The fallacy of purity
Last week, someone left a comment on my instagram how she noticed that things taste so much better when you use honey or maple syrup instead of plain sugar.
Interesting! Why might that be?
I think it's all about the layers...
Plain sugar is a refined product, that means it has been 'purified' down to its most basic molecules, and nothing else. In the case of table sugar, one molecule of fructose and one molecule of glucose.
Same goes for, say, extracting pure sodium chloride out of unrefined sea salt, cocaine out of coca leaves, or white flour from whole wheat grains. Like sugar, these are all 'standardised' fine white powders, stripped down to their most basic molecules: a process that makes them less 'alive' but more predictable, more shelf stable, less nutritious, and more addictive.
It also makes them more profitable - not for the farmer who grew the sugar beets, or wheat, or coca leaves, but for all the processing, packaging and marketing middlemen that get involved along the way.
Stripping out all the 'other' molecules naturally present in whole sugar cane or sugar beets also strips sugar of its flavour, or rather the complexity of its taste: a single molecule tastes as boringly one-dimensional as can be!
If you take a more wholesome, less refined sweetener, say (raw) honey or maple syrup, where (hopefully) nothing has been removed or added to, you still get the full complexity of the food in its (more or less) natural state.
Unrefined honey is full phenolic acids, flavonoids and enzymes, as well as tiny specks of pollen, and all sorts of other 'impurities' that not only impart a complex taste (that varies depending on provenance) but also provide nourishment and support health.
Sugar cane in its natural state is also full of nourishing compounds, so it's no wonder that sugar cane farmers do not suffer any ill effects (neither cavities nor obesity) from chewing on sugar cane all day long.
Back to flavour, you can hopefully see now why plain sugar is plain boring.
While honey or maple syrup still contain sugar molecules they have a lot more flavour, simply because their composition is more complex - so you don't need to use as much.
Plain sugar is also used as a cheap filler in a lot of products, which means that, the flavour of any other ingredients is often drowned out.
We often get customers in our shop comment on how the snack bars we carry that are lower in sugar actually taste of the fruit they contain. But we are also so used to the full-on sugar taste, that we perceive certain products with less sugar as 'unpleasant': dark chocolate is the obvious example here.
Is it possible to eat less sugar without missing out on sweetness? Yes, it is!
My advice: simply start with noticing.
How do you perceive sweetness? Which foods taste one-dimensionally sweet to you, and which have a more complex sweetness to them? What other layers can you taste? How does that correlate to the ingredients?
And if you want to go a bit further:
Next time you make a sweet treat, whether it's a cake or a fruit jelly, reduce the sugar content and see what happens. Use half the sugar than you usually would! Perhaps add some more interesting sweet tasting layers in the form of fruit, honey, maple syrup or 'sweet spices' like vanilla and cinnamon.
Good recipes usually call for some contrasting ingredients which add to the layers of deliciousness: lemon zest, fruit, coffee, cocoa, spices like ginger or cardamom. These are not 'small' details - they are right at the heart of your flavour composition: the ingredients to look for, and to play with!
Current favourite sweet treat in our house:
Fresh berries (fruity/fresh), yoghurt (sour), cream (sweet), cocoa (bitter) and a touch of vanilla essence and maple syrup (sweet/aromatic).
Just a little bit of each simply layered in a bowl makes for a lovely after dinner treat. Also works well with cooked fruit (also known as compote) like stewed apple or rhubarb.