Sweetness and sugar are hugely complicated. And they are also hugely controversial.
As far as chocolate is concerned, Epicurus was right. As he advised: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance”. The addition of sugar to chocolate IN MODERATION can be wonderful.
There is also a huge amount of nonsense talked about some sugars (and artificial sweeteners) being ‘better’, causing lower ‘sugar spikes’ etc. that should be debunked (‘hat tip’ to Professor Tim Spector, who covers this in his book, and who will be joining us for another Craft Chocolate in Conversation session).
So whilst you read this post (and apologies for the length), please do try some bars sweetened with alternatives to refined cane sugar. And do try some approachable 100% bars too. Savour them from a texture, flavour and taste perspective. Revel in being moderate.
What is sugar?
To quote from Wikipedia: “Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Table sugar, granulated sugar, or regular sugar, refers to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose”.
So far, so simple.
Historically most of the refined sugar we’ve added to our foods we’ve extracted from sugar cane and, more recently, sugar beet. These two plants contain 14g and 17g of sugar per 100g; not much more than mangoes, for example, which contain 12g, and even oranges with around 8g per 100g. Of course consuming refined sugar is very different from eating fruit; all the fibre, protein, etc. is removed as sugar is extracted from sugar cane/beet. However, until recently, adding refined sugar to our foods and drinks was a luxury and didn’t cause huge problems.
This has dramatically changed in the last few decades with a series of scientific developments, in particular:
- Innovations and new techniques for processing sugar from unexpected sources (in particular something called “high fructose corn syrup”), combined with continuing subsidies for refining sugar (not just from sugar beet and sugar cane, but also now corn),
- The discovery of new lower-calorie sweeteners from coal tar and chlorine (via accidents involving poor hygiene and scientists not washing their hands before eating!),
- The development of ultra-processed foods and the ‘bliss point‘. It’s the bliss point that underpins the explosion of junk food and why we just can’t put down foods that are engineered with additions of fats, salts and SUGARS to make them irresistible.
What’s the difference between sugars and other sweeteners?
This gets a little more complicated. Many things can be sweet (e.g. the amylase in your saliva can make bread taste ‘sweet’ as it breaks down starch into sugars). So for the purpose of simplicity, we’re going to talk about ‘sweetener’ additives, like sugar, that are combined with chocolate, and many (most?) other foods and drinks, to make them sweeter (and also cheaper, last longer, have different textures, etc.).
The NHS suggests a couple of ways to segment “sweeteners”:
“One way is to loosely group sweeteners as: sugar or sugar substitutes … One of the most useful ways of grouping sweeteners is to look at those that have nutritive value, i.e. nutritive sweeteners, and those without nutritive value, i.e. non-nutritive or ‘low-calorie’ sweeteners”.
And here is how the NHS further breaks down different types of sugars and sweeteners:
- “Nutritive sweeteners are defined as sweeteners containing carbohydrate and provide calories”. Think of these as sugars.
- The largest category here is what most people think of as sugars; e.g. glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combination of sucrose and fructose, and basically the sugar we buy in the supermarket), maltose, lactose, honey and maple syrup, etc. (note: this isn’t an exhaustive list), etc.
- Over the last few decades scientists have also bioengineered new low calorie “sugars” that have fewer carbohydrates, especially a category known as polyols or sugar alcohols. When you read a label and see ingredients like erythritol, isomalt, maltitol (see the sugar-free bar from La Reine Astrid), mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, you are experimenting with these ‘low calorie’ sugars.
- Then there are ‘non-nutritive’ sweeteners, i.e. sweet tasting additives that have no (or very few low) calories, carbohydrates or much else.
- The first of these sweeteners, saccharine, was discovered by a university student way back in 1897 who, after experimenting with coal tar, forgot to wash his hands. And when he licked his fingers was amazed by how sweet they tasted, and realised this was from the coal tar (bizarrely cyclamate a.k.a. Sweet’N Low, and aspartame, were also discovered after similar accidents).
- Most of these no calorie sweeteners are chemically and biologically synthesised from the likes of coal tar, chlorine, etc. But recently scientists have managed to extract a plant based non-nutritive sweetener called stevia from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. So just to add to the confusion there are some “plant based, natural” “non-nutritive” sweeteners too!
Why do we like sugar (and sweetness in general)?
