Nothing like the real thing. It needs no introduction. We call it simply "sugar," regular sugar, or table sugar, but it is labeled as granulated. Sugar is considered the gold standard of sweet taste with a clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly without lingering, showing no secondary taste or aftertaste. Being the favorite sweetener among all, we tend to dislike any sugar substitute that doesn't match sugar's sweetness profile.
In this post, I write about the essential characteristics of granulated sugar. We all know that if we add more sugar to our food, it will taste sweeter, but why is it so difficult to substitute it? And why do we love it so much?
Is it Cane Sugar? Beet Sugar? A Blend?
Granulated sugar is made from either sugar cane or sugar beet, but blends of both are common because many sugar producers don't sell directly to consumers. They have their products sold and distributed by sugar marketing organizations, which may blend beet and cane sugars, based on price and availability.
I am often asked: "Does the brand of sugar matter?" To most people — regardless of whether it is from cane, beet, or a blend — any brand of granulated white sugar looks, tastes, smells, and performs the same way in the kitchen. Read more about it on a previous post: Cane vs. Beet Sugar: A Difference?
Sucrose: The Scientific Name
Granulated sugar is one of the purest food products. Chemically speaking, it is about 99.95 percent sucrose, regardless of whether it is made from sugar cane or sugar beet. The remaining 0.05 percent is mostly water plus a minuscule amount of impurities. Sucrose is a double sugar made up of two single sugars – glucose (50 percent) and fructose (50 percent) – connected by an oxygen bond.
Crystal Size of White Sugars
As discussed in a previous post titled "20+ Types of Refined Sugar from Cane and Beet in Stores", the refining process results in white sugar going out as the final product and impurities accumulating in thick dark syrups, aka molasses or refiners syrup, which are separated by centrifugation.
Most sugar producers and distributors call granulated white sugar the type of refined sugar with an average crystal size ranging from 0.3 to 0.55 mm. Granulated sugar is typically the starting point for the production of other white sugars and brown sugars. Fine crystals are made by grinding granulated sugar and then passing them through specifically sized screens. The crystal size affects how sugar dissolves and so, fine crystals are promoted for baking needs because it mixes well and dissolves faster than mid-size crystals due to their high surface area.
A variety of white sugars come out of sugar factories and refineries with average crystals size ranging from coarse (0.75–0.6 mm) to medium (0.5–0.3 mm), to small-size (0.3–0.02 mm). From largest to smallest, it includes: sparkling > sanding > granulated > fine > extra fine > superfine > ultrafine > powdered 6X > powdered 10X > powdered 12X > fondant.
Top Brands of Granulated Sugar
The top granulated sugars are the store brands including Great Value (Walmart), Market Pantry and Good & Gather (Target), Roundy's and Smidge & Spoon (Kroger), Nice (Walgreens), 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods), Happy Belly (Amazon), First Street (Smart & Final), Wegman's, Publix, and many others.
Two well-known brands of granulated sugar in the U.S. include Domino on the East Coast and C&H on the West Coast. Both are cane sugars. The owner of the brands, American Sugar Refining or ASR Group, is one of the largest cane sugar producers in the country. Domino and C&H sugars come out of four refineries in California, Louisiana, Maryland, and New York. Domino Chalmette Refinery, located just outside New Orleans, is the largest refinery 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 marketer worldwide. Imperial sugars are produced in a refinery located in Georgia.
Crystal Sugar is a brand owned by United Sugars Corp (United), which is the nation’s second–largest marketer of refined sugar. It provides beet and cane sugars, distributing almost 25% of the country's total refined sugar. United is a cooperative owned by 3 producers: American Crystal (beet sugar), Minn-Dak Farmers Coop (beet sugar), and US Sugar Corp. (cane sugar).
Café Delight brand is owned by Cargill, another leading marketer of refined sugar. It sells and distributes cane and beet sugars from the U.S. and Mexico, representing the following sugar producers: Louisiana Sugar Refining (cane sugar), Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop, Spreckels Sugar Co. (beet sugar), Wyoming Sugar Co. (beet sugar), Zucarmex (cane sugar from Mexico), and other producers from Mexico.
Widely available brand names include N'JOY (owned by Sugar Foods Corporation), Community Coffee, Genuine Joe, Shrurfine, and Essential Everyday.
The Sweetness of Granulated Sugar
When we think about sweetness, the first thing that comes to mind is granulated sugar, and we often describe the sweet taste simply as "tastes like sugar."
Granulated sugar is the gold standard of sweet taste to which all other sweeteners are compared for three reasons: (1) sugar is the most common sweetener used in home food preparation and cookbooks; (2) sugar is the favorite and most versatile type of sweetener of all; (3) all we taste from sugar is sweet as it has no secondary taste or aftertaste.
