#Unprocessed FAQ: Sugar & Sweeteners

September 24, 2013 8:52 am
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As of this morning, over 2,600 people have now taken the October Unprocessed challenge!  Incredible!  If you haven’t taken the pledge yet, please do it today. (If you already eat this way all the time, take the pledge and show your support! And if you think it’s too daunting, how about just for two weeks? Or even a day? Do what you can, and take charge of your health!) … We’ve got a lot of momentum, and this is turning into something really powerful. Keep it up! (and tell your friends!)

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about sugar and sweeteners, and whether or not they pass the Kitchen Test. In the past years of the challenge, the consensus seemed to be that date sugar, evaporated cane juice, raw/unfiltered honey, and maple syrup would all be acceptable sweeteners. An approximation of Turbinado and Muscovado sugars could probably be made at home, too, though the current industrial process to make them is probably a little bit different than what you’d be able to do at home.

Ultimately, sugar is one of those gray areas where you’ll need to figure out where it makes sense to draw the line for yourself (for artificial sweeteners, it’s much more of a no-brainer). Below are some more thoughts on a few of the most common ones, and if you want more details, check out my post on various sugars.

“Sugar”

Usually, the term “sugar” refers to bleached table sugar, those fine-white granulated crystals that come from sugar cane or sugar beets. The bleaching is done with sulfur dioxide, an ingredient that hopefully isn’t in your pantry.

The terms “sugar,” “granulated sugar,” “cane sugar,” “pure cane sugar,” “beet sugar,” and “table sugar” all refer to the bleached stuff.  So if you just see any of those on the ingredient list, it’s probably that (though the only way to know for sure is to ask the company).

Verdict?  Regular sugar doesn’t pass the kitchen test, but… some folks make exceptions for sugar — simultaneously making an effort to reduce their sugar consumption throughout the month. Sounds like a good idea to me!

Brown Sugar

Regular “Brown Sugar” (the kind you get in the box at the grocery store) is usually just refined table sugar with a small amount (3.5% to 6.5%) of added molasses (which is a byproduct of the sugar-making process in the first place – see below)… but since it goes through the refining/bleaching process first, it doesn’t pass the kitchen test.

Verdict? Unprocessed Fail.

“Raw” Brown Sugars (Turbinado, Demerara, Muscovado, Rapadura)

I think it would be possible to make something similar to these sugar crystals at home, if you had some sugar cane stalks ready to go.  Although there are a couple of steps in the commercial process for some of these that you could not easily do at home, I’m guessing you could still get the crystals if you’re patient enough (perhaps a countertop food dehydrator would help evaporation).

I’ve seen many articles refer to these sugars as “unrefined” or “raw,” and that’s a bit misleading. They may be raw if they haven’t been heated, but they’re certainly not “unrefined” — they are simply less refined than other crystalline sugars. They start with sugar cane, extract the juice, then heat it to evaporate the water. Once the sugar crystallizes, it is often spun in a centrifuge (hence the name turbinado) to further dry the sugar and remove some impurities.  (Demerara sugar is similar, but is originally named for the Demerara colony in Guyana.  It’s now produced in Mauritius.)

Muscovado sugar (also known as “Barbados Sugar”) is similar, but is dried without using a centrifuge. Similarly, rapadura is made from juicing (crushing) sugarcane and then simply evaporating the liquid over low heat.  Of all of these choices, Muscovado and Rapadura are the least processed and most likely to pass the kitchen test.

Verdict? Shoot for Muscovado or Rapadura if you can find them. Beyond that, you’ll need to decide what’s right for you.

Honey

When it comes to unprocessed sweeteners, honey is one of my favorites. It’s important to note that some brands will process the honey and strip it of some of its nutrients. If you can find a good “raw” honey, it’ll be the closest you can find to what you’d get if you actually kept bees in your own backyard.

My favorite brand so far is Really Raw — it’s a creamy, rich honey that even has bits of pollen and honeycomb floating on the surface.  (The downside is that it’s quite expensive.)

