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Diet & Nutrition

How Sweet It Is!

From white to brown to turbinado: How to pick the best sugar for your holiday confections

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Sugar has been around for a very, very long time. A Chinese manuscript from the 8th century BC mentions sugarcane originating in India. It was largely a luxury for millennia, until it became widely available in Europe in the 19th century and established itself as a ubiquitous part of the modern diet.

The metabolism and wisdom of sugar in the body has been widely studied, discussed, and debated. Rather than wade into that morass of conflicting, contradictory, and intriguing information, let’s explore some of the best dry sweetener options for holiday baking.

White Sugars
For most of us, this is what we mean when we say “sugar.” It’s a highly-refined product and largely devoid of any nutritive value-all of the molasses that’s naturally present in sugar cane has been removed. It’s best to avoid white sugar when possible; however, there’s no denying it enhances certain types of baked goods. The different types (regular, superfine, confectioners’, sanding) are simply a matter of the size of the grain, each with its own preferred use. Superfine is best for light cakes and delicate custards; confectioners’ sugar has a touch of cornstarch added, and is best for angel cakes and dusting the tops of desserts; and sanding sugars lend a crunchy garnish to cookies and bars.

Brown Sugars
Most light and dark brown sugars are simply white sugars with added molasses. Brown sugars have a hint of caramel taste, and impart a higher moisture content to recipes. They’re especially appropriate for denser baking and more assertive flavoring. As always, it’s a good idea to seek out organic versions. Personally, when looking for a brown sugar kick, I prefer to seek out one of the less processed forms below.

Muscovado and Turbinado
Muscovado is a rich, moist, dark brown sugar that’s minimally processed with a robust flavor. Especially popular in Great Britain, Muscovado is unrefined, with all of the molasses preserved. This means that it still retains minerals and nutrients from the sugar cane. When baking with Muscovado, reduce any liquid in a recipe slightly. For treats such as brownies, carrot cakes, muffins, and fruit desserts, muscovado is definitely the sweetener of choice.

Turbinado, and the very similar demerara, are milder forms of Muscovado, with just the surface molasses removed. They are ideal for sprinkling on cookies and sweetening beverages.

Regardless of your tastes, use raw, unprocessed sugar whenever possible. Plan your holiday desserts accordingly, but don’t deprive yourself of the occasional indulgence.

Poached Pears with Dried Cherries
Serves 6

Serve this aromatic dessert warm in footed glass bowls to dazzle your holiday guests!

3 cups apple cider

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

1/4 cup organic light brown sugar or turbinado

1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped

6 pears, peeled, halved, and cored (Taylor Gold or Anjou work best)

1/3 cup dried tart cherries

1 tsp. microplaned lemon zest

1/2 cup vanilla non-fat Greek yogurt, lightly whipped

  1. Combine cider, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla bean in deep, wide saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add pears, cherries, and lemon zest, and simmer 10-20 minutes, until pears are tender but not falling apart. Check often, remove pieces of fruit as they are done, and keep them warm in shallow baking dish.
  2. When all fruit is cooked (including cherries), strain liquid through mesh sieve,
    and return to saucepan. Increase heat, and boil until liquid is reduced to about 1 cup. Pour liquid over fruit, and keep warm.
  3. Divide among six serving bowls, and top each with a dollop of whipped yogurt.

PER SERVING: 237 cal; 2g pro; <1g total fat (<1g sat fat); 59g carb; 0mg chol; 22mg sod; 7g fiber; 45g sugars

Carrot Bran Muffins
Makes 12 muffins

Warm, healthy muffins are perfectly suited to make you happy on a cold winter’s morning.

1½ cups organic whole wheat flour

1¼ cups bran

1½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

2 large eggs

½ cup Muscovado sugar

½ cup canola oil

1 cup 2% buttermilk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 Tbs. dark molasses

1 tsp. orange oil

1 heaping Tbs. microplaned orange zest

1½ cups grated carrots

½ cup golden raisins

12 date halves

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 12-muffin tin with cooking spray. Whisk together 6 dry ingredients in large bowl, and set aside.
  2. Whisk together eggs and sugar in medium bowl until smooth. Add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, molasses, orange oil, and orange zest, and whisk until smooth. Stir in carrots and raisins.
  3. Pour wet mixture over dry mixture, and stir just until combined. Divide among 12 muffin cups, and top each with date half. Cook 25 minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then remove to cooling rack.

PER 12-OZ. BATCH: 252 cal; 5g pro; 12g total fat (1g sat fat); 36g carb; 33mg chol; 215mg sod; 5g fiber; 19g sugars

A Holiday Date
Made from dehydrated ground dates, date sugar retains the sweet fruit’s high fiber, vitamin, and mineral content; however, it’s not too sweet. It doesn’t dissolve well in liquids, so it’s best sprinkled on oatmeal or cereal, or incorporated into dense baked goods.

Neil Zevnik is a private chef in Los Angeles who is devoted to the idea that “healthy” doesn’t have to mean “ho-hum.” Visit him online at to learn more.