Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sugar - Sweet Poison? Part II

I've previously written a bit about the chemistry of the simple carbohydrate, sugar in my blog post Sugar - Sweet Poison?  The discussion ranged around white sugar and it's empty nutrition and how other foods can provide sweetness while still being 'good for you'.  Now, in Part II, I'd like to expand on that topic in this post about the various types of sugar and how they are made.

In Australia the main sweetener in our processed foods on in our pantries is processed white sugar (in the US, it's high fructose corn syrup, but that's another story...).

White Sugar

White Sugar, as mentioned in my post on sugar, is a disaccharide, meaning it contains two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. In Australia, white sugar comes from sugar cane. Many other countries use sugar beets to make white sugar. Caster sugar and icing sugar are simply white sugar that has been ground to make it finer.

Cane sugar is highly processed, first by crushing the sugar cane to extract the juice. The juice is then mixed with lime and phosphoric acid to adjust its pH to around 7.  The clarified juice is then heated under vacuum to make a syrup. Further heating is done under vacuum to concentrate and super saturate the syrup. It is then pressure filtered through cloth and deodorised using activated charcoal. (1)

The cleaned syrup is then seeded with sugar crystals and cooled. Upon cooling, the sugar syrup crystallises and is then put through a centrifuge to separate the sugar from it's remaining liquid, known as molasses. The remaining molasses can be further processed to extract more crystals, leaving blackstrap molasses. (2)

Raw Sugar

At this stage, the product is Raw Sugar (a terrible misnomer) which is a light golden colour. So raw sugar is still a highly processed product. The raw sugar is then bleached, sometimes by bubbling sulphur dioxide through the crystals. (1) I'm unable to find out exactly how Australian sugar is bleached. None of the companies explain this process, other than saying that the raw sugar is then 'further refined'. I'm awaiting a reply from CSR. The fact that it must be 'bleached' sounds ominous, though.
Raw caster and golden icing sugar are made from raw sugar. White processed sugar is pretty much 99% sucrose and has a GI of around 65. (3) GI isn't a perfect method for judging a product's health benefits, though. Adding fructose to a product will reduce it's GI, but read more about the problem with fructose below.

Brown Sugar

Brown Sugar is simply white refined sugar with the molasses added back in. Now, there's no information to say whether this is the first extraction of molasses with all its health giving goodness, or the less nutritious blackstrap molasses. My guess is that it is the cheaper one. So, the sugar is refined, bleached and deodorised and then the stuff they took out is put back in! If you want to make it yourself, simply add molasses to white sugar until it's fully saturated.

LoGiCane Sugar

LoGiCane is a brand name from the CSR company promoted as low GI. The CSR company explains on their website that LoGiCane sugar is refined white sugar sprayed with molasses. The molasses slows down the digestion of the sucrose, making it less likely to spike blood sugar. If this is the case, then brown sugar and 'raw' sugar will do the same. 
In fact, if you delve further into it, the molasses is actually treated to remove the nutrients such as minerals, polyphenols and other phytochemicals. (4) So, once again a highly processed product that is more expensive than simply buying 'raw' sugar. This appears to be a marketing ploy, in my opinion.

Demerara and Turbinado are still processed raw sugars, albeit with more molasses left in the final product.
Rapadura Sugar

Rapadura and Panela are two different names for the same product, pure unrefined cane juice. The sugar cane is simply crushed and the juice is dehydrated. The nutrient rich molasses with all its minerals and phytochemicals is retained in the final product, making it a far healthier alternative to white, processed sugar or even 'raw' sugar. Rapadura is quite expensive, but can now be found in supermarkets. I purchase it in bulk from

Here's a chart showing the comparison of nutrients for each of the sugars. The 'evaporated cane juice' in the chart is that which is processed using heat. 

Coconut Sugar

Coconut Sugar, also known as coconut palm sugaris made from the blossom of the coconut tree, that ubiquitous plant that provides so much for so little. It has a low GI, only 35. It also contains a great many nutrients, mainly potassium, iron, zinc, calcium plus polyphenols, inositol (part of a vitamin B complex) and other phytonutrients. (5) (6)  It's a natural product, with very little processing other than collection and dehydration. It's fairly expensive.

Many people are becoming wary of Fructose and with good reason. Fructose is natural fruit sugar, but is also found in sugar.  Sugar, or sucrose, is 50% Glucose and 50% Fructose. Fructose is the monosaccharide which is only broken down in the liver.  The liver will transform fructose into glucose derivatives, storing it as glycogen. The liver can only store so much glycogen. If it's not being used through providing energy, it will be stored as triglycerides (i.e. fat) which is then deposited around the organs in the body. (7)

This concept is being espoused by Sarah Wilson of the "I Quit Sugar' movement. Sarah has an enormous group of followers on her Facebook page and blog. She has published two books on the subject, containing excellent information and recipes. Her concept is a little extreme, though and I don't believe we should deny ourselves certain treats. Life can be hard enough as it is without being unable to eat dessert at a restaurant.

There are many references showing that fructose is indeed a baddy in our diets. Mainly because sugar is consumed in large amounts in processed foods such as mayonnaise, sauces, soft drinks, biscuits and cakes. A study in 2010 showed that fructose consumed as soft drinks and sweetened fruit juices, taken in large quantities did cause weight gain. (8)

My take on the consumption of sugar in the diet is this.
  1. Consume whole foods as much as possible. Eat whole fruits, peel as well if possible (obviously not banana peel). If you're making a cake with oranges, use the whole orange - flesh, juice and zest. 
  2. Include good fats (coconut, palm, lard, tallow, poultry fat, butter) in your diet to allow for satiety, so you're not hanging out for a chocolate after tea.
  3. Limit sugar in all your cooking and use unprocessed sugar wherever possible. Some other options for sweetening include rice malt syrup, maple syrup and honey. Fresh dates can be used instead of sugar in some recipes - e.g. protein balls.
  4. Don't consider that every meal must be followed by dessert. Make desserts a special treat. 
  5. Make your own fruit roll ups with whole fruit, raw chocolate with cacao and so on. 
  6. Finally, don't stress about it too much! Do your best and allow yourself some treats without feeling guilty. 
There's a wealth of great wholefood recipes out there and some great books and blogs, too. Here's a list of recommended reading:

Wholefood Cooking - Jude Blereau
Nourishing Traditions - Sally Fallon
I Quit Sugar and I Quit Sugar for Life - Sarah Wilson 


(1) SKIL - How sugar is made:
(3) Sugar and sweetener guide:
(4) Product review: low GI cane cugar - Catherine Saxelby's Food Watch:
(6) Coconut sap sugar:
(7) Precision Nutrition. All about fructose:
(7) Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity:

That's all for now, bravo if you've actually read the whole post!!