Verdict? Raw honey passes the test easily, the more refined brands are better than table sugar and I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s okay.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is my other sweetener of choice (though I still consume it in very small amounts!). Made from the sap of maple trees (the sap is collected and then boiled down), the process is fairly similar today to many years ago. Just be sure you’re getting real, 100% maple syrup — “Aunt Jemima” doesn’t count.

Verdict? Yep, Maple Syrup is good-to-go for October.

Agave Syrup

Often called “Agave Nectar” (thus giving it a more healthful tone), this sweetener comes from several species of agave plant.

I’ve heard people sing agave’s praises, specifically thinking it’s significantly less-processed than other sweeteners. That may or may not be true, as the sugar is extracted and processed through a few different methods, depending on the type of plant. It always requires more processing than honey. I just got caught in a long Google spiral of conflicting information – the description of the agave production process varies considerably, depending on the source. (Manufacturers downplay the processing, of course. Others think it’s as bad as high fructose corn syrup.) My assumption is it’s somewhere in between, and may vary from brand to brand. Most of the processing is done by heating, but there are likely steps with enzymatic involvement – thus making it tricky to do in your own kitchen.

Verdict? Most people think that the agave plant just flows with nectar, like maple sap. In fact, it takes a lot of processing to produce agave nectar. I’ll leave this one to you to decide, but for me, Agave’s out.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown Rice Syrup is created by soaking/cooking brown rice with enzymes (usually from dried barley sprouts — meaning: barley malt) to break down the starches into accessible sugars.  The liquid is then strained off and reduced to a syrup. It may also be produced by cooking brown rice flour (or brown rice starch) with enzymes — so your mental picture of simply boiling a pot of brown rice isn’t necessarily accurate.

As a sidenote, brown rice syrup has a “health halo” surrounding it because it’s made with brown rice (this has become a big pet peeve of mine). Don’t be fooled: It’s still concentrated sugar.

Verdict? I don’t think you could make brown rice syrup at home, either.

Molasses

Unsulphered molasses and blackstrap molasses would likely pass the kitchen test. Wikipedia walks us through the molasses production steps:

“To make molasses, the cane of a sugar plant is harvested and stripped of its leaves. Its juice is extracted usually by crushing or mashing, but also by cutting. The juice is boiled to concentrate it, which promotes the crystallisation of the sugar. The result of this first boiling is called first syrup, and it has the highest sugar content because comparatively little sugar has been extracted from the source. First syrup is usually referred to in the Southern states of the USA as “cane syrup”, as opposed to molasses. Second molasses is created from a second boiling and sugar extraction, and has a slight bitter tinge to its taste. The third boiling of the sugar syrup yields blackstrap molasses, known for its robust flavour.”

(Note that Wikipedia continues, mentioning that Beet Sugar Molasses goes through a different process than Cane Sugar Molasses — but I’m pretty sure most of the Molasses sold in the United States is from cane sugar.)

Verdict? I think molasses probably passes the kitchen test, just as the other unrefined can sugars (like Muscovado) do.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar has recently come into vogue as a healthier-sounding sugar (but it’s still sugar!).  It actually sounds like coconut sugar is relatively unprocessed: Sap from Coconut Palms is harvested and then cooked/evaporated over medium heat.

Verdict? That sure sounds like someone could do that at home, thus passing the Kitchen Test.

Stevia

Real, honest-to-goodness stevia is just the leaf of the stevia plant. If you can find that (or grow your own), or can find a powder that’s truly just the ground-up leaves, it’ll pass the test.

But the name-brand white powders, or the liquids with preservatives in them? You could not make those at home. Here’s a great post from a previous challenge about Stevia, Purevia, and Truvia.

Verdict? Real stevia — the leaves of the plant — is okay, but most of the stuff you can find at the store is not.

Artificial Sweeteners

I may be pointing out the obvious, but you couldn’t make saccharin, sucralose (Splenda), aspartame, Nutrasweet, Equal, acesulfame potassium, xylitol, erythritol, neotame, or any other of these kinds of sugar substitutes/sugar alcohols at home.

