|Sugar: A Burst of Sweetness
by Sandra Brandt
It is difficult to imagine a diet without sugar, or more specifically, the crystalline, sucrose-rich sweetener we usually refer to as sugar. Those who try to eliminate, or even reduce, sugar in their diet usually face a real challenge. Most prepared food products would have to be avoided. Eating in restaurants or in others’ homes also requires great care. Sugar appears in various forms under various names in products and ingredient lists.
The word sugar can refer to either the sugar molecules that are present in the chemistry of most living organisms, or to a sweet plant product that we commonly call by that name. In this article, we are using the second form of the word.
Although its origins are somewhat shrouded in history, it is said that the Persians discovered sugar cane being grown in India, from whence they began cultivating it more widely themselves and it spread outward from there. Sugar cane thrives in tropical or semi tropical regions. To produce sugar, cane is cut, cleaned, boiled to crystallize it, and refined. Sugar beets began to be processed for sugar production in Europe in the early 1800s, spurred by political issues which made it more difficult to import cane sugar. They are processed by a somewhat similar method and can be grown in cooler climates than cane. According to William Dufty in Sugar Blues, no other product has had a greater impact on the politics of the western world than sugar. Although the slave trade has long been eliminated from the equation, the massive consumption of sugar in today’s Western society would likely not have occurred without the historical contribution of slavery to the sugar industry.
In his 1985 book, Sweetness and Power, social anthropologist Sidney Mintz takes a detailed look at the history of sugar in Britain. He describes five different uses of sugar that developed over time. Before 1750, only the wealthiest could afford even small amounts of cane sugar. Slowly, and with changes in availability and import tax laws, it became accessible in ever-greater quantities to more people. From 1850 on, sugar became a significant cheap source of calories to the poorest segment of Western society.
Initially, when it was a rare and costly substance, sugar had three main uses. One use was as a spice or flavouring ingredient. One of the first historical records of sugar use in England was around 1150 in the court rolls of Henry II. The more refined the sugar, the more expensive it was. At first it was only used by royalty, but during the 1200s it became more commonly used among the wealthiest classes. Sugar and other spices were combined in sauces and other savoury dishes that gave a greater variety to the otherwise bland flavours that people of all classes were accustomed to. Besides enhancing flavours, they were also added to disguise the flavours of decaying or otherwise inferior foods. Sweetened dishes were historically served with, or interspersed with, savoury meat dishes until the late 17th century when the sweet-flavoured courses began to be reserved for the end of the meal which we now customarily recognize as dessert.
Sugar was also important as a decoration on the tables of nobility. Finely-ground sugar was combined with other ingredients such as almond oil, rice, scented waters, and various gums and colouring ingredients. This medium was used by skilled artisan chefs to create massive, elaborate moulds and sculptures, some of them actually life sized, many of which portrayed important political and religious symbolism for great occasions. The use of sugar in this way was another mark of class distinction. However, by the 1700s, popular cookbooks included recipes instructing common people on how to copy some of this culinary artwork for themselves on a smaller scale in imitation of the upper classes. We still retain some of this custom today in sweet sculpted products used for birthday and wedding cakes, and for decorative treats in honour of Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day.
Third, sugar was highly valued for medicinal purposes. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, Arab Islamic physicians’ writings feature sugar as a principle ingredient, often used as thickener and sweetener in medical preparations, but also prescribed as a specific remedy for ailments such as fever, cough, pectoral ailments, chapped lips, stomach diseases, and combined with spices to ease digestion. It was even recommended as a dental hygiene product. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, when questioned as to whether it was permissible to consume sugar during a fast; answered affirmatively because in his opinion it was more of a medicine than a food. Sugar was an important ingredient in most remedies for the Black Death plague. It was often used in combination with, or as a cheaper substitute ingredient for, other rare elements such as crushed precious stones, pearls, or gold that were taken internally as medicine by the wealthy. “So useful was sugar in the medical practice of Europe from the 13th to 18th centuries that the expression ‘like an apothecary without sugar’ came to mean a state of utter desperation or helplessness.” (Mintz). Some writings were critical of sugar’s medicinal qualities, but by and large it remained popular for centuries, until sugar came to be consumed in such large quantities that it no longer mattered as a medicinal ingredient.
