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Sugar, Honey and Sweeteners

Sweeteners have played a part in American history and food culture since colonial days. When the first English-speaking settlers came to the eastern coast of North America in the 1630s, sugar was a luxury, only for the rich; by the time of the American Revolution in 1775, sugar, and its concentrated form molasses, were commodities. The islands of the West Indies produced the sugar, while New England merchants grew rich importing it, turning it into rum, and selling it around the world. Commercial friction relating to the sugar trade (and hence the slave trade) did much to bring on the American Revolution. Two hundred years later, sugar became an international issue when the United States began its trade embargo of Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1962. In the 2000s sugar producer Brazil’s drive to make itself energy independent has decreased the supply of cane sugar, since the Brazilians are now using their cane to make ethanol for motor fuel. Sugar has been politicized, over-regulated, manipulated, and controlled by governments all over the world since the crusaders discovered it in the 11th century.

Corn, so abundant in the United States, is the base for most of the industrial sweeteners used in American food processing today (and indeed for America’s own production of ethanol fuel). When in 1985 Coca-Cola announced that it was trashing its attempt to fool with its tried and true formula by bringing back the old formula as “Coke Classic,” it was not quick to announce that one innovation would remain: corn sweetener instead of cane sugar. Small craft soda manufacturers, bakeries, and super-premium ice cream companies are quick to distance themselves from the big operators by stressing their use of cane sugar, which costs much more, and is subject to greater supply disruptions, than corn sweetener.

Sugar has been produced from sugar beets since the late 18th century. Beets account for about 30 percent of world production. Sugar from beets is more costly than sugar from cane, since the beet byproducts cannot as easily be used in fueling the refining process. The United States produces some sugar cane in the south and sugar beets in the north, but exports virtually no sugar. Corn and grain sweeteners are the rule in industry where plain sweetness is the object, as in soft drinks (although concentrated fruit juices may also be used in so-called “natural” products). Industry only uses granulated sugar when it needs it for texture, in breakfast cereals, cookies and cakes, or for its physical properties, in the case of ice cream. The widespread industrial use of high fructose corn syrup has begun to attract the attention of nutritionists and nutrition activists as a possible factor in obesity.

Most restaurants that serve coffee do so with individual serving sized packets of granulated sugar along with one or more sugar substitutes. Sugar cubes are less common.

Granulated white sugar, made from cane or beets, is the kind most widely used in the American home for baking, candy-making, and preserving. Powdered sugar—also called confectioner’s sugar and known as icing sugar in Canada and England—is a mixture of crushed sugar with a little corn starch to make it flow better. It is used mainly as a fine decorative covering for cookies and cakes. Brown sugar contains a small portion of molasses (supposedly left over from the refining process but more often than not added after the fact) and is used to give a richer taste to many baked goods. Dozens of specialty sugars at various stages of refinement are available at natural foods stores.

Americans use syrups for cooking, but especially on waffles and pancakes at breakfast. The ideal is pure maple syrup, a dark amber delicacy laboriously processed from the sap of maple trees, but the norm is usually a maple-flavored blend of corn syrups. Dark and light varieties of corn syrups are sold at food markets for home baking and cooking use.

Americans use a lot of honey, to mix in baked goods and beverages, to spread on bread or toast, and to make glazes on meats like ham. A number of industrially produced foods, from breakfast cereals to honey-mustard, use honey flavorings. The public’s perception of honey is as a natural, wholesome food. This is not always so. The local honey seller at a farmers market may indeed be offering organic honey of the best quality; the supermarket may well be proffering honey manufactured from apiaries in Brazil where the bees are fed with sugar water and never see a flower. Though the best and purest honey will keep virtually forever, since it contains a substance that inhibits bacterial growth, industrial honey in both the United States and Canada (a major source of US honey) has been plagued with product recall and contamination issues.

Most honey producers in the United States do not sell directly to the public, but ship their honey to industry cooperatives for bottling, distribution, and sale. The standard American variety of honey is a light blend free of strong flavors.

Specialty honey is available raw (filtered to remove bee parts but not heat processed), whipped to a spreadable froth, and in slices or chunks of the original honeycombs. Bees are rather difficult to control once released from their hives, nevertheless many honeys are associated with a particular flower or blossom: sunflower, orange blossom, mesquite, buckwheat, wildflowers, goldenrod, alfalfa or clover (by far the most prevalent). Among honeys from every region of the United States, you can even buy New York City honey, produced from rooftop apiaries high atop the metropolis. (Though these bees may well be visiting discarded cola cans, some people swear to the healthful effects of this variety.)

Honey isn’t the only bee product sold; apiaries also do a brisk business in royal jelly, propolis, bee pollen and even bee venom for the health market, while beeswax finds its way into both candles and cosmetic products. A small subculture of hobbyists and some modest commercial operations use honey to manufacture mead, the alcoholic beverage of choice of the Vikings.

Free-flowing types of honey are sold in glass or plastic jars and in plastic squeeze bottles shaped like bears. In American culture, honey and bears are closely associated; in bear country, hives are sometimes placed on roofs to keep out ursine curiosity seekers. A product logo for an American brand of natural honey candy shows a cartoon bear spiriting away a beehive; the scene appears charming until you realize that a bear attack on a honey hive is usually fatal to all those industrious bees.

Bears aren’t the only American inhabitants with a sweet tooth. Residents of Chicago, the Midwest and the Northeast consume candy at a rate significantly above the national average. Southern cuisine leans toward the sweet in every category. Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine also makes a tradition out of mixing sweet and savory flavorings.