Azúcar! Excitement, mystery, sin, willpower… all feelings feeding the love-hate relationship we have with sugar. The thing is, that in the sweetened modern world, sugar walks a fine line between sin and pleasure, enjoyment and guilt. I want to, but I shouldn’t eat it; just a little…The disadvantages of eating too much sugar are well known and no less exploited by the light industry. In the following tabs, we will see that nowadays we probably eat more sugar than we believe and that in this country sugar is normally from cultivated beet from not very far away.

In the Mediterranean:
  • Like many other culinary products, sugar is closely linked to the Mediterranean and the cultures that have developed there throughout history.
  • References to the planting of sugar cane go back almost 5,000 years, to New Guinea. It quickly expanded to China and India. It appeared on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in the 4th century BC, with Alexander the Great’s journeys and conquests in his expansion of Macedonia into Asia.
  • In the 7th century AD the Muslim world came into contact with sugar when it invaded the regions of the Tigris and Euphrates. After the invasion of Spain in 711, sugar production extended all around the Mediterranean basin: to Sicily, Cyprus, Malta, Spain and a large part of North Africa (above all Morocco).
  • It was in France in 1705 that an important milestone in the history of this prized sweet substance occurred when the chemist Olivier Serrés discovered that wild beet contained sucrose. A few decades later, the German Margraf managed to extract and solidify the sugar from this plant. The establishment of the first beet sugar factories then began.

The main function of sugar is to sweeten. We innately find a sweet taste pleasant and we appreciate it depending on how sweet a tooth we have. In very different cultures, a sweet taste is associated with trust and pleasure (and a bitter taste with rejection and punishment). The fact is that sugar affects the mood: for example, it is involved in the secretion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and biorhythms. It is therefore not surprising if we want sweet foods when we feel sad. There are, however, other sources of sweetness, some of them not recommended. We should discover the different sources of sweetness.

How can we go about it:

  • Honey is the sweetener most used in North Africa andEurope, until it was deposed by sugar. The calorie content is similar to that of sugar, and that of other nutrients is low. It is considered to be a 1.5 times stronger sweetener than sugar.
  • Stevia is a plant originally from Paraguay, where it is used medicinally. It can be grown on any balcony and sweetness can be obtained from the leaves, which are 20-30 times sweeter than sugar. They can either be eaten or infusions can be made. Companies like Coca-Cola or Pepsico already use the sweetening component, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. In some countries, there is an active movement to promote its medicinal properties and extend the domestic growing of the plant.
  • Industrial sweeteners are substances that can be put into industrially made foods to give them sweetness without using sugar. Some have health drawbacks and they are best avoided.

Nutritionally, sugar largely has calories, that is, energy. The sugar molecules are formed by only two saccharides (simple sugars), which is why they are digested more quickly than other carbohydrates, like cereals, which contain longer saccharide chains. That is why their energy takes less time to reach the cells, which is why, when we make a brief, intense physical effort we recover quicker with sugar (or fruit, juices, chocolate, etc.) than by eating a sandwich or a dish of pasta. Brown sugar has a few other nutrients. We should find out the nutritional differences between white and brown sugar.

How can we go about it:

  • White or refined sugar is made almost exclusively (99.85%) of sucrose.
  • Brown sugar can also have different quantities of molasses (other components of sugar cane) and the darker it is the more it will have. The darkest sugars have between 7% and 15% molasses. This molasses above all contains vitamins and trace elements.
  • The calorie content and sweetening power are slightly lower in brown sugar. Slightly more brown sugar than white is needed to achieve the same level of sweetness; the quantity of calories will be similar in both cases.
  • Some people say that white sugar is damaging because when the molasses is taken out, vitamin B is taken away, therefore vitamin B has to be “stolen” from the body to digest it. But, with a varied diet, we can obtain vitamin B from many sources.

Sugar is also used as a preservative, for example to make jams or syrups, because many microbes cannot survive in a sweet environment. The food industry also uses it for various purposes.