Once sugar had finally become affordable to the masses, it gained importance as a sweetener, and thus it also became an important source of calories. Sugar as an actual food came to the fore in connection with three other exotic imports—tea, coffee, cocoa—which were new to England in the 17th century. All three were bitter beverages and combined well with the sweetness of sugar. Sugar was used not only to sweeten and add calories to tea, which was to establish itself as the most important non-alcoholic beverage in England, but was also commonly spread on bread in the form of fruit preserves, molasses, or treacle—a syrupy product made from sugar. Bread with jam (which was by now cheaper than butter), together with sugar-sweetened tea was the constant staple meal in the late 1800s for many working-class families, with the little bit of meat they could afford being reserved for the father of the household in order to keep up his strength for the physical labour required to support the family. This dietary custom also lightened cooking duties for busy mothers who contributed to the family income by taking on factory jobs.
Lastly, the fifth important function of sugar was as a preservative. It was (and still is) used in both solid and liquid forms to preserve fruit, meat, and dairy products from spoilage. This use has been recorded as early as the 9th century in Persia, but of course became much more common once sugar use was firmly established.
Once such a prized substance, refined sugar is now often pointed to as an addictive health liability in the modern diet. It does however have possible benefits. Pure sugar breaks down readily into glucose which is the prime fuel for our muscles, nerves, and brain. It has also been connected with relief of psychological and physical stress. According to Western and Oriental medical practitioner Paul Pitchford, it also promotes warmth in the process of carbohydrate combustion and it lubricates dryness in the mouth, throat, and lungs. So the historical use of minute quantities of sugar as medicine was not so much off the mark. However, Pitchford says, “When natural sugar is refined and concentrated, the life force is dispersed and the natural balance upset. Refined sugar passes quickly into the bloodstream in large amounts, giving the stomach and pancreas a shock. An acid condition forms, which consumes the body’s minerals quickly. Thus calcium is lost from the system, causing bone problems. The digestive system is weakened and food cannot be digested or assimilated properly. This leads to a blood-sugar imbalance and to further craving for sugar.” As with most foods, stripping off the protective nutrient elements leaves our bodies open to degeneration from consuming substantial amounts of a substance. So tooth decay, for instance, is not caused by simply eating too much sugar. Rather, it may be at least partly the result of consuming larger amounts of a form of sugar that is devoid of the minerals needed to strengthen and protect the teeth.
For good health, here are a few pointers to keep in mind in relation to consuming sugar.
1. Consume sugar and other concentrated sweeteners in small amounts, if at all. Be aware of the many sources of added sugar in food.
2. Use as natural and unprocessed a form of sugar as possible, such as unrefined sugar. (The next issue’s article will give an overview of less refined sugars and other sweeteners.)
3. Sugar is best combined with generous amounts of healthy fats, such as butter, coconut oil, and nuts. In fact, in a rich dessert, it’s often possible to significantly reduce the amount of sweetener without sacrificing taste satisfaction. Since fats digest more slowly, digestion of the sugar slows down as well, which avoids a quick spike and subsequent sharp drop in blood sugar leading to craving another sugar hit. (See the article in the November/December 2010 issue of WHOLifE for benefits and recommendations regarding healthy fats.)
Natural unrefined cane sugar (usually a granular, beige-hued product) can be directly substituted for refined sugar in most recipes (note that unrefined sugar can be up to 17% lower in sucrose than refined white sugar, so the sweet taste may be slightly reduced, but the texture of baked goods will remain much the same when substituted in equal quantities).
Vanilla Sugar – Keep a few whole vanilla beans in a container of unrefined sugar for added flavour.
Cinnamon Sugar – Combine ¼ cup of unrefined sugar with 1 tsp powdered cinnamon. Keep in a spice shaker bottle for handy use. Makes a good topping for muffins or cakes—sprinkle on just before baking.
Powdered Sugar – Process unrefined sugar (cinnamon or vanilla-flavoured sugars above are good too) in a blender until finely ground into a powder. Nice for healthy homemade doughnuts or other baked goods. Experiment with using this powder as icing sugar for special occasion cakes. (It will not be pure white though.)
Brown Sugar – Regular brown sugar is made by adding molasses to refined white sugar. Make your own brown sugar by mixing 1 tablespoon of blackstrap molasses (or experiment with the proportion of molasses to see what strength you like best) into 1 cup of unrefined sugar. If a recipe calls for brown sugar, just use these two ingredients instead (no need to mix them separately).
Sources: Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 1985; Paul Pitchford, Healing With Whole Foods, 1993; William Dufty, Sugar Blues, 1975; www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/11/051128011306.htm
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She is located in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 17.4 November/December issue of the WHOLifE Journal.