Verdict? Über-processed!

I’m sure there are plenty of questions, as I’m just scratching the surface here — so let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below!

And here are some of my previous posts on sugar:

Photo: Sugar © 2006 Pay No Mind, used under Creative Commons license.
55 Comments on "#Unprocessed FAQ: Sugar & Sweeteners"
  1. Comment left on:
    June 4, 2013 at 4:41 pm
    Diana says:

    What’s the verdict on coconut sugar? It’s all the rage now!

    • Comment left on:
      June 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm
      Andrew says:

      Good question. I just did a small amount of Googling, and it sounds like coconut sugar is relatively unprocessed. Sap from Coconut Palms is harvested and then cooked/evaporated over medium heat. So that sure sounds like someone could do that at home, thus passing the “kitchen test.” :)

      http://www.sugarcoconut.com/how-is-it-made.html

      (just remember that from a nutritional perspective, sugar is sugar!)

  2. .
    July 31, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    [...] kitchen and my challenge though?  Well, it would depend on who you ask.  I turned to the website “Eating Rules” and its definition of [...]

  3. Comment left on:
    September 24, 2013 at 9:57 am
    jolene says:

    When we need a fruitier sweetness, we used a small amount of boiled cider (boiled down to a syrup consistency).

  4. Comment left on:
    September 24, 2013 at 10:35 am

    I know it’s not considered a sweetener – it’s more like a sweet treat, but Dates saved my butt for October Unprocessed 2012!!! They go great in shakes and oatmeal too to sweeten things up!

    • Comment left on:
      September 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm
      Andrew says:

      Great suggestion Natalie – thanks!! :)

  5. Comment left on:
    September 25, 2013 at 10:36 am
    Pam Pullen says:

    Rapadura… you didn’t mention it in any of the above sweeteners. I think it should totally qualify as an unprocessed sweetener. It’s what I use as sugar as it is never processed or separated from the molasses and then added back together like all the others are. The sugar cane is simply boiled and then dehydrated at a low temp. It’s truly the rawest form of sugar without eating the cane itself.

    • Comment left on:
      September 25, 2013 at 1:05 pm
      Andrew says:

      You’re absolutely right. I just added Rapadura to the “raw” sugars section in the post. Thanks, Pam!

  6. Comment left on:
    September 25, 2013 at 7:25 pm
    Deeanna says:

    What about carob? Thanks!

  7. .
    September 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    […] followed the October #Unprocessed challenge know that sugars provide a forum for endless debate, as seen here. Bottom line: Wilder would like you to pass up on table sugar in favor of honey or maple syrup, […]

  8. Comment left on:
    September 29, 2013 at 4:43 pm
    Julie says:

    Hi! I have a very significant sweet tooth. Honey and maple syrup are my best friends :P

  9. .
    October 1, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    […] Breakfast: * smoothie (organic soy milk, organic frozen, mixed berries, orange juice, organic banana) * fair trade coffee (organic half and half, organic cane sugar) (not letting go of that sugar, but you can learn more about sugar & sweeteners here) […]

  10. .
    October 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    […] carry many different types of sugar. So I think I need a trip to Whole Foods to find one of these unprocessed varieties. If I can find it – I would like to find Muscovado for my next batch of […]

  11. Comment left on:
    October 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm
    Candice says:

    Dried cane syrup. What is it? Is it another name for evaporated cane juice? Would it fall in the “raw” sugars category? Thanks!

  12. .
    October 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    […] here. My main breakthrough this round has been completely giving up sweetened coffee. The whole stevia/no stevia/agave syrup debate was too complicated for my simple mind to grasp, so I just decided to go cold turkey. After […]

  13. Comment left on:
    December 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm
    Sarah says:

    This would be awesome as a visual, somehow. Like the Cooking Oil comparison chart we have on our fridge :)
    Thank you!

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