The Science of Sugar

There are many different ways that we sweeten our baked goods – we use sugars, syrups, or sometimes sweeteners. From time to time we see recipes call for extra fine sugar, which may leave yourself wondering “do they mean regular sugar?” Is corn syrup the same as high fructose corn syrup? I’m here to help explain!


Granulated Sugar:

The regular granulated sugar that we have come to know and love is sometimes referred to as fine, extra fine, or super fine sugar. Fear not! Different regions may name it differently, and the sugar may even be made from different things, but when it boils down to it, fine, extra fine, cane, and beet sugar are just regular table sugars.

In Europe, granulated sugar is derived from sugar beets. In Canada, it is mostly derived from sugarcane. In the U.S., we see about half and half.

Sugar is Hygroscpopic

Did you know that sugars attract water and are hygroscopic to a certain degree? Sugar pulls away moisture from starches, gums, and proteins, making them less hydrated, so they trap less water.

One way to put it is like this: the more sugar in your cookies, the more they will spread. This could mean a flat cookie, or a crispy one depending on other factors in the recipe. But regular sugar added to a cookie recipe will draw moisture and provide crispiness and crunch.

Simple Syrup:

Simple syrups are just as the name would imply: simple. It consists of one part water and one part granulated sugar. For instance, when I make my fruit sorbets I like to use simple syrup and I use 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar. You heat it on the stove top until you have what some refer to as a “moment of clarity,” your syrup will become clear. Simply let cool and use in your recipe as directed.

Also, sometimes a small amount of lemon juice is added to simple syrup. The acidity helps prevent darkening and crystallization.

Corn syrup:

Isn’t corn syrup evil? Don’t we try to avoid it in our daily diets? Well, yes and no. You may be thinking of corn syrup’s more sinister cousin: high fructose corn syrup. Sometimes called glucose-fructose in Canada and isoglucose in Europe. I won’t get into the great HFCS debate, because we all know it isn’t great for us. The key in life is moderation and we know it.

If you allow me to get nerdy for a moment…. As Paracelsus (often considered the father of toxicology) once said, “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing a poison.”

But corn syrup (not HFCS) is a simple glucose syrup. It is made by the breakdown of starch, in this instance, corn starch.

“Starch is a carbohydrate that consists of hundreds, even thousands, of glucose molecules bonded together. To produce glucose corn syrup, the manufacturer typically heats starch in the presence of water and acid and treats it with enzymes, hydrolyzing the large starch molecules into smaller units. The syrup is filtered and refined through a series of steps to remove color and flavor. The more refined the syrup, the cleaner its flavor, the clear its appearance, and the less likely it will darken over time.” ¹

Corn syrup is used to sweeten, control sugar crystallization in candy making, it can prevent ice crystals in frozen desserts, thicken sauces, and create a nice texture to glazes (think donuts). I’m sure there are many other uses, but these are some of the basics.

Brown Sugar:

Brown sugar is regular sugar with 10 percent or less molasses or refiner’s syrup added. That’s what gives brown sugar its distinctive color and aroma. The difference between light brown and dark brown sugars is the flavor and color of the molasses added during production. Sometimes, but not always, caramel coloring is added to make the sugar appear darker.

Brown sugar is used for its color and distinct molasses flavor. The small amount of molasses in it does not contribute to moister baked goods. Use brown sugar in your recipes cup for cup interchangeably if you desire.

Maple Syrup:

What’s to know about maple syrup? I use it on my pancakes and waffles, I’m Aunt Jemima’s biggest fan! But hear me out, do not confuse maple flavored syrups with real maple syrup. Pancake syrup is made from inexpensive corn syrups, caramel coloring, and maple flavoring.

Real maple syrup is made by boiling down, and in turn evaporating, the sap of the sugar maple tree. It is boiled in open pans, usually over a wood fire. Since sap is only 2 to 3 percent sugar, it takes around 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. And thaaat’s why the real stuff tends to be much more expensive than their corn syrup based imitators.

Maple syrup is graded by color: lighter colors are produced early in the season, which begins in the springtime in North America (where 80% of the world’s maple syrup is produced). Darker syrups come later in the season and tend to have a stronger flavor and a lower grade.

I’ll let you in on a big secret: you want Grade B maple syrup in your baked goods, and in your life. Now, don’t get me wrong, Grade A is fantastic as well.. but Grade B packs more punch,and typically costs a bit less. If you want a stronger maple flavor in your baked goods, you’ll seek out Grade B maple.

Agave Syrup/Agave Nectar:

Deep in the heart of Mexico there is a plant called the agave, which in my opinion looks a bit like a giant aloe vera plant. From it we get sap which we make into syrup. We get this sap by heating the core of the agave and pressing the sap out.

On the market you will see darker and lighter syrups. The differences lies mostly in the amount of processing it encounters. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor will be and the less processed it is. Some are marketed as raw, which means that it comes from organic plants and it has not been heated beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the pressing process.

Agave syrup is used in lieu of sugar or honey. I’d not necessarily say it is a healthier alternative in the long run because it contains more fructose than most sweeteners. The more fructose, the less good it tends to be for you. But ohhh the tastier it is.


Functions of Sugars

You may be thinking to yourself “well, that’s great, Frankie. Thanks for telling me what sugar is… but try to tell me something I don’t already know!”

Alright, sure!

Did you know that sugars tenderize? That’s right. Once dissolved, sugars will interfere with gluten formation, protein coagulation, and starch gelatization. Simply put, they delay the formation of structure. In doing so, it tenderizes.

I’m going to contradict myself a little bit here. Remember way up towards the beginning I told you about sugar’s hygrogenic qualities? Sugar in cookies make them crispy! But sugars also help in retaining moisture and improving the shelf life of your baked goods.

Their hygroscopic nature increases softness and moistness in freshly baked goods. By the simple nature of sugar attracting moisture, it will keep things from drying and becoming stale. It can be a double edged sword as we don’t want some of our goods becoming too moist. Sugars will draw moisture from the humidity in the air and your nice crispy treat may become chewy instead. This is one of the reason we store things in airtight containers when possible.

“In general, fructose, being the most hygroscopic of common sugars, provides more moistness and a longer shelf life than other sugars. Syrups containing a significant amount of fructose, such as invert syrup, and agave syrup, provide more moistness than other syrups or granulated sugar. Differences are particularly noticeable after several days of storage.” ²

DSC_0273 (2)

Well, boys and girls, I hope you had as much fun reading about sugars as I had writing about them! If you have any questions or comments, you know I always love to hear them.

Until next time. <3


¹, ² Reference from How Baking Works, by Paula Figoni






Comment 0 Replies

Your Information