As a candymaker I naturally have to deal a lot with sugar. And I bet there’s hardly another food ingredient that is more at the center of public attention and debates. And I am also pretty sure that there are not many other substances in food that create such incredible controversies, especially -and sadly- even far far beyond any scientificly sound knowledge.
Today I came accross yet another product that boldly advertised its ‘syrup’ content. Even if that just means regular, boring, cheap, standard glucose syrup (here named ‘tapioca syrup’)
To a part of the population sugar has become symbol of all evil and is treated with panic and fear. Ironically this are usually parts of the population that do not at all suffer from the indeed existing negative effects of too sugar-heavy diets (that consit of far too many soft drinks combined with calory-heavy fast food).
To me the problem not only is that sugar is treated hysterically in most contexts1, but people also keep confusing what the term ‘sugar’ actually means. And worst of all: Industry and food makers make heavy use of this missing knowledge.
To many people (especially here in the Netherlands I noticed!) sugar is only associated with the white, refined, cane or beet sugar. Sucrose that is. But actually, sugar is a large class of small, sweet-tasting carbohydrates. As much as I would like, I will not go into the chemical details here, but the short message is that many substances are sugars. In addition to cane sugar (sucrose), there is glucose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, and others. Those names don’t ring a bell? Well, honey for example mostly consits of fructose and glucose. Agave syrup is predominantly fructose. Maple syrup contains predominantly sucrose… Which brings my to syrups!
Those nice looking coconut macaroons have only one big problem. Their label is total crap. Apparently people fear regular sugar(s) so much that it’s better to re-name glucose syrup as tapioca syrup and prould present the product as ‘sweetened with syrups’. (1) As if syrups would be any different/better than powedered sweeteners. (2) Unlike what most people might imagine when hearing about tapioca syrup… This product contains no ‘naturally’ released sweet liquid that flows out of tapioca. It’s the same as corn syrup broken down starches.
Apparently, regular cane sugar (especially white, refined) cane sugar is often associated with ‘not natural’. In my opinion, the attribute natural as it is used in food marketing is totally pointless. Anyway, let’s just stick with it for a moment. So white refined sugar seem less natural and good compared to natural sweeteners, such as syrups. Well, if you take maple syrup, I kind of get the picture. It really is made from a sweet syrupy liquid that comes out of maple trees. Still, it contains mostly sucrose, the same which (naturally) occurs in high percentages in sugar beet and sugar cane. Independent of that (and although maple syrup tastes super great!) virtually no food producer will use maple syrup to sweeten their product, simply because it’s too expensive.
The syrups that I have seen on food packaged more and more frequently over the last years, here in the Netherlands especially in organic food stores or alternative food places, are ‘rice syrup’ or as today: ‘tapioca syrup’. Tapioca syrup? Seriously?
Sorry to maybe disappoint some of you, but neither tapioca nor rice naturally releases a sweet syrup! Both things are also used frequently in mass-industry standard products, although they are usually labeled as … well… nothing else than: glucose syrup.
Nothing wrong with glucose syrup itself. It is a very common sweetener and is used a lot for two reasons. It’s cheap. And it has some very nice unique properties that are important for many types of candy. It prevents sugar crystallization (hence you’ll find it in nearly every chewey, soft sweet treat) and it is less sweet that sucrose, but still makes the product microbilogically more stable. However, what it clearly is not, is a something better more natural. Sugar cane or beet already contain high levels of sucrose, so ‘regular sugar’ is obtained by essentially just removing all the rest. For tapioca syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup and such you start with a starch-based product. Here the starch has to be converted into smaller sugars first. Whatever weird definition of ‘natural’ you want to follow… how can those syrups be morem natural than the regular cane or beet sugar?
And finally, here in the Netherlands I often products sold as suikervrij (= sugar-free), but actually only mean free of refined white sugar. That totally makes no sense at all! Even if you belief that sugar is something bad, our body will not care if the sucrose comes from refined sugar, or from unrefined one, from syrup, from fruit, from whatever else.
So, please!!!!, stop naming products sugar-free if they are clearly not. And please!!! name the things by what they are. Tapica syrup or rice syrup might sound trillion times more natural and healthy to some customers. But in my eyes, that feels very dishonest. Just call it ‘glucose syrup’ because that’s what it is.Footnotes
- Because NO, contrary to popular belief, sugar is neither addictive nor is it bad for our health when taken in reasonable amounts as part of a -largly- diverse diet [↩]