Granulated sugar, also known as table sugar or simply 'sugar', is the most familiar and versatile type of sweetener of all and so, considered the gold standard of sweet taste. It has a clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly without lingering. All you taste from sugar is sweet as it has no secondary taste or aftertaste.
Because it is the favorite and most recognizable sweetener, we usually dislike sugar substitutes that do not match its sweetness profile. Keep reading to find out exactly what granulated sugar is. To learn how this and other refined sugars are produced from cane and beet plants refer to two of my previous blog posts: What Is Refined Sugar? and Cane vs Beet Sugar: A Difference?.
An important stage in sugar production is the crystallization. Sugar is refined from cane syrups by growing large crystals. The mix of crystals and remaining liquid (thick dark syrup called molasses) is separated by spinning the liquid away in a centrifuge, leaving only crystals. To recover the maximum amount of granulated sugar from the thick syrups, a series of crystallizations is performed.
The crystal size of sugars, expressed here in millimeters, may vary from producer to producer. What one manufacturer calls granulated sugar, may be called fine granulated or extra fine granulated by another. However, what most sugar producers and distributors call granulated sugar is the type of white refined sugar with crystal size ranging from 0.3 to 0.55mm.
Granulated sugar is typically the starting point for the production of white sugars with finer crystals (see image below) and brown sugars. Sugars with fine crystals may be produced by grinding granulated sugar and then passing them through specifically sized screens. Crystal size affects how sugar dissolves. Fine crystals dissolve faster than coarser. Explore all the different types of sugar from cane and beet available to you on another blog post.
Sucrose: The Scientific Name
Chemically speaking, granulated sugar is 99.95% sucrose regardless of whether it is made from cane or beet. A sucrose molecule consists of a glucose and a fructose, connected by an oxygen bond. It is almost impossible to distinguish cane from beet sugar as I discussed on a previous post titled Cane vs. Beet Sugar: A Difference?.
Sucrose, just like glucose and fructose, is a simple carbohydrate. Simple carbohydrates are easily digested and absorbed by our body. Glucose and fructose are simple sugars and small enough to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Sucrose, being a double sugar, is broken down and aborbed as glucose and fructose.
From Cane, Beet or a Blend
Granulated sugar may be either from cane, beet, or a blend. By law, only sweeteners derived from cane and beet should be declared on food labels as 'sugar'. Therefore, producers of cane and beet sugar are not required to mention the source of their product, as the image below shows. Also, sugar shall refer to sucrose obtained from cane and beet only. Sweeteners from cane and beet are often listed in the ingredient list as 'sugar' only.
Typically, if the label of a sugar does not identify if it is from cane or beet (as in most store brands), the product, in that case, is from beet or a blend. For those brands, portions of each sugar (beet or cane) in any given serving vary over time based on price from the producers so that it can be cane one time, but beet another, or both cane and beet mixed. If a brand is always cane, it will often be labeled as such.
The most well-known brands of granulated sugar in the U.S. are Domino on the East Coast, and C&H on the West Coast. Both are cane sugars. Domino and C&H are brand names owned by American Sugar Refining or ASR Group, which is the largest cane sugar producer in the country. Learn more here: About Domino Granulated Sugar / About C&H Granulated Sugar
Imperial Sugar and Dixie Crystals are sister brands that sell essentially the same cane sugars. The brands are owned by Imperial Sugar Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Louis Dreyfus Commodities. Louis Dreyfus is based in The Netherlands and is one of the top three sugar merchandizers worldwide. They sugars are produced in a Refinery located in Georgia.
Granulated sugar (sucrose) is the gold standard of sweet taste for four reasons: (1) is the most common sweetener used in home food preparation and cookbooks; (2) is the most versatile type of sweetener of all; (3) has a familiar clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly, without lingering; (4) all you taste from sugar is sweet as it has no secondary taste or aftertaste.
Granulated sugar is the reference of sweet taste, which means the sweetness of other sweeteners is compared to solutions of 5 to 12% sugar in water. A solution of 5% sugar has sweetness equivalent to a cup of coffee or tea. Soft drinks have sweetness equivalent to a solution of 9% sugar.
Color and Flavor
Crystals of granulated sugar are naturally white. When dissolved in water, they are colorless and transparent. Sugar is often used because it offers subtle to rich color and flavors when it is decomposed, i.e., when sucrose changes chemically into one or more new substances. Table sugar may be decomposed by some common processes:
Sugar Inversion is a process where sucrose decomposes into glucose and fructose, resulting in what is called invert sugar. The sucrose molecule consists of a glucose and a fructose ring, connected by an oxygen (glycosidic) bond. When a solution of sucrose is heated in the presence of an acid or the enzyme invertase, sucrose breaks down into its components parts (glucose and fructose) as the image below shows. The resulting syrup is called invert sugar. The reaction is called inversion because when sucrose breaks apart, its optical properties change. I found some invert syrups on store shelves (see image below). They are medium invert syrups, where about 50% of the sucrose molecules are split. A syrup is called full invert if about 90% of the sucrose molecules are broken down.
Caramelization is the process of decomposing sucrose into invert sugar (glucose and fructose) and caramel (coloring substances). Sucrose is extremely stable in its granulated form at room temperature but turns into liquid at about 340°F (a very high melting point) forming caramel, which has brown color, and pleasant taste and aroma (buttery, fruity, flowery, sweet, rum-like, and roasted). Prolonged caramelization may result in bitter, and very dark products. Be aware that ‘melting sucrose’ is a different process than ‘dissolving sucrose’. Both turn sucrose crystals into liquid. Sucrose changes chemically or decompose into other substances during melting process. On the other hand, it is not chemically changed or decomposed when it is simply dissolved in water as sucrose molecules and water molecules remain intact. If the water is allowed to evaporate from this solution, sucrose crystals are formed again.
The Maillard Reaction is another process where decomposed sucrose result in changes of color and flavor. It occurs through complex and multiple reactions at high temperatures when in presence of amino acids (or proteins), glucose, and fructose. The Maillard reaction produces a high color and viscous juice, as well as a particular smell and taste. Caramelization and Maillard are referred to as browning reactions, but Maillard results in much larger range of compounds than caramelization, and a richer and more complex flavor. Be aware that sucrose in table sugar is a non-reducing sugar, which means it does not have a carbonyl group "exposed" for Maillard reactions to occur. However, after sucrose is decomposed it turns into glucose and fructose, which are reducing sugars and so, have a carbonyl group "exposed", undergoing the Maillard reaction.
At the simplest level, sugar imparts sweetness but it often performs more than one role is a given recipe. It is a precursor of flavor and color, as mentioned above, but the importance of sugar also comes for safety and structure. The roles it performs are obtained either individually or in combination with other ingredients.
Sugar provides bulk (weight and volume), increases viscosity and changes the texture of foods, offers glaze and sparkle, binds water, increases boiling temperature and lowers freezing temperature when dissolved in water, and much more. In non-sweet foods, sugar can be used to balance sour, bitter, salty, and spicy tastes.
Sugar is not a perfect sweetener but is definitely the most versatile type of sweetener of all.
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