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How well do you know your sugar?

There are things that have become so commonplace in our everyday lives that we don’t give them much thought. Rice is one of them. Sugar is another. There’s always been sugar in our house for as long as I can remember. I added it to my morning cocoa as a child and, as an adult, to my coffee. I knew there was white sugar, light brown sugar and dark brown sugar but, for the greater part of my life, I never really bothered to learn how they differed apart from their colors. When muscovado sugar became fashionable, I simply assumed that it was a more expensive kind of brown sugar. Trends and fashion, after all, jack up the price of any commodity.

Then, I visited Negros Island, stayed at a hacienda, did a tour of the museum and visited a sugar mill. During that seven-day vacation, I learned so much about sugar — from planting to milling to distribution — that I felt that until that trip to Negros, I didn’t know sugar at all. The most important lesson? Muscovado sugar has more impurities than white, light brown and dark brown sugar.

But all the things I learned about sugar in Negros, I filed somewhere in the recesses of my brain. What remained at the forefront of my memories of Negros were the laid back lifestyle, the traffic-free city streets of Bacolod, the languid days at Hacienda Pag-asa and the wonderful, wonderful food. I went back to Bacolod a year later, fell in love all over again, and I’ve managed to convince Speedy that when we retire — for real — we will move to Bacolod or one if its suburbs.

It wasn’t until I wrote the recipe for Vietnamese pork braised in sugar cane juice that I’d try to recall all the details I learned about sugar and sugar production including the many uses of sugar cane. Writing those two articles transported me back to the porch of Hacienda Pag-asa listening to my friend Gary explain how the intense summer heat had brought on a drought and how they had to flood the sugar cane fields regularly to prevent the crop from dying. I relived the morning when we drove to Victorias Sugar Mill and watched the trucks loaded with sugar cane pass through a gate with a massive weighing scale underneath. I remembered Gary explaining that the trucks would be weighed again after unloading its cargo and the difference would be the weight of the sugar cane that had been unloaded. When I wrote about fresh sugar cane juice, I reminisced about the pitchers of ice-cold cold sugar cane juice that welcomed us on our first night at the hacienda.

Sugar has been getting a lot of bad press lately as it is being blamed for many health and medical conditions from obesity to diabetes to high blood pressure and heart attack. Hordes of people have jumped into the fear bandwagon and have been shifting to sugar substitutes hoping that they will somehow be able to escape the horrors that sugar supposedly inflict on our bodies. But sugar is not a monster. It is the abusive consumption of sugar that wreaks havoc on our health. Abuse is the real enemy, not sugar. Between natural sugar and artificial sugar substitutes, I’ll choose natural sugar anytime and every time.