Welcome to the 5th part of the “Sweet Spot” series of posts dedicated to all sweeteners.
So far in this series, I’ve covered a bit of the culture of sugar in the US, as well as the history, plus a description of various common sugar alcohols. I’ve also walked us through a wide variety of natural sweeteners, as well as a laundry list of artificial and synthetic sweeteners.
This 5th in the series will focus on the “odds and ends” … the sweeteners that don’t quite fit into the other categories. The riff-raff. The ragamuffins. The disorganized leftovers, such as inulin, brown sugar and molasses, vegetable glycerin, tagatose, polydextrose and fructooligosaccharides.
For those new to this series, here are the previous posts in the series.
The Sweet Spot Series (so far):
- Part 1: Sweet Spot Intro and History of Sugar
- Part 2: Sugar and Sugar Alcohols
- Part 3: Natural Sweeteners
- Part 4: Artificial and Synthetic Sweeteners
Go back and take a look. There’s some great information there!
Before we get started, all the sweet substances have been making me yearn for something else. I thought it fitting to start this post with a lovely contrasting recipe … I’ve dubbed “SUPER PORK!”.
This recipe is truly fantastic and so easy and versatile. It takes the potential of a dried pork roast and turns it into something moist and luxurious. Use different sausages to change the taste of the roast and serve it with different sides. I assure you … this one is SOOO much easier than it sounds, it can feed loads of people fairly inexpensively and is impossible not to be delicious. It’s just about foolproof. Give it a shot!
Sooooo …. Alright then. … Let’s get started!
Odds and Ends
Inulins are a group of naturally occurring polysaccharides, most often extracted from Chicory. They are large molecules composed of many repeated subunits, known as monomers.
Earlier in this series, we discussed how maple trees store their energy as starch, but convert it to sugar in the spring. Inulin, a fructan, is used an energy storage in many roots and rhizomes. It also helps some 36,000 species of plant withstand cold and drought, just how we converts carbs to stash as fat on our own bodies! It’s found in high concentrations in the roots of chicory, but also in agave, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, various onions, yacon, jicama and even wheat.
In terms of “function” it’s essentially a fiber. It’s sweet tasting, but only about 10% as sweet as sugar. It’s a bit chalky and with a slightly tart, but pleasant aftertaste. I personally love this stuff.
The chicory family is known for its bitter leaves. Three common types are Belgian Endive, as well as Radicchio and Sugarloaf. The roots of some chicory plans are used as a coffee substitute in Europe. About 45 years ago, it was discovered that the root contains upwards of 20% inulin. After chicory is ground, mixed with water, filtered and centrifuged, it is dried, leaving behind a mixture of 98% inulin, as well as a bit of ash and other odds and ends.
Inulin is not digested by enzymes in humans. As a result, it’s used in some foods to reduce calories, increase fiber as well as increasing the prebiotic effects. It promotes the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. It also increases calcium absorption. I like to think of it as a big sweeping broom for my digestive tract. This stuff really is just all good!
It’s got a lot of a behavioral boons, able to replicate some of the mouth feel of fat, adds bulk and sweet taste. It can improve the stability of foams and emulsions. It can take the place of fats, sugars and flours!
Now, it should be said that this fructan does act like a fiber in the body. Too much can cause tummy and various gastric issues. I’ve personally never experienced any, but people with sensitive tracts may want to tread lightly.
I’ll get more into how this is used in the secret 7th part of this series, but I personally use it to add bulk to homemade erythritol blends. See, erythritol tends to crystallize in too high a concentration, so something else needs added to somewhat dilute the erythritol. I’ve found that inulin does a great job at putting distance between the various erythritol molecules. Then, toss in some Reb A for a sweet boost and … you’ve got yourself a WONDERFUL, homemade natural sweetener that looks, tastes and works a WHOLE lot like sugar!
The downside is … it’s hard to find and is expensive. The qualities and sweetness’s also tend to vary.
Oligosaccharides are very much like inulin. They are both fructans, coming from roughly the same places and doing roughly the same things. The chemical formation is a bit smaller and simpler than Inulin, which is a polysaccharide.
I’m going to focus mostly on something called FOS (Fructooligosaccharides).
FOS is about 30 to 50% as sweet as sugar. Much of FOS is actually made by degrading Inulin. They are more soluable than inulin and are often added as a prebiotic to dairy products like yoghurt. The yacon and sunchoke both have the highest concentration of FOS.
Both FOS and Inulin are used as supplements to help promote gut health. Again, I just see it as a big broom for my digestive tract. Keeps things clean and running!
I’ll be honest. Both of these seem to blend and merge in my mind is roughly the same thing. They’re all sweet and behave a lot like soluble fibers. Added to water, they gel. Even doing a search for one will result in results for the other, with things like Agave and Yacon both peppered in.
Like Inulin, this is something I would use to add bulk and to extend something like erythritol, to make my own homemade blends. This can create something that is not only sweet tasting, but … actually healthy. So … maybe the taste of sweet CAN have some perks!
Molasses, Brown Sugar and Muscovado
This one is an odd duck, in a list of odd ducks. This really should have appeared earlier in the series, but was honestly ignored due to its close relation to actual sugar. It’s being included because I was asked to include it by a reader. I plan to retool all of these posts into a more easily organized resource in the future. In the meantime, molasses and molasses products will reside in the “Odds and Ends” post.
Molasses, known as “Treacle” to some, is a by-product of sugar making. In essence, sugar cane or beets are juiced. This juice is strained and then is simmered and reduced by about 10 times, into a thick, dark syrup. This is typically known as “light molasses”, “cane syrup” or “first syrup”.
In terms of mass production, the process is a bit more complex, involving other chemicals, seed crystals, centrifuges and so on. In essence, however, the process is very much similar, but at some point during the process sugar crystals form and are removed from the sugar juice. The remaining juice is the molasses. This is typically called “dark molasses” or “second molasses” and has a slightly bitter taste.
There is a third step that refined sugars go through, which results in a third boiling of the sugar syrups, resulting in what is known as “Blackstrap Molasses”, a super thick molasses and somewhat spicy molasses. It’s super concentrated, with only a little bit of the remaining sucrose from the original boil, as well as some of the leftovers of the refining process, such as those pesky vitamins and minerals! Because of the concentrated vitamins and minerals, blackstrap molasses is sometimes used as a food supplement. It’s a good source of potassium. 1 tbsp proved upwards of 20% of the recommended daily value of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese. Interestingly, it’s also occasionally used in some low-carb circles, where “sucrose” must absolutely be used. (that said, I’m still likely to err towards yacon or raw honey).
Molasses is used in commonly in baked goods with bigger bolder tastes, but … it’s sugar. In terms of pure carbs, it’s sugar, whether light, dark or blackstrap. The only major differences being thickness, water content and concentration of “other stuff”. The caloric value of each all come from whatever sucrose remains.
Brown sugar is essentially refined sugar, with molasses added back to it. Light brown sugar has about 3.5% molasses and dark brown sugar has about 6.5% molasses. It’s typically moist because the molasses has a hygroscopic nature (basically, it’s like a sponge. It pulls moisture from the air and hangs on to it).
There are also various natural brown sugars, such as muscovado, turbinado and demerara sugars. See, when refined sugar is being made, it’s boiled and tinkered with several times to continue refining it, to remove all vitamins, minerals, color, water, etc. The first time it’s boiled, a large percentage of it crystallizes. This is natural brown sugar and has more molasses in it than standard brown sugar. Typically, this would be further refined, resulting in two new products … a more refined sugar crystal and a second syrup or “dark molasses”. … kind of …
See, at various points in all these processes of boiling, crystallizing, filtering, spinning and so on, different products come out and/or are re-blended to make new products. They are, essentially, all just sugar with some percentage of molasses in it, created at various points in the process and containing varying percentages of molasses. Muscovado is the darkest natural brown sugar, followed by tubinado and the lightest … demerara.
Really … to my mind … this is all interesting stuff, but … I haven’t used these products in a very long time. The concepts and histories are a big part of my culture. However, as delicious as it all is … you won’t find me eating any of it.
Tagatose is another oddball. Like any sweetener ending in “ose” … it’s a sugar (except sucralose, which is MADE from sugar, but … isn’t sugar). Chemically, it resembled fructose. It’s a naturally occurring sugar that occurs naturally in some dairy products, like yoghurt. It’s hydrolyzed and isomerized (whatever that means) from lactose. Lactose intolerant? No worries. You’ll do just fine with this one!
It’s also got many behaviors like a sugar alcohol, such as an incredibly low rating on the glycemic index (just 3, lower than xylitol). It’s also only about half metabolized, so it’s got about 2 calories per gram, rather than the 4 assigned to sugar. Eating some tagatose after a meal will actually drop your blood glucose level. Like inulin, it’s brings prebiotic benefits to the table. It promotes the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria. It’s also good for your teeth!
This delicious sweetener (tastes like sugar!) is about 90% as sweet as sugar. It looks like sugar, but with a slightly smaller grain and less sheen. Like many sugar alcohols, this one has a reputation for gastric distress. Because I’ve read anecdotal evidence suggesting some explosive potency on this one, I’ve only ever enjoyed it in small quantities, not wanting to test the waters … However, I just ran across a chart suggesting that this particular one is actually one of the lower laxative sweeteners, similar to erythritol. The suggestion is to never eat more than 40 grams in one sitting (roughly 3 heaping tablespoons). Tolerance can also be built up.
Tagatose caramelizes and can be used to make some hard candies (but can be challenging. It’s not “exactly” like sugar, so it takes some practice … something I don’t have a lot of). The fact that it caramelizes makes it good for baking (however, I’d suggest turning the oven down 15 degrees less than the instructions … it seems to brown more quickly than you’d expect it to).
My final conclusion? After studying this one in greater detail I’m going to have to play with this one more. My honest opinion is … this may become my new favorite sweetener! My ONLY hesitation was the gassy potential of it, but … that’s been laid to rest. Beyond that is the 3 GI rating, rather than erythritol’s zero. It’s also cost effective, costing less than other natural sweeteners.
Hmmmmm … I’m going to be ordering more of this and really starting to play with it. I’d love to hear more from those of you using it. My limited experience with it has been only positive.
Soooo … STRONG BUY!
Vegetable Glycerin is one that also potentially belongs under the sugar alcohols section, but because it’s a liquid and tends to take place in a variety of different ways, I chose to keep it separate. It’s “odd” and belongs in the odd ducks section.
This stuff goes by a few names: glycerol, glycerin or glycerine. It’s a colorless and odorless sugar alcohol, but is a liquid. It looks like clear shampoo, but I’ve found it tastes a bit better. It’s about 60% as sweet as sugar. It’s syrupy, a bit like a thinner honey, but totally clear and with a very subtle saccharin-y medicinal quality, as an aftertaste. Mostly, it’s just sweet, though.
Glycerol is in everything. It’s in lotion, shampoo, ice cream, toothpaste, meal replacement bars, cough syrup, various tinctures (a common one is stevia glycerite), anti-freeze, it’s used in the production of dynamite, etc.
When you play with it, you can kind of see how it’s so versatile. It’s a humectant, so it tends to absorb and hold moisture. This means it’s great for adding moisture to skin and is why it’s in so many skin care products. It’s sweet, but not sticky. Moisturizing without being oily. It’s added to foods to boost sweetness, to aid in preservation, and also to replace fat in some non-fat foods.
Me? Personally? I use food grade vegetable glycerine to make my ice cream scoopable. Somehow, along with egg yolks and xanthan gum, it seems to lessen crystallization in ice cream, freezing it “less hard”, giving a nice scoopable frozen treat!
Vegetable glycerin is made from oils, typically palm, coconut or soy. It’s extracted from these oils using a process called hydrolysis. I don’t fully wrap my head around this concept, but I believe that oil and water is heated and pressurized, causing the glycerine to split off from the fatty acids and be absorbed by the water. This mixture is then distilled to increase the purity. So … it’s oil … without fat!
So … it’s a carb, right? Or … a fat? This is a weird, hard to categorize liquid. It’s got more calories than sugar, but takes a different metabolic pathway in the body. It’s categorized on labels like other sugar alcohols and is often removed from the total number of net carbs, in American products, but … some mystery seems to remain about how big of an impact this stuff really has on blood sugars.
