My friend Cindy and I were discussing stevia sweetener the other day and this got me to thinking about all the various sugar products that we often use during the holidays.
The white table sugar we use comes from two different plants: sugar beets or sugarcane. Worldwide, 65 percent of our sugar comes from sugarcane. Sugarcane is a tall grass that grows in tropical areas. I've seen it growing in Hawaii and Jamaica and the fields look similar to corn.
To get sugar from sugarcane, the cane is pressed to extract the juice, then boiled, and spun to produce raw sugar and syrup (molasses). The raw sugar is then sent to a refinery where it is washed and filtered to remove remaining non-sugar ingredients and color. It is then crystallized, dried and packaged into refined (or granulated) sugar. Brown sugar and confectioners' sugar are produced by refining the sugar even more.
Many restaurants now have packets of "Sugar in the Raw" with their other sweeteners. This is Turbinado sugar, which is a raw sugar that has been partially processed, removing some of the surface molasses. It is a blond color with a mild brown sugar flavor and is often used in tea.
Most of the sugar we eat here probably came from sugar beets. Sugar beets are a root crop resembling a large parsnip grown mostly in the cooler north. Beet sugar processing is similar to sugarcane, but it is done in one continuous process without the raw sugar stage. The sugar beets are washed, sliced, and soaked in hot water to separate the sugar-containing juice from the beet fiber. The sugar-laden juice is purified, filtered, concentrated and dried in a series of steps similar to cane sugar processing.
Other plants that produce sugar products are corn and stevia. High fructose corn syrup is produced from corn starch that has been processed another step so that it is even sweeter than regular corn syrup.
Stevia comes from the plant leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It is also known as sweet honey leaf, sweetleaf, and sugarleaf. I grew stevia in my herb garden this year. The plant wasn't particularly pretty, but it grew well. I harvested the entire plant in early fall and dried it. I now use a few dried leaves to sweeten my evening tea.
I sometimes also add honey to my tea. Although honey is not from a plant, it is a natural sweetener. Everyone knows that honey is made by bees using nectar from flowers, but did you know that honey tastes different when made from different plant pollens? Clover honey is the most common and mild, whereas buckwheat honey is dark and full-bodied.
Who knew that sugar could be so complicated, yet taste so good? As you are eating Holiday sweets, think about all the hard work people did to grow and produce that sugar product.