop is now grown from genetically modified seeds. These crops can cross-pollinate with neighboring beet and chard fields, which has created some concern over possible contamination of these neighbor crops.

No real nutritional benefits

Conventional growing and harvesting practices can be incredibly detrimental to the surrounding environment. Many pesticides and chemicals are used during the growing season, with fields being set on fire after harvest. This can affect the local environment, and have a devastating effect on the soil, local wildlife, and water supplies.


Other Sugars

Caster/Superfine sugar – White table sugar that has been ground into finer crystals, often used for sweetening cold drinks or mixtures.

Powdered sugar – Simply white sugar that has been pulverized into a powder, it's often mixed with an anti-caking agent. Typically used for icings and decoration for baked goods.


Raw/Turbinado Sugar

About:

Calories: claims vary. Some sites claim 11 Calories per teaspoon (compared to table sugar's 15), The brand Sugar In The Raw claims as much as 20 Calories per tsp.

The term “raw sugar” is actually incredibly misleading, as the US and Canada have banned true raw sugar due to concerns over purity and safety. In order to be sold in these countries, sugar products must be refined to a degree. Most “raw” sugars sold in the US have been refined to 95% sucrose, with the remaining 5% consisting of remnants of molasses, a natural by product of the refining process. Raw sugars often come from the first pressing of sugar cane.

Many people claim that raw sugar is “healthier” than refined sugar, however it still consists of 95% to 97% pure sucrose, suggesting that additional health benefits are slim to none. Although molasses in itself contains small amounts of certain minerals, like iron, these are negligible in raw sugar.

Pros:

Since it has a higher moisture content, it can lend a chewiness to baked goods, much like conventional brown sugar.

Processing is more minimal than conventional sugar. Turbinado sugar is obtained from the first pressing of the sugar cane. The liquid is then heated, crystallized, and spun in a centrifuge to remove excess moisture.

Cons:

There are no guarantees that raw sugar is grown or handled differently from conventional sugar; it is merely less refined.


The Verdict

Health: 

If you're looking for a sweet alternative to refined sugar for personal health reasons, there is really no difference between refined and “raw”sugar. I don't care what the “experts” say; when raw sugar only contains about 3% less pure sucrose than table sugar, there is not a significant amount of ANY trace nutrient in the 2 teaspoon of sugar I put in my coffee every morning to make a bit of difference. Sugar is sugar, plain and simple. Either way, the effect on your body and bloodstream is the same.

One interesting thought crossed my mind however. Given the amount of pesticides and crap used in conventional growing, I wonder how much of it remains in the 3-5% non-sucrose substances in raw sugar. Given that table sugar is at least 99% pure, one could argue that it's actually the safer choice.

Flavor: 

Raw sugar takes this one. There are enough trace amounts of molasses in the less processed stuff to perk up a cup of tea (however, my coffee is strong enough on its own that it really doesn't matter what you use!). Same goes for baked goods: the raw stuff may or may not add a subtle flavor profile (depending on your baked goods), but the higher moisture content will have an effect.

Side note on flavor: if you're looking to substitute raw sugar for brown sugar in a recipe, make sure you know why the recipe calls for brown sugar in the first place before substituting. For instance, in chocolate chip cookies, it's mostly for texture, so you may be able to get away with the switch (consider throwing a little molasses in there if you like your cookies on the chewy side). However, if it's in there for flavor (like in hermits) you probably need to consider your substitution a little more carefully, as raw sugar is much more subtle than conventional brown sugar.)

Moral Implications:

Conventional sugar production, from farm to fork, has a lot of environmental and therefore moral implications. However, buying raw sugar doesn't guarantee that you're helping anything. Although it does reduce the environmental impact due to processing, it doesn't guarantee any differences in the growing and harvesting. If this is a concern for you, I recommend organic, raw sugar.

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