The sugar in the table represents only a quarter of the quantity of sugar we eat: there is sugar in many other foods. We should find out the ways in which we can eat sugar.

How can we go about it:

  • The fresh foods that contain the most sugar are fruit and honey, followed by milk. There is a little in all vegetables, and none in meat and fish.
  • It is also contained in sweet processed foods: soft drinks and other beverages, sweets and preserves, biscuits, cakes, buns, ice creams, dairy products, etc.
  • We also find it in not such sweet processed foods in which sugar is used to provide texture or volume, as a flavour enhancer, or as a colourant (in this case it is additive E150…). Quite a lot of foods unexpectedly contain sugar.
  • European law regulates the information concerning sugar content that can be put on food labels. It is a regulation that leaves room for a degree of ambiguity.

We have the idea that sugar is fattening, but in fact what is fattening is eating more calories than we burn (those we have not used are stored in the form of fat). Excessive calorie accumulation can result in various illnesses. To prevent sugar from being damaging to us, we need to seek a balance between “the sugar coming in and the sugar going out”.

How can we go about it:

  • We should have a varied, balanced diet without an exaggerated intake of sweet things or of anything else. We should be careful to not eat too many cakes and buns or eat between meals, which normally leads to eating more foods rich in sugar and fats (the other big source of calories).
  • We should remember that, as we have seen above, “sugar comes in” by many routes, in addition to eating sugar itself, and some are unexpected (many processed foods that are not sweet).
  • We should not blindly trust products that “are not fattening” (low-calorie, light, etc.) which the industry makes so we can carry on enjoying sweetness without worrying about our weight. Labelling regulations allow false “lightness claims” and sweeteners with dubious health effects can be included.
  • If we see that we ought to cut down the quantity of sugar or sweet things that we eat, it will be difficult for us in the beginning, because our bodies are used to operating with a certain level of sugars. But this yearning will pass, because the body adapts to the level of sugar to which we accustom it.
  • We should fight growing sedentarism, doing at least a minimal amount of physical exercise.

There are two main types of sugar – white and brown – although other kinds can be distinguished within each type. We should find out what each type of sugar is.

How can we go about it:

  • Sugar beet gives white sugar, and sugar cane gives brown sugar.
  • Molasses (which can be obtained from sugar cane) can be added to beet sugar and the result is brown sugar.
  • Sugar obtained directly from cane is called natural brown cane sugar. It is obtained by pressing the cane in mills near to where it is grown so as not to wait too long once the cane has been harvested (otherwise the sugar is damaged).
  • This sugar can be refined, which means removing the molasses (other components in cane sugar), obtaining white sugar.
  • Molasses can be added once again to this white sugar, obtaining what is called refined brown cane sugar.
  • There are different degrees of “brownness”: the more molasses left (or added to it if it is based on white sugar) the darker it will be.
  • White sugar consists almost entirely of sucrose (calories) and brown sugar also contains nutrients from the molasses: largely vitamins and trace elements. The darkest sugars can contain between 7% and 15% molasses.

Another parameter for classifying sugars is the plant they have been obtained from. Sugar can come from sugar beet or sugar cane, which is grown in tropical zones. Quite a lot of beet is grown in the Mediterranean area (above all in France, Turkey, Egyptand Italy), but not much sugar cane (it is only grown in Egyptand Morocco, and a very small amount in Spain). They are two crops with very different characteristics. We should be clear about which informed consumption criteria are most important to us when choosing one origin or another.

How can we go about it:

  • If we place a great deal of importance on consuming foods of local origin, we choose beet sugar. It is very probable that the white sugar we find at the market is beet sugar.
  • If we want to help make business initiatives which seek the sovereignty of Southern societies viable, we can choose Fair Trade cane sugar. We will largely find it in shops specialising in Fair Trade, where they can tell us about the origin of the sugar. We can also find it in other shops. We can identify it by its international Fair Trade marks or the marks of importers in this country.