Returning to why we like sweetness; from birth humans are genetically wired to enjoy the sweetness in our mother’s milk, and as we get older we seek out ripe fruit, cooked meat and vegetables (they are sweeter), etc.
Evolutionary biologists suggest that this is because sweetness is a great predictor of calories (a.k.a. energy) in food. And most of human history has been about getting enough calories to survive and reproduce. At the same time most foods with lots of sugar have many other nutrients and benefits (vitamins, fibre, etc.).
Until very recently indulging our sweet tooth hasn’t caused many health problems (although it has caused many socio-economic issues, read elsewhere in our blog for more on the very dark history of sugar and slavery). Indeed even today hunter gatherer tribes like the Hazda in Tanzania obtain 15% plus of their annual calories from honey (far higher than any Western dietician would recommend).
But as we’ve created more and more sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners for lower and lower costs this has caused massive problems. We are now gorging on ultra processed breakfast cereals, confectionery and mass produced chocolate. Our sweet tooth is now helping fuel an obesity epidemic. We are eating more and more calories from natural and artificial sugars added to foods which are designed to make us want to gorge more, more and more.
So, is it bad that we add sugar, and other sweeteners, to craft chocolate?
Having said all this, a little sugar can be a great addition. And we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in our disdain for sugar while also being very sceptical about ‘miracle’ new sugars.
As with many matters concerning food and cooking, Brillat Savarin, almost 200 years ago, hit the nail on the head:
“The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, … have given us flavors hitherto unknown“.Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste.
We add sugar to craft chocolate as it helps us appreciate the myriad of flavours in a craft chocolate bar. As anyone who has tried a fresh cocoa seed, or indeed a 100% chocolate bar, can attest there are A LOT of tannins in chocolate. And these tannins are very bitter and very astringent. Adding sugar counters astringency and bitterness. It makes the chocolate more palatable. And it’s like adding salt, or umami, to meat; it brings out the flavour. Without the sweetener, most of us only experience bitterness and astringency. We can miss the amazing variety of flavour brought out by fermentation, roasting, conching, tempering, and of course the beans themselves because we are so overwhelmed by the astringency.
Side note on 100% bars: Most people can learn to appreciate (and even love) craft chocolate which doesn’t have any added sugar (indeed we even have a 100% subscription offering). Coffee provides a great parallel: The first time most people drink an espresso or a black coffee they too are overpowered by the tannins. But you can get used to it. Hence why so many people come to love espresso and black coffee. And as anyone who has been to a virtual tasting can testify, chew on a coffee bean and then trying some 100% completely changes the experience. Astringency is something that the brain can switch on and off. Try some great 100% bars below from Firetree and Karuna. Try them over a few days. Possibly after chewing a coffee bean. They are amazing!
Why sugar added to mass produced chocolate isn’t such a good thing:
Sugar in mass produced confectionery is added for very different reasons.
Firstly, sugar is not added to enhance the flavour of the underlying chocolate in a mass produced chocolate bar (or chocolate confectionery). Sugar is added to make the mass produced candy and ultra-processed chocolate sweet. These are then marketed as a sweet treat and reward that act as a pick me up (sadly also with a sugar crash).
Secondly, sugar is also added as it’s an incredibly cheap ingredient. Given all the health issues too much sugar is now seen as causing, this is ironic as sugar’s cheapness is in part thanks to massive government subsidies coupled with new technologies. Indeed, sugar is far cheaper than the chocolate in any mass processed bar. And far cheaper even than ultra-processed, artificial sweeteners. To quote the R&D Department of Callebaut in North America:
“Any [sugar] replacement or change in sweetening…typically will mean a cost increase with the raw materials … polyols such as the low-calorie sugar alcohols erythritol and maltitol are more expensive than cane sugar”.
That’s why when you check the ingredients of many mass produced bars, sugar is the primary ingredient (for example; a snack sized 45g of Dairy Milk contains 25g of sugar).
What are the consequences of adding sugar and sweeteners to mass produced chocolate?
Put our desire for sweetness together with this cheap added sugar and it’s a problem. For the first time in human history many of us have too many calories and not enough fibre, protein and nutrients in our diet.
Ironically ‘calorie counting’ doesn’t help here: It over simplifies how nutrition works at both an individual and general level.