Here’s what I see most often and is essentially what I believe about this stuff: it’s not going to impact blood sugars, if you’re not in ketosis. However, if you ARE in ketosis … it may convert to glucose, raise blood sugars, release insulin and knock you out of ketosis. Somewhat of a cruel irony, huh?
This suggests that it’s a hidden carb, along the lines of maltitol, but … harder to classify and potentially even more slippery. It’s VERY common in meal replacement bars as it boosts sweetness and shelf-life, while still being able to discount the carbs on the label. If you’re deep in ketosis, staying at a very low-carb level or are just generally trying to be very very good … I’d suggest avoiding eating products with glycerine in it.
All this said … I lost close to 150 lbs. by adding it to my daily scoop of homemade ice cream. So … maybe it’s not so bad? Maybe a little is ok? Maybe it’s totally fine. Ultimately, if you’re stalled and you’re eating a lot of glycerin or glycerin products, I’d cut them out and see if the stall lifts. Also, diabetics, check your levels to see if this is right for you.
Polydextrose, or “Poly D” for the street slang, is like the synthetic form of inulin. Also, a polysaccharide, it’s also classified as a soluble fiber. It’s commonly used in foods to add bulk, fiber, and/or to replace sugar, fat and/or starch. Yep, it’s another fun one that finds its way into all sorts of things!
Polydextrose is made from dextrose (glucose … the stuff the body uses for energy), probably from corn and sorbitol (a low glycemic sugar alcohol). It’s a white powder and really tastes like nothing. Maybe slightly sour, but … mostly just “nothing”. It’s got little to no effect on blood sugars and really reacts much more like a fiber in the system … like a big synthetic broom for the gut. I’ve read studies suggesting this is solid at promoting gut health (not as good as Inulin) and to keep bowels moving along, but without the gastric distress accompanying other higher fiber treats. That said, I’ve read anecdotal evidence that too much of this stuff can cause some gut wrenching issues. I’ve never had an issue with it, but not too much!
Back, in my very earliest days of low-carb carbing, long before I discovered Swerve or Truvia, I would make my own home made sugar blend. It consisted of Smappy, Poly D and Reb A (If you’ve been reading this series and paying attention … that sentence makes perfect sense! 😉 ). In other words, it was a pulverized blend of erythritol, polydextrose and a refined stevia powder. This created something that measured like sugar, tasted sweet, had bulk and never crystallized. It was a great sweetener. It even did a good job of mimicking the mouth-feel of sugar. I’ll share the recipe in my 7th secret part of this series.
This stuff is relatively cheap. It’s got about 24 net carbs per packed cup and about 200 calories, as compared to sugar’s . Because of its humectant nature, it really needs to be kept sealed. I was living in Mexico when I used to make this and it would suck the water out of the air and result in an almost natural candy making. The mixture would get hard and slowly kind of ooze and melt together into blobules (made up word). As long as its stored in an air-tight container and used within a reasonable time frame (weeks or months, as opposed to years), you’ll be fine. Give it a stir every once in a while.
My personal opinion is that this stuff is fine, although it is highly processed, probably starting from corn.
Ok … that’s all for now. Next time on “The Sweet Spot”, I’ll get into various brand names!
Until then … Eat your Brussels sprouts! 😉
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2 thoughts on “The Sweet Spot V: Odds and Ends”
Great series of articles on sweeteners. Sensible and well balanced. Really helped me sort out what works and what is best avoided. I appreciate that you didn’t feel the need to use scare tactics to point people to one sugar or another.
Thanks for the kind words, Sharon! There are enough scare tactics and “sensational” news in the world. I really wanted to bring some neutrality to the topic. Yes, some are better than others, but … people are different and some are going to match some people better than others. I also think all of these are better than sugar. So, from that vantage point, I was able to get in there and present what felt like the right information, without SERIOUSLY bogging it down in detail. I’m hoping that I can turn it into a growing series of articles over time. I’ve got some fun ideas on how to implement it in a better organized fashion than the way I’ve presented it. In any event … thanks for the kind words! 🙂