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All about the 'sugar season'

November 18, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE / Special to The Herald-Mail

Halloween is the start of the "sugar season," with Thanksgiving and Christmas not far behind.

Today, sugar is used in food processing, and it is stirred in and sprinkled on foods made at home. White table sugar is made from sugar beets or sugar cane. Sugar is naturally present in fruit and honey in the form of fructose and in milk as lactose.

We don't usually eat sugar by the spoonful but rather use it as an ingredient in foods we make or buy. Sugar contributes moisture, texture, color and bulk to baked goods. Without sugar, yeast could not ferment to create beer, wine, cheese and yeast breads.

The presence of sugar also plays a role in inhibiting food spoilage. Sugar enhances the flavor and balances acid content in tomato and vinegar-based products.

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Liquid sugar substitutes

If you decide to try to alter the source of sugar in a recipe, keep in mind the important functions of sugar. Have you ever tried eliminating or seriously reducing the sugar in a baked good without making an adequate substitution? If so, the end product could lack flavor, won't be a nicely browned color, and might be dry and tough.

Honey and other liquid sugars can't be substituted directly for granulated sugar, because they also contribute liquid. For 1 cup of sugar in a recipe you can substitute 3/4 cup honey, corn syrup or maple syrup. At the same time, you must reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup. Never substitute more than half of a recipe's solid sugar with a liquid one.

As an important side note, raw honey might also contain botulism spores and should not be fed to children younger than 12 months old. Their bodies are not yet able to resist the spores; this isn't a problem for adults and older children.

Granulated sugar substitutes

Nonnutritive sweeteners or alternative and artificial sweeteners are another option for consumers and can have a place in the diet for those counting calories. Some but not all nonnutritive sweeteners can be used in cooking and baking, so it is important to check their labels before using them in that way.

All nonnutritive sweeteners are considered safe for a healthy person, but pregnant women and children should be cautious, because overuse of these can replace more nutritious foods.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made from corn and is used in many processed foods and beverages. Unlike nonnutritive sweeteners and regular corn syrup, HFCS is not available on grocery shelves.

Controversy continues to swirl around whether HFCS is a healthy food additive and whether it is a primary cause of obesity.

The trouble with sugar

The average person's daily sugar intake has increased to about 25 teaspoons of sugar a day from all forms of sugar including HFCS. Regular soft drinks contribute 33 percent of the sugar in our diet followed by candy, cakes, cookies and pies, which add 16 to 13 percent of the total sugar we consume.

There are many other forms of sugar and their chemical structures differ, but all sugars provide calories without an added nutritional benefit. Check food labels and look for sucrose, fructose, lactose and other ingredients ending in "-ose"; these are different forms of sugar.

The ingredients are listed in the order of the largest quantity to the smallest quantity. If sugar, in some form, is the first, second or third ingredient listed on the label, it means it's one of the largest elements in the product. Also, note that more than one form of sugar can be in a given processed food. If you see one or more forms of sugar that far up on the list, you might want to consider selecting another product.

No definitive link has been found to connect sweeteners to obesity and to negative impacts on health. But the general consensus is that too many calories from any source without sufficient activity to consume those calories will likely result in weight gain.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.

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