In my quest to change our eating habits for the better, I've focused on eating "a variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible" (to quote La Leche League philosophy). Lately I've been eying the sugar container in my cupboard. It can't be natural, its gleaming white for goodness sake! What do they do to it to make it that way? What about brown sugar, is it better for you? I've been reading about natural sweeteners lately (evaporated cane juice, maple syrup, etc) but decided that I needed to do some more research to figure this all out. Why are natural sweeteners better for you? How are they processed? I've seen white sugar on the list of things that are bad for you (white flour, hydrogenated oils, etc), but didn't really understand why other than that we shouldn't consume too much of it.
Americans consume anywhere from 100 lbs of sugar a year to 1/2 lb of sugar a day, depending on which statistic you read. Either way, its a lot. Sugar- white sugar- is in many of the products that we consume on a regular basis. So, how is it made? Here is a link to a short summary. Sugar cane or sugar beets are crushed and the juice is extracted, boiled and dried to create sugar crystals. The sugar is then spun in a turbine (like a washing machine drum) to remove the molasses and make it white, or treated with chemicals.
So what about brown sugar? Its actually white sugar that has a bit of the molasses added back in and can even include coloring that is sprayed on to the sugar. One website suggested that you can even rub the brown color off to reveal the white sugar underneath! I feel duped. Why process the molasses all the way out just to add it back in again? This is beginning to sound like the white flour/ wheat flour story where the flour is processed to death and then a few vitamins are added back in. Molasses has iron, potassium, calcium, B vitamins, and other trace minerals in it. Your body actually uses up stored vitamins in order to process the sugar you eat. It makes sense that sugar in its natural form is supposed to come with some of these vitamins.
Here is some information that I came across in my sugar searching...
How sugar is made.
How sugar beets are processed- "a series of physical and chemical separations"
Great FAQs on Wholesome Sugar and how its made. This company produces fair trade, organic, and natural sugars. I've seen this brand at a few of my local stores and I think we'll be purchasing it from now on. Sucanat is their least processed option.
Sucanat stands for SUgar CAne NATural and it is simply sugar cane juice that has been dehydrated. It contains all of the natural molasses and nothing is added or removed. Other natural sweeteners include maple syrup, honey, stevia and others. Here is a great post on natural sweeteners. You may find "evaporated cane juice" at your local health food store and it is similar to sucanat, but it is slightly more processed in that it is evaporated and then spun to remove some of the molasses. We've started using real maple syrup for waffles and honey to sweeten tea. I had to use 1/2 maple syrup and 1/2 artificial syrup from the store for a few months to get used to the taste, but pure maple syrup is fine with me now. My husband has severe allergies in the spring and fall but since using local honey in his tea he's been dramatically better. (link)
My conclusions- sugar is not a whole food, if it were you'd be chewing on sugar cane! It has to be processed in order to be usable in recipes, but I'd prefer to consume it in its least processed form. I'm not happy with chemicals possibly being used on my sugar and I'm even less happy my new knowledge about some brown sugars actually being white sugar. Molasses has so many vitamins in it that I'd prefer it be left in the sugar. Sucanat is the least processed sugar available; I'm going to experiment with it in my recipes and see how it goes. Choosing natural sweeteners is just one more step in the direction of eating healthy whole foods!