|White and brown sugar. All together in harmony.|
Recently, I walked into a newish bakery to check out their offerings. The enthusiastic person behind the counter quickly pointed out that their cakes don't use sugar, just natural sugars, making them "healthier". Apparently, unaware of the contradiction in the terminology, I pressed to get clarification, but we were at an impasse - after all, why shouldn't I understand the difference?
The issue stems around two different issues: first is the word "sugar" itself. There's a chemical definition of sugars, which are a class of short unit carbohydrates, not all of them sweet. But there's the colloquial definition, which is specifically table sugar - which is 99% pure sucrose in chemical parlance. As it stands, the when "sugar" is used to mean one or the other, plenty of confusion arises. But the other is the assertion that somehow, sucrose is considered unnatural. Let's understand where table sugar comes from.
The sweet stuff can be made from a number of plants - usually sugar cane or sugar beets - by squeezing out the juices, and boiling it down, while progressively removing crystals of sucrose. As the sucrose becomes more pure, it gets whiter - hence, white table sugar. Impurities concentrated into the syrup is what becomes molasses. In the past, brown sugar is sugar in the intermediate stage of purification, but in streamlined more modern production, brown sugar is made by mixing some molasses back into white sugar. This, of course, allows for overall consistency in brown sugar production.
Once we get to the root of a particular ingredient, purification enables consistency and reproducibility. Yet, somehow, the pure stuff is treated with suspicion while the unpurified form is more trustworthy. Inherent sucrose (and it's components fructose and glucose) comprise the majority of the sweet flavor of fruits - the so called, "natural sugar". One is chemically no different from the other.
And this cultural misdirection happens elsewhere - take, for example, self-righteous condemnation of table or kosher salt by some in favor of "gourmet" salts, despite the the preposterous pricing of the latter. All of which, incidentally, are just sodium chloride, with gourmet salts retaining different trace contaminants respective of their source (the primary differentiator with salt is primarily with the crystal structure, but that's a different discussion). And then, there's monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the dehydrated form of the amino acid responsible for the umami flavor - and so culturally reviled that Chinese American restaurants need to prominently display a denial of that ingredient. Yet cooks will rely on glutamate-rich ingredients - tomatoes, mushrooms, yeast, meats - to imbue the foods with umami "naturally". The defining characteristic of "natural", it would appear, stem from unnamed and unknown impurities.
Strangely, people draw comfort from items being unknown. Take, for example, the question of ultrafiltered honey. A great deal of objection arises from the point that honey, once filtered of pollen and clarified, just doesn't meet the definition of honey any more, even though these are not central to the role of honey as a sweetener. In fact, the sweetness of honey derives from the sucrose found in flower nectar, which is cleaved into fructose and glucose by invertase in the bee's gut. And though honey carries such a cachet of health, in a sense, this chemical composition reflects that of a less desirable ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.