Just a spoonful of sugar…

Don’t look now, but here comes Christmas—and its concurrent cannonade of calories.

If visions of sugarplums dancing in your head give you a headache, perhaps the best thing you can do to relieve your stress is…reach for another sugary treat.

At least, if you’re a rat.

In a recent study led by Yvonne Ulrich-Lai, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, rats were fed small doses of sugar water twice daily over two weeks, then placed in stressful situations. The rats who received sugar water were less agitated, and had lower levels of stress hormones in their blood, than rats who had received a saccharin solution or plain water.

“We actually found that sugar snacks, not artificially sweetened snacks, are better self-medications for the two most common types of stress—psychological and physical,” is how Ulrich-Lai puts it.

Further research will explore whether it’s the sugar, or simply the act of eating something very enjoyable, that has this stress-reducing effect. But for now, we’re left with a possible good side to the upcoming Christmas comfort-food crunch…and a good excuse to think about sugar.

Table sugar is sucrose, one of the saccharides, which are part of the chemical group known as carbohydrates, because they contain carbon and hydrogen plus oxygen in the same ratio as water—in sucrose’s case, the formula is C12H22O11.

During photosynthesis, plants combine carbon dioxide from the air with water from the soil to produce sucrose and oxygen. Humans first figured out how to get the sucrose out of plants—specifically, sugar cane—in Polynesia, from whence the process spread to India. Upon invading India in 510 B.C. Emperor Darius of Persia discovered “a reed which gives honey without bees.”

The Persians kept the secret of making sugar to themselves for a long time, but then gave it up to the Arabs when they invaded Persia in 642 A.D. The Arabs spread sugar production into North Africa and Spain, and Europeans discovered it during the 11th century Crusades. Since sugar cane wouldn’t grow in most of Europe, sugar remained a luxury, selling in London for two shillings a pound in 1319—equivalent to well over $100 a kilogram today.

Europeans began growing their own sugar cane once they had access to the New World, but it continued to be a luxury item until well after someone discovered, in 1747, that it could also be made from the sugar beet. By 1880 most European sugar was beet sugar rather than cane sugar.

Sugar cane is a kind of tropical grass that looks a lot like bamboo. Sugar beet, on the other hand, looks a lot like a parsnip. We don’t grow sugar cane in Canada, but sugar beets are grown and processed in Alberta. The biennial beet produces sugar during its first year, then flowers and seeds in the second, which means it is sown in the spring and harvested in the first autumn.

Sugar cane is about 10 percent sucrose by weight; sugar beat is about 17 percent sucrose by weight. However, because a greater density of cane can be grown per hectare than beets, sugar cane produces about 10 tonnes of sugar per hectare and beets about seven.

The first step in sugar production is to obtain a sweet juice. With cane, you can do that by crushing the cane between rollers. Beets are instead sliced into thin chips, then put in contact with a flow of hot water for about an hour. As the water flows past the beet chips it becomes a stronger and stronger sugar solution.

The juice is evaporated so that it thickens into a syrup, then boiled in a large pan until conditions are right for sugar crystals to grow. Once crystals have formed, the mixture is spun in a centrifuge to separate the crystals from the left-over molasses. Then the crystals are dried with hot air and packed for storage or shipping.

White, crystalline sugar is pure sucrose. Powdered sugar is simply pulverized crystalline sugar. It tastes sweeter because it has a greater surface area, and thus delivers more sugar molecules to our taste buds. Brown sugar, originally the mixture that comes out of a cane sugar crystallizing pan before the molasses is removed, is today often made by adding syrup to refined sugar.

Rats fed a sucrose solution eat less at other times, automatically decreasing their calorie consumption to compensate for the calories provided by sugar.

Humans, alas, seem to have lost that innate ability, and frankly, I feel rather stressed by that fact.

Where’d I put those sugar cubes again?

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2005/11/just-a-spoonful-of-sugar/

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