You, Food and Sugar

“Sugar plays an important role in food production and preparation”

We may add sugar for a little sweetness to our tea or coffee, but did you know that sugar plays an important role in food production, preparation, cooking, and baking?

Sugar is not used without reason – it has important functional properties. Sugar is a sweetener and preservative. With the pressure to reduce the sugar content in our foods, it is important to realise that sugar is difficult to replace in food production.

Of all the staple products in our diet, sugar has the broadest area of use and helps to ensure the quality of our food and diet.

So let’s look at the functional properties of sugar:

Taste and increasing the quality of your diet

Numerous studies have shown that sugar makes healthy foods palatable. Sugar provides sweetness and energy. The first taste that we encounter, breast milk, tastes sweet because it contains the sugar lactose – which may be why a sweet taste is interpreted positively. Our inherent affinity for sweetness may also be explained by the fact that, in nature, sweet-tasting plants are rarely poisonous, in contrast to bitter substances. Sugar has a unique sweetness that is free of any aftertaste.

When sugar is added to foods that contain a high nutrient quality it can increase the chances the foods are eaten. Porridge can be made tastier with a teaspoon of sugar. Baked beans, on their own, probably wouldn’t be something many people would want to eat even though they’re high in protein and low in fat. But when tomatoes and sugar are added, they become tasty and more acceptable to consumers.

Sugar is an affordable, easily accessible, and easy to store carbohydrate that does not require refrigeration.

Sugar provides energy and increases the likelihood of other nutrient-rich foods being eaten adding variety to our diet!

Innate preservative

The innate preservative properties of sugar enable us to store food including tinned food. Sugar is also used as a preservative in juices, jams, and pickling. How does this work? Well, microorganisms need water in order to grow. They absorb water via the outer layer of the cell. If the concentration of sugar in food is raised to a certain level, all water is bound by the sugar. This reduces the amount of available water thus inhibiting the growth of microorganisms.

Sugar is naturally found in fruit and vegetables, sugarcane and sugar beet plants. Sugar is difficult to replace in food production.

Sugar’s role in food production

Sugar aids in the process needed to make products like yoghurt, bread, vinegar, sour cream, wine, beer, and cheese. Sugar is needed for making bread – not only for taste, texture and to extend shelf life, but also for yeast fermentation. Sugar is an important ingredient that adds to our pleasurable food experience.

Sugar increases the volume of bread. In sponge cakes and cupcakes sugar creates bulk. To compensate for not adding sugar, fat is sometimes added to increase the volume in products such as chocolates and ice-cream. Not only does this affect the palatability of these foods, it also increases the amount of energy (in kilojoules or calories) as the sugar is being replaced by fat which gram for gram has a higher energy content than sugar.


Texture is an expression of the sensation in the mouth. Sugar affects this by providing volume and consistency in many products such as bread. In bread, sugar affects the volume of dough by speeding up the fermentation process, giving bread a more porous structure and softer crumb.

In the manufacture of jam, marmalade and jelly, it is important to strike the correct balance between sugar, pectin and acid. Sugar’s ability to gel when combined with pectin is vital to the consistency of the product. Too much sugar may crystallise, while too little sugar will cause the gelling process to fail.


Sugar is able to naturally preserve the colour of many foods. During cooking or baking sugar through the processes of the Maillard reaction give many foods its appetizing, caramelized colour. Most people are familiar with caramelization where sugar is heated to high temperatures when making candy for instance. The Maillard reaction is similar but it also involves amino acids found in protein rich foods. Both these processes are responsible for that crispy golden-brown surface of bread crusts and biscuits-of course not to mention that wonderful aroma of baked goods. The combination of the caramelization and the Maillard reaction gives us tasty treats such as salted caramels and ice-cream.

Sugar, baking and cooking

Where would a baker be without sugar when making all the delicious goods we have enjoyed for generations like custard and meringues? Never mind the smooth textures and volume of cakes and biscuits requiring sugar. Besides the fun of spun sugar for fancy baking decorations, or when it is blow torched to create the hard surface of a perfect crème brûlée, sugar has more practical functions too.

Sugar ensures yeast is activated so our breads rise. In baking, as an example, sugar helps create stability in foams due to its hygroscopic qualities. In simpler terms, sugar binds with water so it holds the meringue in place.

Cooks also use sugar to curb sharp tastes in dressings or marinades, for fillings, sauces, and adjusting taste if food is too salty. It is also used for browning, glazing and enhancing barbeque sauces.

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