Sweeteners are a part of everyday life whether the sweetener in the morning coffee or in a salad dressing at lunch they show up throughout the day. Most of us have read the bad press regarding high fructose corn syrup and may have even started label checking but do we know much about the other sweeteners in our lives? Cloverfields Farm & Kitchen's Janine Washle compares various sweeteners and shows how to get different flavors from different sweeteners.
Agave nectar, molasses, granulated sugar, sorghum, honey, even maple syrup are considered everyday sweeteners. Which ones are good, not so good, even bad? While sweeteners enhance our food, too much of a good thing can be bad. And sometimes what we perceive as good is bad as well. The most basic way to sort it all out is to apply this question: If a person of reasonable intelligence were given the plants, tools, and know-how could he/she produce the sweetener at home? One could definitely produce honey, sorghum, and maple syrup and possibly even molasses at home.
What about granulated sugar and agave nectar? This would be a costly undertaking. Sugar produced from the sap of sugar cane is milled and processed many times including numerous bleachings. Molasses is actually the sugar cane syrup with different grades of molasses produced at varying times during the boiling process. Brown sugar, light and dark, is granulated sugar retaining an amount of molasses. Powdered-, sanding-, pearl-, crystal sugars are all granulated sugar that have been processed differently.
Sucanet is a minimally processed sugar from sugar cane sap. The production of sugar crystals is called crystallization which is a multi step process. Sucanet only goes through a single crystallization process if any depending on the producer. Turbinado is a fancy form of raw sugar or to be more confusing, natural brown sugar which goes through one crystallization process and a spin in a centrifuge. And then there is agave nectar…
Agave nectar has a low glycemic index (a measurement of how fast or not blood sugar rises), and when it first came on the scene in the late 90's, it seemed a healthy alternative. Upon closer examination it was discovered that there is more fructose in agave nectar than in high fructose corn syrup. Additionally, commercial agave nectar the stuff found on chain groceries shelves is really syrup. The traditional true agave nectar is produced through a laborious process of gathering the aguamiel from the depression left from the flower stem of a certain variety of agave. The aguamiel is hand extracted with a gourd and syringe then processed into agave nectar. This hand process makes it very expensive and a limited supply certainly not available to every grocery outlet in the country.
So what is the stuff on chain grocery shelves? It is a highly processed syrup that comes from the fibrous root bulb of several types of agave plants. The process is very similar to the one used to convert cornstarch into high fructose corn syrup in which the syrup is heated then treated to an enzymatic process resulting in a high fructose syrup. In fact, fructose content in agave syrup is at 70% or higher; whereas, high fructose corn syrup is at around 50%. So let's just lay it on the table.
What is all the fuss about fructose? Isn't fructose the naturally occurring sugar of fruits? Short answer, No. Fruits have small amounts of fructose which used to go by the name of levulose. Levulose is good because when ingested in small amounts in the company of enzymes, vitamins and pectin, it is actually good for the body. Isolated concentrated fructose produced in a lab environment is bad since it is ingested in large quantities and it goes directly to the liver rather than being absorbed through the intestines over time. When it goes directly to the liver it is digested by the liver which is why it has a low glycemic index and what isn't digested is stored as triglycerides; otherwise, fat.
Additionally, levulose triggers a chemical response in the brain by stimulating leptin the hormone that makes a person feel full. High fructose corn syrup and agave syrup do not stimulate leptin; therefore, a person continues to eat beyond what their bodies actually need. This brings up the unsettling look at fast food restaurants that lace everything from smoothies to nuggets with HFCS.
At the end of the day, sweeteners are a matter of personal choice. Luckily, it is easy to research sweeteners and determine if you are okay with their chemical profiles, production methods, effects on the body. As for me, I'm keeping it real on a daily basis with honey, sorghum, and maple syrup saving the granulated sugars for occasional baking and the holidays.
Amish Tea Cakes
(given to me by former Amish neighbor, Fannie)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 TB baking powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
¾ cup sour milk (buttermilk)
½ cup lard (vegetable shortening)
1-1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 large egg
¼ tsp vanilla extract
4-1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 TB granulated sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
In a stand mixer, blend together sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir in sour milk, lard, lemon juice, egg, and vanilla. Beat until smooth. Add flour a cupful at a time until a stiff dough is formed. Chill dough for 3 hours even overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Remove dough from refrigerator. Using two teaspoons, drop dough onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet spaced 2" apart. Sprinkle cookies with cinnamon sugar. Bake 10-12 minutes or until edges are just starting to turn color but centers are still soft. Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes before removing them to cooling racks to cool completely.
Cloverfields Farm and Kitchen also has a special Sugar & Sweetener Recipe Booklet available by email. To ask for a complimentary copy, just email Janine Washle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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CloverFields Farm & Kitchen
3720 Mt. Olive Rd.
Hardin Springs Area
Big Clifty, KY 42712
Janine Washle and her family live at the Cloverfields Farm and Kitchen in Big Clifty, Kentucky in Hardin County. CloverFields Farm & Kitchen, part of a century old farmstead, is our home and business. The McGuffin house, the original farmhouse, is a registered state landmark. CloverFields Farm has a prosperous farming history. They are continuing this rural story in their own unique way by the addition of CloverFields Kitchen a place to explore the past through food and merge it with our modern lifestyles.
CloverFields Farm is dedicated to the preservation of southern, especially Kentucky, food traditions. The kitchen is commercially-outfitted compliant with Health Department standards. In this kitchen I develop new recipes based on original ideas, inspirations from my culinary research, and most often according to what is in season.
On the farm, they make many gifts and specialty items. She is currently working on her first cookbook, but she also has a long resume developing recipes for several companies. She has also won several contests and cook-offs with her original recipes.