For example, refined sugar has less calories than the chocolate it is added to. Craft chocolate contains lots of carbohydrates, fats, minerals and even fibre (cocoa is after all a fruit). So if you just look at the calorie count, gram per gram, a mass produced chocolate bar will have LESS calories than e.g., a 100% or even 70% craft chocolate bar.
But this is very misleading.
Craft chocolate is about savouring. The fibre, carbohydrates and fat in dark chocolate are all REALLY filling. Especially if you savour SLOWLY. You rarely eat that much craft chocolate in one go; say 4-6 squares, or around 20g. Come to a virtual tasting and you’ll be sated, but you’ll have savoured less than a third of a full bar of chocolate.
By contrast, sugar is what is often described as an ’empty calorie’. In its refined form, sugar packs a lot of calories and is a great source of immediate energy. But refined sugar doesn’t have any nutrients. And sugar isn’t very filling. Its sweetness means that when you add it to cereals, biscuits, or mass chocolate bars, you want to eat more. And more. Indeed, for most people they keep eating more of a sugar filled mass produced chocolate bar until it’s all been scoffed (hence the packaging, which we’ve discussed before).
And sugar can become addictive, and this helps sales.
Does the type of sweetener (and sugar) make a difference?
So the simple answer here is YES. The type of sugar added will change flavour, mouthfeel and taste. And the source of the sugar also makes a HUGE socio-economic difference (see the our article on sugar and slavery).
But it’s far more complicated to answer whether any sweeteners are ‘healthier’. Honey has been shown by more and more studies to have various health benefits. And eating sugary fruits (like figs, oranges, apples, etc.) is clearly healthy.
But the suggestion that some refined sugars are healthier than others is, to put it mildly, unproven. In particular claims that certain added sugars (e.g., coconut sugar) cause a lower ‘GI spike’ (sugar rush) have never stood up to scrutiny (the original study was done by the Philippine Coconut Sugar Marketing board on only 11 people, and never been replicated). And different peoples’ blood sugar is impacted dramatically differently by different products. In Tim Spector’s upcoming book he points out that:
- “My blood sugar hardly moved with a bowl of white rice which has a GI of 95/100 and shot up to the diabetic range with ten red grapes which have a GI of only 46/100. I tested my long suffering wife, and she had the opposite result .. studies from … our UK twins are showing that our individuality in the gut microbiome determines how quickly we absorb glucose and the speed of our insulin response. Microbes were much more important than carb content or GI index”.
- Note: I used a blood sugar monitor to experiment on myself a few months ago and was delighted to discover that chocolate and red wine DON’T cause my blood sugar to spike. But sadly black coffee does cause huge spikes.
And the idea that artificial (or natural) sweeteners are healthier is also under increasing challenge from discoveries about how we taste. Again, Tim’s upcoming book has more on this, but one intriguing insight from Tim’s work is that we have taste receptors not just in our mouth, but also all the way through our gut. So while you can fool the receptors on your tongue with the likes of aspartame and stevia, your gut isn’t as fooled, and so it may well rumble and demand more (if you have some maltodextrin, which is a sugar but doesn’t taste sweet, that will satiate your stomach, but it causes other issues).
How do sugars and sweeteners impact mouthfeel, flavour and taste?
The GREAT attribute about refined sugar is that it has no flavour. It’s just a sweet taste.
This changes when sugar is heated above a certain level; it then caramelises, and develops various flavours (note: this is at high temperatures, above 320 degrees Fahrenheit). So refined sugar’s great asset for the craft chocolate maker is that when properly applied, the sugar is flavourless and allows the complexities of the bean, fermentation, conching and tempering to shine through. ‘Fancy’ sugars (like coconut blossom sugar, lacuna, or honey, maple syrup, etc.) are not just a sweet taste, they also have flavour which, to purists, diminishes the flavour of the bean.
This isn’t to say don’t try some sugars refined from the likes of dates or mango, or with maple syrup (see Raaka’s bar below, or some of Zotter‘s new range). But as you try these chocolates, you may want to go in thinking of them as more like an inclusion bar.
Then try some chocolate bars which are sweetened with milk. The natural sweetness of the milk, plus it’s texture, gives them an intriguing mouthfeel and temper (see below for bars from Chocolat Madagascar and Zotter).