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Get the sweet lowdown on sugar

Different varieties of sugar offer consumers a broad range of choices. TODAY food editor Phil Lempert explains the differences ... and how to make healthy decisions.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Just received an e-mail from one of our readers who wanted to get a 101 on sugar ... so here it is! But remember, although you will find some differences, sugar is ... sugar. And in today’s environment, one of the most important health and diet tools is to minimize our consumption of all sugars.

This Thursday on TODAY we talk about one of the hottest new sugar replacements, Stevia, so be sure to tune in.

Remember that one barometer about foods is color: If it’s brown, it probably has more nutrients in it; if it’s white, it is probably totally refined. But that may not be always true of sugar. The refining process lightens not only color but taste, and lengthens shelf life.

Sugar provides sweetness and can also provide texture; it brings out the flavors of other ingredients in either savories or baked goods and can even offer various garnishing elements. Although there are more choices for sugars today, especially in brown sugars, most are refined in some way to rid them of impurities and the detritus that accrues during processing from sugar cane or beets to granulated end-product.

GRANULATED SUGAR is table sugar, the most commonly sold sugar in America. It’s foolproof, keeps well when properly packaged and dissolves easily. Even when packages are subjected to moisture, mold does not appear; just let the sugar dry, pulverize it, and you’ll see its granulated crystals come alive again. Castor sugar is a finer granulation of this category and is called for most often in British cookbooks.

POWDERED SUGAR is the choice of professional bakers; with choices ranging from Very Fine (6X) to Ultra-Fine (10X); however, manufacturers of sugar for consumers do not always indicate grind. Some brands add a dollop of cornstarch to prevent caking; cornstarch is entirely edible and poses no harm. Unlike granulated sugar, powdered sugars are very sensitive to moisture, so keeping these sugars tightly wrapped is essential. It is also called confectioner’s sugar or icing sugar.

BROWN SUGAR (Light and Dark): At first glance, it is easy to assume that brown sugar is unrefined sugar but, alas, it is not. It is refined sugar with a dash of molasses or caramel coloring added to it. (Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining.) Brown sugars come in light or dark; light has a mild flavor and an almost ash-blond color. Dark brown has a stronger flavor from the greater quantity of molasses in it. Both light and dark sugars require storage in air- and moisture-tight containers.

RAW SUGAR: This is a misnomer. Raw sugar really isn’t raw because it is illegal to sell in the United States due to impurities. Although it has been processed to clean it of these impurities, it has not been refined or whitened, and it retains a brownish color, as well as larger sugar crystals that make for an interesting texture on the tongue. It is excellent in coffees and black teas. Store and use like regular brown sugar. Sometimes it is also called natural or Turbinado sugar, jaggery sugar, made from palm or date sugar; Demerara and Muscavado are other names for raw, rough crystals of brown sugars that retain the molasses, are strong in taste and have a rougher texture. They are sometimes found in ethnic sections of the grocery store and in many health food sections; check the labels for point of origin.

Remember that sugar is pure carbohydrates, so it’s an energy provider; a little goes a long way even at 16 calories per teaspoon.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .