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A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.

Sweeteners

Sweeteners have always been sought, through the ages, for their pleasant taste and utility, no matter what the source. If you pause a while and think about your intake of foods on any given day you will realize that sugar has been part of every meal, from the honey in the morning tea and maple syrup on the pancakes to a snack from corn syrup for lunch and a dinner that ended with cake which contained granulated sugar. So you can see how sugar from various sources has been imbibed.

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The science of sugariness does not only deal with the source of the foods that contain sugars. Chemically speaking, close to 100 sugars exist in the form of molecules.

Common sugars

Sucrose is the crystallized table sugar we partake of daily and it is a simple sugar. Sunlight helps to create energy in some plants like sugar beets and sugar cane. Sucrose is found in large quantities in these plants. Glucose is a simple sugar but has a key role to play in the functions of the body. Foods containing glucose include honey, fruit, flour, nuts and cereals. Fructose is the sweetest sugar and is found in fruit and honey. One sugar that is found only in milk is lactose. While processing certain foods, lactose is added to them to improve flavour. Maltose is a sugar that is made chemically by processing starch and malt. Maltose has commercial use as it is used in edibles like beer, bread and baby foods. Pectin, which is a form of fiber, is a complex sugar found in apples, some vegetables and citrus fruit.

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Sugar as carbohydrate

Sugars provide the body with necessary energy. The calorie content differs in the various sugars. A teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories as compared to the 21 in honey. Sweeteners are called "empty calories" as these carbohydrates have minimal or no nutrients, vitamins or proteins. Since they appeal to the taste-buds they can be consumed in large quantities, which is disastrous for maintaining weight. Consuming heavy amounts of sugar can also cause tooth decay and so brush your teeth each time you eat sugars, particularly the sticky kinds like caramel. It is best to restrict sugar consumption for these two reasons.

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Categorization of sweeteners