Granulated sugar and other sweeteners taste sweet but they certainly don't taste alike. Each sweetener has a specific taste profile, which means the sweetness sensation begins, peaks, and lingers differently for each sweetener. The "sweetness intensity over time" is how quickly the sweet taste is perceived (registered with our brain) and how long the taste perception lasts in our mouth. When the sweet taste subsides, what is left is called aftertaste. Common secondary tastes, or off-notes, in sweeteners include metallic, bitter, and cooling. Granulated sugar has a clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly, without lingering. It has no aftertaste.
How sweet is sugar? Wondering how sweetness is measured? The sweetness is an essential attribute of a sweetener that does not change. However, the perceived sweetness is affected by the concentration of sweetener in the food, temperature, pH level, and interaction with other ingredients. Imagine having a sweetener simply dissolved in water versus it in iced tea, hot coffee, lemonade, yogurt, cereal, or fruit. The best way to taste a sweetener is in water. So, to measure sweetness, granulated sugar and other sweeteners are dissolved in water. Refer to the image below to learn how sweetness is measured.
Why is it so Difficult to Substitute it?
The answer is because sugar is not only sweet. It has many culinary roles. Consequently, it is usually not easy to remove it altogether, or even just reduce or replace sugar without affecting the outcome of foods.
At the simplest level, sugar is used just as a sweetener, such as in hot and cold drinks. But it often performs more than one role obtained either individually or in combination with other ingredients. It is a precursor of flavor and color, as discussed next, but the importance of sugar also comes for safety and structure.
Sugar contributes to the so-called "mouthfeel," providing bulk (weight and volume), increasing viscosity, and changing the texture of foods. It offers glaze and sparkle, binds water, increases boiling temperature and lowers the freezing temperature when dissolved in water, and much more. In non-sweet foods, sugar is 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.
Granulated Sugar: Color & Flavor
Crystals of granulated sugar are naturally white and, when dissolved in water, they are colorless and transparent. But sugar is added to foods because it offers subtle to rich color and flavors. The color, aroma, and taste of many foods are a result of the decomposition of sugar that happens when sucrose changes chemically into one or more new substances. Granulated sugar (sucrose) 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, 50 to 90% of the sucrose molecules break 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. Sucrose rotates the polarized light to the right and is called a right-hand sugar (aka dextrorotatory). The rotation of the polarized light for invert sugar is to the opposite direction, and so, it is called a levorotatory sugar.
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. Still, it turns into a liquid at about 340°F (a very high melting point) forming caramel, which has a 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 decomposes into other substances during the 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 results in changes in color and flavor. It occurs through complex and multiple reactions at high temperatures in the presence of amino acids (or proteins). The Maillard reaction produces a high color and viscous juice, as well as a particular smell and taste. Both caramelization and Maillard are referred to as browning reactions. However, Maillard results in a much larger range of compounds than caramelization, and a richer and more complex flavor. Be aware that sucrose (granulated sugar) is a non-reducing sugar, which means it does not have a carbonyl group "exposed" for Maillard reactions to occur. But after sucrose is decomposed it turns into glucose and fructose, which are reducing sugars and so, have a carbonyl group "exposed" and undergo the Maillard reaction.
Why Do We Love Sugar So Much?
The human evolution explanation as to why we love sugar so much has to do with survival. The way our ancestors found and consumed enough nutrients and energy was by the sense of taste. The purpose of taste was to assess if potential foods were nutritious or toxic before swallowing them, and resulted in acceptance or rejection.
The taste is a sense that nature undoubtedly set us up, making pleasurable foods taste sweet, poisonous ones taste bitter, and spoiled food tastes sour. Our response to sweetness is innate, and if you have any doubt that we are born liking it, watch this baby tasting ice cream for the first time.
Of the five tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) — sweetness is undeniably the favorite of most people. It is the one that gives us the most pleasure. Some of us like the sweet taste more than others, depending on many factors such as age, sex, health, education level, income, food preferences, consumption habits, as well as the environment or context in which the sweet food is consumed.
Because we are hard wired to love sugar — combined with the fact that it is widely available, can be stored for a long time, and is inexpensive — it is easy to have too much of it. Therefore, we have to learn to live with it and use it responsibly.
Granulated sugar is harmless in small amounts but can be harmful in large quantities. It is energy-dense, 4 to 13x more than fruits as most ripe fruits have just 10 to 12 percent sugar. High intake of sugar (or any other caloric sweetener) significantly increases our risk for dental caries, weight gain, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
How much sugar is too much? The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests no more than six teaspoons per day for women and children. Men's upper daily limit is nine teaspoons. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (DGA) advise limiting sugar to 10% of daily calories, which is twelve teaspoons a day on average. The WHO states it is best to keep it below 5% of daily calories, meaning no more than six teaspoons a day. If you are having more than that, it is probably too much. Be aware that those limits are for all sugars, not just granulated sugar.
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