Do we need sugar in our diet? If so, what does it actually do in food?
Surprising as it might seem, sugar is quite a multitasking ingredient. It is an ingredient that not only food companies use, but also home cooks, and they have been for a long time.
A lot of the foods we eat and enjoy rely on the unique properties of sugar. Even you as the home cook have probably used some of sugar’s properties without knowing it.
The sugar in food can either be naturally present (e.g. in milk, fruits and vegetables) or added during preparation and at the table (e.g. soft drink). Some foods contain a mix of natural and added sugars (e.g. jam and yoghurt). Take a look below at the key functions sugar can play in food.
Bulk & Volume
When sugar is one of the main ingredients it provides bulk and volume. This is particularly important in baking.
Yeast uses sugar as food to create alcohol, through fermentation. Some of the sugar is used up so the amount in the end product is lower than in the recipe. Sugar may come from grapes or other fruit, through the breakdown of starch or be added by the winemaker/brewer.
Sugar also gives food colour. Browning occurs when sugars and proteins react under heat. Caramelisation occurs under heat when different sugars react with each other.
Sugar helps keep foods moist and soft and slows staleness, by attracting and binding water.
Bacteria and mould need water to multiply. Sugar slows their growth by holding on to water, thereby reducing the ‘water activity’. The right amount of sugar in a liquid product helps to preserve it.
Sugar gives liquids a certain body or thickness, contributing to an appealing drinking experience.
Sugar lowers the freezing point of foods so they stay softer at lower temperatures. Sugar also creates a smoother texture by forming smaller ice crystals. Too much sugar can cause freezer burn.
The flavour of acidic, tart and bitter foods can be made more palatable by adding sugar. Sugar enhances not only the flavour but also the scent of foods, such as baked foods and sauces.
Sugar helps create a gel-like texture when combined with pectin, a natural component of fruits. Too much or too little sugar and the sugar will crystallise or the consistency will be runny.
Sugar provides food for yeast, which creates air bubbles, helping baked goods to rise and expand at a faster and more consistent rate (fermentation). Beating sugar into liquid ingredients, creates tiny air bubbles which expand during baking.