SUGAR
Sugar at one time was sold and traded in blocks and ground down when needed. It was a commodity that was as precious as gold and was popularized in the West by the explorers and armies that conquered ancient Arabia.
Sugar occurs naturally as sucrose in most fruit and vegetables but large quantities of the carbohydrate is found in sugarcane, which grows abundantly in tropical countries and in the colder regions it is sugar beets that contain sugar in large quantities.
Sugar is derived from the extracted juice of the crushed canes and sliced beets. The typical process involves boiling the juice and adding chemicals to it to purify it. The resultant syrup is called molasses. The next step in the process separates the sugar crystals from the molasses and leaves the by-products. Once the crystals dry they are packed as sugar.
The kinds of sugars found in Super Markets:
  • Brown sugar has a dark and a light variety. This is normal sugar but is coated in syrupy molasses for color and flavour. The darker kind has a stronger flavour of molasses and a rich color and so it is used in baked beans and gingerbread. The lighter colored brown sugar goes well with cakes. Though this sugar resembles raw sugar it actually is just normal sugar.
  • Decorating or coarse sugar has granules that are four times the size of normal sugar crystals. A special process makes it resistant to color change and even in high temperatures it will not break down and it is used in liqueurs and fondants.
  • Flavoured sugar is a normal sugar that has been mixed with ingredients like cinnamon or vanilla which scent it effectively.
  • Granulated white sugar is the most common form and is called table sugar. The size of the granules determines the grade of the sugar and its use. Regular, extra-fine or fine sugar is what we pour into our sugar bowls and use in recipes. The ultra fine and super fine variety of sugar is used in cakes, meringues, sweetened fruit and iced drinks as the crystals are the smallest in size and dissolve quickly in liquids like water.
  • Confectioner's sugar is actually granulated sugar that has been ground to powder as it is mainly used for icing, in whipped cream and dessert topping. Usually a little cornstarch is added to it to avoid clumping.
  • Sanding sugar also has large crystals and is called a colored sugar; it is used for decorative purposes as the food sparkles when used in it.
  • Fruit sugar is a somewhat finer sugar than regular sugar and so is used in dry mixing with gelatine desserts, pudding and drink mixes. The uniformity of the crystals prevents them from settling at the bottom of the containers and boxes.
Besides these uses, sugar is an important ingredient in various foods and yeast which feeds on sugar would not cause the bread to rise without sugar. Sugar plays a major role in baked foods as it flavours them, colors the crust and above all increases shelf life. When sugar is used in bulk it reduces the formation of yeast and molds in jams and jellies. Frozen and canned foods in sugar syrup do not brown or wither. Sugar adds body, bulk and texture to ice creams, beverages and baked goods. Sugar is used in ketchups and salad dressings to blend flavour, reduce acidity and form a smooth texture. Since sugar has a long shelf life, when kept firmly wrapped in a dark, cool place, it will last for months and maybe years.
HONEY
This thick golden liquid was seen as a present from the gods in ancient times as it was considered to be a healing agent. It symbolized wealth and was highly revered. Today honey is seen more as a natural sweet flavour.
Since bees make honey it follows that the essential ingredient is nectar from flowers. It is the enzyme rich saliva of the bee that turns it into honey. Chemically speaking the sucrose in the nectar is converted to glucose and fructose. Only it is the bee that has to work really hard, for to make a quart of honey the bee will make at least 100,000 round trips from the flower to the hive. Busy as a bee really holds true for the bee!
Honey is broadly categorized into three types:
  • Comb honey is honey inside a round or square chunk of honeycomb.
  • Chunk style honey is honey with pieces of honeycomb in it.
  • Liquid honey extracted from the comb.
Within these broad parameters are hundreds of sub-categories of honey depending on the color (dark or light), the flavor (mild or strong) and the type of flower the honey is made from. Dark honey in general has a stronger flavor.
Compared to the 48 calories in a teaspoon of sugar, honey has 64 calories and it also has a stronger sweetening power and contains traces of minerals and vitamins unlike other sweeteners.
Honey can also survive for a long time if kept in a sealed container in a cool dark place. Cooler temperatures like those in a fridge can cause it to freeze but its appearance and flavor will be restored once it is warmed up. Very high temperatures may change its flavor.
SYRUPS
Sugar is also available in a thick sweet liquid which has diverse flavours and is used variously. Some common syrups are as follows:
  • Black treacle is also a by-product of the sugar process and it is black, heavy and gluey. Similarly made it is sweeter than molasses. A less concentrated and lighter version is also available. Both forms of treacle are obtainable in England as it is widely used there.
  • Cane syrup is made from sugar cane and is extremely sweet and viscous. The Creole and Caribbean recipes commonly use this ingredient.
  • Golden syrup is popular in Great Britain where it is also known as light treacle. It has the same texture and golden color as corn syrup but has a toasted flavor and is made from sugar cane juice.
  • Grain syrup is made from grains like barley, corn, rice and wheat. They are less sweet and since they do not crystallize they are used in food manufacture. The most universally used grain syrup is corn. This is made from processed corn starch and can be obtained in light and dark forms. Malt syrup is another commonly known syrup made from sprouted barley and corn mash. It is used basically in bread making as it is strongly flavoured.
  • Palm syrup is found mostly in Asia where it used as a component in some special recipes. This syrup like other syrups is dark and thick but the difference is the powerful flavor which it gets from the palms it is made from.
  • Maple syrup is the most well known of all syrups. It is made by boiling the sap of a specific species of maple trees like Acer Saccharum which is mainly found in Quebec, Vermont or New York. A clear syrup, it has a noticeably different flavor and is much sweeter than sugar.
  • Molasses is a by product of sugar processing and is thick and dark. Besides being used to flavor foods and to glaze them, it is also used as a condiment in the United States and is poured over food. Light molasses is made in the initial stage of the process and the dark molasses or unsulfured molasses is made in the second stage. The syrup that is made in the final stage of the sugar process is very dark with a strong flavor and is called blackstrap.
CHOCOLATE
To the ancient cultures chocolate was a gift from the gods and such a gift that had medicinal value. The popularity of chocolate has not diminished over the centuries and it still remains a popular flavouring in food. Chocolate is something nobody can resist simply because of its uniquely rich, sweet taste. Try as you might but the taste of chocolate cannot be imitated and so its universal appeal is a given.
The cacao bean, from which chocolate is made, grows in the equatorial region where the weather is warm and humid. The beans like coffee beans are dried, chopped and roasted. Once the beans are processed the dark brown chocolate liquor is derived. This liquid which is 55% fat, 11% protein and 17% carbohydrate is used to make all the various types of chocolate. Chocolates differ in taste depending on how much cacao butter (vegetable fat from the cacao bean) and how much cacao solids from the beans are used.
Various chocolate kinds:
  • Unsweetened chocolate is also referred to as baker's chocolate because its rich, dark and bitter taste goes well with those recipes that do not have sugar added to it.
  • Bittersweet chocolate encompasses mainly the dark chocolate liquor made from cacao solids. It could in addition contain some milk solids and other flavouring.
  • Semisweet chocolate is favoured by those who make chocolate chip cookies as it includes more milk solids and other flavourings and a comparatively lower content of bittersweet chocolate.
  • Milk chocolate is the sweetest chocolate and is of a light brown color with just a dash of chocolate flavouring.
  • White chocolate is ivory colored as it consists of cocoa butter which gives it a rich creamy texture. It contains no cacao bean solids and varies also from white, almond bark or candy coating as these use vegetable fat as a foundation.
  • Imitation chocolate is used in baking chips. In this chocolate all the cocoa fat is replaced with vegetable fat and so it has a high quantity of fat besides some amount of caffeine.
  • Cocoa is a chocolate that is in powdered form and is made out of chocolate liquor from which all cocoa butter has been taken away. Unsweetened cocoa will contain just 15 calories and a miniscule oone gram of fat in a tablespoon. Out of the two cocoa kinds, natural cocoa is light colored with a strong chocolate flavor whereas the "Dutch process" cocoa is darkly colored and has a milder flavor. Unsweetened cocoa is added to recipes that use sugar.
The nutritional value of chocolate varies on its type. Unsweetened chocolate contains 16 grams of fat, 145 calories, and 9 grams of saturated fat whereas semisweet chocolate will have 5 grams of saturated fat, 9 grams of fat and a lower calorie of 135. Chocolate has some proteins and vitamins and minerals like potassium in traces.
Chocolate that is stored in a cool and dark place will last for months and the dark chocolate for up to 12 months. Temperature variations cause whitish patches on the chocolate which do not affect flavor and revert to normal coloring when heated. Chocolate can be frozen but needs a tight wrapping or else moisture could seep in spoiling the chocolate when thawed.
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