All living things are in competition with each other for energy, which may explain why so many of us desire the sweet taste so much since sweetness indicates a food source that is high in energy. Sweet dishes are synonymous with “sugar” – but not all sugars are the same particularly with regard to how sweet they may or may not taste or how many nutrients they may or may not contain. Understanding how “sugars” influence the taste and flavour of our dishes is key to understanding the role that sweetness plays in the food we consume. Then there are the health implications of sweet dishes.
There is wide-spread consensus amongst the scientific community that sugar, when eaten in excess, has a detrimental affect on our health. Many speculate that refined sugars encourage early on-set diabetes, candida albicans, crohn’s disease, cancers (which feed off sugar), tooth decay, dementia – you name the chronic disease and at the root lies an over-consumption of refined, industrial, sugar.
Many of the health concerns need not be repeated here since they have already been so widely covered elsewhere. Suffice it to say that prior to the rise and rise of convenience food most populations indulged their sweet cravings by preparing home-made biscuits, cakes, jams and deserts. This put a natural halt on the amount any family could eat in one sitting or in a day. Now, with cheap convenience food we can head to the kitchen cupboard day and night and happily (without any significant impact on our budgets) munch our way through factory prepared sweetened food.
What is sugar?
Common table sugar is just one of hundreds of different types of sugars which in turn are different to honey, maple syrup or even manufactured isoglucose. They are all refined differently, they stem from different plants or insects, some are pure white others light brown, others dark brown, some are bone dry whilst others are moist. Some sugars are bought packaged in a food store and are consumed by the everyday cook in the dishes they prepare at home. Most sugars come in the form of mass produced, industrial sugars and sweeteners that the everyday cook rarely sets eyes on but which the industrial cook leans on to make his food palatable as well as profitable.
The one thing all sugars share in common is that they are referred to as carbohydrates, meaning they are made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules and all words that end in an –ose denotes a sugar. That is perhaps where their similarity ends.
Simple sugars – Disaccharides
By way of example, simple two molecule sugars bound together as a disaccharide, typically, taste sweet. In the natural world a single molecule sugar (monosaccharide) does not exist. Disaccharides on the other hand do and the most common ones found in natural foods are.
- sucrose, one part fructose, one part glucose found mostly in fruit, vegetables and other plants;
- lactose: one part galactose one part glucose found in the milk of dairy herds; and
- maltose: the combination of two molecules of glucose found in sprouted grains.
Lactose and maltose taste mildly sweet – but nothing tastes as sweet as the simple sugar fructose. When we talk about enjoying sweet dishes what we mean is we enjoy the sweet taste of fructose.
To date nutritionists have been unable to identify exactly what nutritional function fructose plays other than perhaps to tempt animals (such as ourselves) to eat the fruit and spread the seed? Fructose could literally be the sugar that helps the medicine go down since unripe fruit devoid of fructose taste tart and unpleasant. It is the presence of fructose that makes the fruit so tempting.
In fruit and vegetables sucrose will form anywhere from 5-10% of the total plant when ripe. (Unripe fruits and vegetables contain little or no fructose). The rest is water, fibre, vitamins and minerals. The non-sucrose content of the fruit or plant is critical for the slow digestion of sucrose. Some have described “fructose” as the poison with the remaining fibre and nutrients as the anti-dote. In the absence of fibre and minerals the body absorbs the glucose and the fructose too quickly leading swiftly to metabolic imbalances.
Food that has a high proportion of refined sugars, in which all fibre and nutrients have been discarded, is not unlike the proverbial “flash in the pan”. It burns brightly for all but a few seconds. Having burned the rush of energy the body then demands more in the form of hunger signals. Looking for a quick fix the eater goes back to the kitchen cupboard and pulls out the quick, ready-made, extremely convenient, affordable, food product that landed him in this fix to begin with to reverse the hunger cravings! So begins the vicious circle of over-consuming cheap fake sugary food products.
The manipulation of fructose.
Although nutritionally defunct and sometimes referred to as a poison it is the sweet taste of fructose that we chase and it is the fructose that the industrial cook, with his army of scientists and lab workers, has manipulated to brilliant effect.
If MSG is the great decoy used to hide foul flavours in savoury dishes then fructose is the decoy to distract attention away from unpalatable flavours in sweet dishes. Over the years the fructose content of certain ingredients has been cranked up higher and higher. What in nature forms all but 5-10% of the plant’s total, has now been artificially increased to 50% in the case of refined white table sugar and from anywhere between 55-99.9% in the case of isoglucose, agave syrup and crystalline fructose. With every increase in the quantity of fructose so too our desire for sweeter and sweeter foods and so too, it would seem, our increased rates of chronic diseases.
Many recipes call for an equal amount of sugar to flour and butter. It is, in fact, perfectly possible to prepare sweet baked goods or sweet dishes with half the amount of sugar. Thus if a favourite recipe book calls for 150 gr of sugar it is possible to reduce it to 75 gr. The resulting dish may not taste as sweet but it will retain some sweetness and still be enjoyable. For modern pallets, numbed into enjoying high levels of fructose, this may take some getting used to. After a couple of tries, however, the tongue is able to adapt to a new “low” fructose reality and enjoy baked goods or sweet deserts with a far lower level of sweetness.
Complex sugars – Polysaccharides
Starch is also a sugar but it is a complex sugar (polysaccharide), meaning that hundreds of glucose molecules are bound together in varying shapes and forms. On it’s own starch is tasteless and only becomes sweet tasting when the enzyme amylase is added since this enzyme is responsible for breaking the complex sugars into their constituent parts mostly fructose and glucose.
Starch is the plant’s way of storing the sun’s energy and if prepared correctly can act as a useful form of providing our everyday energy needs. If refined white sugars with a high proportion of fructose act as the proverbial flash in the pan then soaked and fermented starchy foods – such as sourdough breads, porridges and legumes – are the proverbial slow-burner emitting a constant low heat. The complex sugar starches present in fermented grains take time to digest and can keep the metabolism happily ticking over for hours until the body requires replenishment.
The Story of Sugar
“Such then is the substance which Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIII hardly knew by name, and which for those of the nineteenth century has become a staple food of the first necessity.” Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, 1825, describing sugar
Until relatively recently sugar was a rare, expensive luxury. Writing in the early nineteenth century, Brillat-Savarin too marvelled at the fact that in the reign of Louis XIII (1610-1643) no one had heard of sugar let alone used it in their cooking, yet by the time “The Physiology of Taste” was published in 1825 some two hundred years later it was considered a staple food product used liberally in most dishes.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of sugar. Refined sugar and industrialisation are intrinsically linked to one another. There would be no sugar, as we know it today, were it not for the invention of mills, powered by fossil fuels, that can separate the sucrose from the plant’s other constituent parts through centrifugal force.
Originating some two thousand years ago in India where the sugar cane first grew, few populations outside of India had access to such a high concentration of sweetness. Even in India local populations did not mass manufacture anything like the refined sugar we see today. Over the centuries some cane plants found their way to Europe and were grown in Cyprus and other Mediterranean countries in the middle-ages but it was, by today’s standards, a small and pricey affair.
Traditional European cultures sweetened their dishes with seasonal or dried fruit or with honey – if they could access it. Further afield Middle Eastern and Persian cooking is known for using fruit in their savoury dishes and the use of honey to sweeten their confectionaries. Never refined sugar. The British Christmas treat “mince pies” no longer contains any ground meat but a few hundred years ago they did. The addition of dried fruit to sweeten and flavour a savoury dish was considered a luxury which is why it was reserved for special occasions such as Christmas.
For centuries, therefore, global diets derived sweetness from three main sources: fresh-ripe fruit, dried fruit or honey. Given that fructose makes up a mere 5-10% of fresh ripe and dried fruit populations ate fructose in small amounts and always in combination with other nutrients and fibres which help the body digest the simple sugars.
Honey has a far higher percentage of fructose namely 55% but it was so scarce and hard to come by it would not have formed a major part of the everyday cooks repertoire. Historically speaking, honey, protected as it is by bees was hard to come by and was typically reserved for the well to do albeit that some of it may sometimes have filtered down to the everyday cook for occasional use in their cooking and baking.
Colonisation, sugar beet and the invention of sugar mills.
European colonisation of tropical countries such as Brazil, the west Indies and Indonesia from the sixteenth century onwards resulted in the sudden emergence of sugar as a regular ingredient in cooking.
For the first time, sugar cane could be grown outside of Europe by Europeans who controlled the planting, harvesting and milling of the cane. Early methods of production were crude and time consuming based on a method referred to as evaporation. In some parts of the world this traditional form of sugar production still exists (See Chapter on Sugar).
Come the nineteenth century three key development took place that led to the sugar market we see today. Firstly, the invention of new sugar mills that relied on centrifugal force to separate the sucrose not evaporation. Secondly, the discovery that sugar beets could produce white sucrose in the same quantity and quality to that of sugar cane. Thirdly, the abolition of duties on sugar making it affordable to less privileged populations.
Many may be forgiven for thinking that having discovered successful ways in which to manufacture pure sucrose, this would be enough to satisfy our sweet-tooth but no. In the 1960’s Japanese food scientists patented a method to create fructose and glucose from starch. Starch, to recall is an unsweet carbohydrate and is found in white flour, corn flour, potatoes and many other root vegetables. Starches are complex sugars in that they are bound together in tight fitting balls rather than the two molecule disaccharides we have seen thus far.
The scientists discovered that if enzymes were added to starch these enzymes would be able to convert some of the complex sugars into fructose and glucose and thereby convert bland starch into a sweet tasting sugar. In this way a lab technician, not nature, is able to control how high or how low the fructose-glucose ratio should be. From this invention was born high fructose corn syrup also known as isoglucose in Europe.
The patenting and invention of isoglucose in the 1960’s came at a convenient time for the industrial cook. The food industry loved this invention since it enabled them to mass manufacture sweet syrup from a glut of cheap GMO corn grown by North American farmers, which the US Congress subsidises whilst imposing high duties on table sugar deriving from sugar cane and or beets. For the absent cook it was 100% cost efficient to manufacture starch sugar rather than rely on the more expensive refined white table sugars that derive from either sugar cane or sugar beet.
The picture in Europe was slightly different. Europe was committed to protecting its centuries old sugar beet farmers and refiners as well as extending trade aid to its former colonies that grow sugar cane. As such the starch industry was only allowed to manufacture up to 5% of the total European sugar market. All that is about to change. The sugar market has been reformed so that now starch manufacturers in Europe are permitted to manufacture as much isoglucose as there is demand for. Make no mistake – the European industrial cook is just as slothful as the North American one and is very, very happy with this new arrangement.