As I’ve been experimenting with baking, so too have I experimented a lot with alternatives to regular refined sugar. Yes, sugar in all forms should probably not make up a regular part of your diet, but if you’re not going to go Full-Out Hippie, and you want to try to introduce your friends and family to a better lifestyle where they don’t have to completely give up their birthday cakes or the occasional cookie, then you’re going to have to get used to the idea of using sugar.
Why use unrefined vs. refined sugar you ask? Well good question. Ultimately it boils down to the health value of the product. Just like when you boil your vegetables, the refining process for sugar pretty much ruins whatever nutritional good you’re getting out of it. Believe it or not, there are vitamins and minerals to be had, even in sugar.
Unfortunately, refining also uses some not-so-great chemical processes. After affination, which strips the outer coating of the sugar crystals, the sugar is liquified and has phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide added, which creates a precipitate that traps impurities. Following this, the sugar is filtered with carbon to whiten it, concentrated to a point of supersaturation, then crystallized with a vacuum. Voila, white sugar. How do they make brown sugar, you ask? The sugar is “recovered” by blending the remaining syrup with the washings from affination (remember the original “impure” discards?) and again crystallizing to produce brown sugar. Well, ew. So cane sugar has its problems, including an intense demand that is outstripping supply as, like corn, alternative uses are being found for it.
What then, to use instead of the regular brown stuff in baking? There is Sucanat, which is cane sugar, but it is essentially only the dried cane juice, so it’s virtually unrefined. It contains a lot of its molasses and has a very strong flavour. I’ve actually been a bit afraid to experiment with it, because of the taste. It also comes in tiny little packages that cost about 3x as much as a 5LB bag of sugar.
I’ve actually been using Madhava unrefined coconut sugar to really good effect in baking. It’s (purportedly) a sustainable crop, certified non-GMO, organic, unrefined, vegan, kosher, gluten-free, and tastes like brown sugar with the tiniest hint of caramel flavor to it. It’s also a direct 1:1 substitute for brown sugar too, which saves a lot of headaches. I’ve even been using it as an occasional substitute for white sugar. Honestly, the only downsides I’ve found to it is that it has a tendency to clump, and that the brown color is not always an asset.
The other nice thing about using the Madhava is they’ve got a reasonable-size/cost for bakers. The downside to this is I’ve only found two places that carry the big packages. I know that Costco carries it in 3LB bags, and Amazon.com (sorry, not .ca yet) carries it in a 6 pack of 1LB bags for about $25 bucks.
Personally, given the way that it clumps, I would prefer the 6 pack option if I could get it. But it’s not the end of the world… mixing it with a little liquid and warming it up about 10 seconds in the microwave gets rid of all but the largest lumps, and those are easily smited.
There are other “upsides” to using the unrefined coconut sugar like a low glycemic index, but don’t be fooled, this is a sugar, no matter the source, and just like with honey, should be considered an occasional treat. To amend the old adage: Everything in moderation. (Just try to stick to the better everythings.)