In the food world, we are a bunch of shameless trend chasers. That’s not a knock. I’ve run R&D programs for restaurants and food companies for nearly a decade, and I can’t think of a better engine for progress and innovation than chefs racing to figure out how to make a better cupcake or bone broth than the one served next door.
The only food trends that make me nervous are the nutrition-based ones, where the atmosphere can shift from a unified celebration of something delicious to a paranoid witch hunt. Remember the ‘90s? We went so far down the fat-free rabbit hole that fettuccine alfredo became a saucy Freddy Krueger that could sneak into your dreams and kill you if you weren’t vigilant. After fat, carbs took over as the food version of that video from The Ring, and everyone started expecting to drop dead seven days after eating a hamburger bun.
Now sugar is the bogeyman, and people are treating cans of soda like they're demonic clowns, ready to pop out at any second. That’s a huge buzzkill, and I’m here to make a case for sugar before we all start trading dried stevia leaves as currency.
One quick disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist, and I don’t want to be one, because nutrition is crazy complicated. I’m a culinary scientist (chef/biochemist hybrid), and my job is to make stuff tasty by looking at the gears that turn behind the scenes in food. I don’t feel comfortable telling you how your body will respond to sugar, but I feel great about telling you all of the awesome things sugar does for your food.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar — along with things like water, lipids, minerals, and proteins — is one of the fundamental building blocks of food. It comes in a lot of forms, from lactose in milk to fructose in honey and sucrose in table sugar. Contrary to popular belief, sugar isn’t just a blunt sledgehammer of sweetness; it’s a multi-tooled Swiss Army knife. Whether it’s in crème brûlée and toffee or roast chicken or hummus, sugar does six different jobs to make food delicious: sweetening, browning, thickening, crystallizing, holding water, and fermenting. Sugar has been typecast as sweet for long enough, so let’s take a look at the other roles it can play:
Zoom in on a pot of bubbling caramel, and you’ll see millions of tiny explosions. With enough heat, sugar gets blown to bits, and each of those bits carries a different taste, aroma, or color. That same explosion of flavorful complexity happens in everything that turns golden brown in an oven, on a grill, or in a fryer. A world without sugar would be a world without roasted flavors. Blistered kale would still wilt and dry out in a cast iron pan, but there would be no sugar-derived nuttiness to mask that sulfury kale stank. With no sugars to break apart into the aromas of red currant, tobacco, and lemon chiffon cake, baristas would have nothing ridiculous to say about their new roast profile. Worst of all, toast would just be dry bread, and avocados everywhere would be perched on pale, bland thrones of shame.
Sugar puts a sticky roadblock in water’s way, making liquids thicker. This doesn’t just apply to maple syrup and honey. Sugar gives silkiness to coconut water, luxurious body to wine, and tacky stickiness to the sauce on top of glazed short ribs. Water is the lubricant that allows the microscopic building blocks to slide past each other and flow in a thick sauce, so if we dehydrate food, we can transform that thickness into crispiness. Scallops are naturally sugary, and rubbing pork shoulders with brown sugar cues them up for crisping. When we sear scallops and roast pork, we drive water away from the surface to create glassy, lacquered crusts.
Crystallized sugar is mostly important for candy and dessert, so there’s no real way to get around the typical sweet discussion here. Sugar crystals can grow in a variety of sizes and shapes, and good pastry chefs manipulate them to achieve different textures. Nobody wants gritty fudge, fondant, or taffy, so we stir, stretch, and pull the sugar to keep jostling those crystals, breaking them into smaller and smaller bits. In rock candy, we want big, beautiful crystals, so we leave them alone. By keeping a stick immersed in perfectly still syrup, we create a perfect environment for crystals to anchor and grow to massive size.
When we add heat to food, water — which is in everything — gets excited. That excitement sends water molecules rocketing out into space. Driving water away is great for making surfaces crispy, but it can also make the interior of food dry and juiceless. Along with salt, sugar is our greatest ally in keeping water where we want it. Sugar grabs water and hugs it close, tethering moisture and juiciness to the inside of brined meat and poultry. If we push this idea even further, we can preserve things like gravlax and cured ham. The water in these cured foods is bound so tightly by sugar and salt that we prevent spoilage microbes (the microscopic bad guys that make stuff rot) from being able to drink, grow, and do their nasty thing.
Fermentation is the tasty upside of microbial activity. In large quantities, we can use sugar to make problematic microbes prunwy and dehydrated, but in small doses, we can feed and encourage helpful microbes to make stuff taste good. Sugar is the primary fuel that stokes the fires of fermentation in everything from wine, beer, and sake to charcuterie, cheese, olives, miso, and everything on your favorite restaurant’s house-fermented pickle board. As a fringe benefit, this process also uses sugar up, so the lactose-averse will find long-aged cheeses to be the easiest to handle, and if you can’t sleep at night knowing that even celery has sugar (it does), you could probably knock that sugar level down a bit by turning it into celery-kraut.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to cut back on sugar. I personally think that chugging 30 grams of sugar in a can of soda is insane and definitely not something I want as part of my daily routine. However, sugar plays a role in the deliciousness of everything that you will ever cook and eat, in nuanced ways that can get lost in the typical conversations about 72 oz. Big Gulps and quintuple molten chocolate gelato fudge cakes. Almost every living thing on Earth depends on sugar for survival, but we’re the only ones getting style points for turning it into kimchi and doughnuts. Let’s enjoy that.