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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

How sweet it is: Artificial sweeteners are common, but real sugar comes from sugar cane and beets

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

BATON ROUGE — A walk in the thriving sugar cane fields of the Louisiana State University AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel shows how different the tropical grass plant is compared to the root plant sugar beet that's grown farther north.

Both produce raw sugar or sucrose, but things get confusing when you show up at a restaurant and ask for sugar to go with iced tea and end up being handed a packet of substitute sweeteners. Toss in high fructose corn syrup, which is a product made from corn and other natural sweeteners such as honey, and there are a lot of choices.

Four states grow sugar cane — Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Hawaii — and they provide nearly half of all the sugar consumed in the United States.

“Sugar cane is the source of 45 percent of sugar grown in America,” said Charley Richard of C. Richard Research Consulting in New Orleans at the Association of Food Journalists Conference in October. “Sugar beets are the source of 55 percent.”

But he notes that 75 percent of the sugar is used by food companies such as Kelloggs and by candy companies.

Sugar cane is a tropical grass.

Louisiana is a temperate climate, with Baton Rouge about the northernmost point on mainland United States where sugar cane can grow. It may have been first planted in Louisiana during the late 1600s. But the birth of the Louisiana sugar industry began in 1795 when granulated sugar could be put in wooden casks and shipped to Europe.

At the LSU Sugar Research Station, when the eight-foot stalks are harvested, they are cut into 8-to-10-inch pieces. Fifteen percent of the plant is sugar.

“The processors extract the juice and boil off the water to leave crystals,” said Kenneth A. Gravois, director of the LSU research station.

It's a science to get the plants to flower or cross-pollinate. “They will flower when our days get short,” he said. “Beginning in May they are put in a metal building after sunset and taken out at a prescribed time to mimic the tropics.”

To process sugar, juice is extracted with roller mills. Using heat, it clarifies and settles out the impurities, and then the water is evaporated using heat and pressure for crystal formation. “It's a gooey mass,” said Mr. Gravois. “It produces molasses and raw sugar. In a centrifuge the molasses get spun out and you are left with sugar, which goes to a refinery for table whites.”

Sugar beets

The sugar produced by cane sugar and the white beet sugar is sucrose composed of fructose and glucose.

Sugar beets used to be grown in Ohio and southern Michigan sugar growers moved north in the late 1990s.

“They closed down the plants in Ohio,” says Dan Pavuk, extension educator for Michigan State University and Ohio State University. “It was too expensive to ship. Sugar beets grow in very cold weather. They are planted in the spring and harvested the first of October.”

Michigan ranks fourth in the United States in sugar beet production, nearly all of which is grown in the “thumb” region. In the past, sugar beets were grown in Monroe and Lenawee counties.

Between 1967 and 1970 high fructose corn syrup was initiated and showed a rapid increase prompted by the conversion of soft drinks from sucrose to HFCS in the late 1970s. Since then, there has been a parallel rise in obesity.

“Sixty percent of the fructose in the diet is from beverages, sugars, fruits and juices,” said Dr. George A. Bray, executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at LSU at the AFJ Conference. Good sources of fructose are fruit, vegetables, grain, and dairy. Bad sources are sugar, soft drinks, and fruit drinks.

Lowering fructose in your diet is a way to control your weight. Soft drinks increase energy intake, body weight and risk of diabetes.

Sugar and HFCS

In the last year, a number of products from soda to pancake syrup have replaced the high fructose corn syrup with sugar, which was the original sweetener when the products were first produced years ago.

According to the Corn Refiners Association, HFCS is a nutritive sweetener which is either 42 percent or 55 percent fructose with the remaining sugars being primarily glucose. Corn syrup is mainly glucose and is used as a nonsweet thickener.

According to Dr. Bray, a high intake of calorically sweetened beverages can be a determinant for obesity. Liquid calories reduce hunger less than semi-solid or solid calories. Therefore, apples have a greater effect on satiety than applesauce or apple juice.

“We should encourage eating fructose from good sources such as fruit, grain, dairy, and vegetables,” he said. “You can lose weight on any diet, you just have to stick to it.” Focus on reduction and moderation.

Into this mix of sweeteners or the nutritive types are the five non-nutritive types. “Non-nutritive sweeteners offer taste without the calories,” said Catherine Champagne, registered dietitian and professor of nutrition research at LSU's Pennington.

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.

Contact her at: food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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