Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
How is sugar used in beverages?
Sugar is a vital component of many of the beverages we consume daily. Its presence is both functional and to provide flavour, ensuring drinks retain their distinct tastes and characteristics alongside maximum shelf life. Below, we explore the role it plays in soft, alcoholic and hot beverages, with each application providing an insight into its crucial and diverse role.
How is sugar used in soft drinks?
Sugar is used in soft drinks for far more than adding a sweet flavour. It is often the second most abundant ingredient in beverages of this type (behind carbonated water), adding body while also enhancing mouth-feel, a vital consideration for consumers when deciding on a soft drink. Alongside this, the presence of sugar balances the acidity of the final drink.
Invert sugar, produced by heating sucrose in an inversion pan to break the bonds between its glucose and fructose molecules, is often the sugar of choice for commercial manufacturers. Its liquid form means it dissolves far more efficiently in cold liquid than crystalline sugar and it helps to develop flavour. Furthermore, invert sugar also makes products more resistant to microbial spoilage, ensuring they have the best possible shelf life.
For similar reasons, liquid sugar is also used in soft drinks. This is a water-based sucrose solution made from white refined sugar or natural raw cane sugar, meaning it is both easy to handle and quick to dissolve, and therefore ideal for the soft drinks industry. In addition, because the sucrose is in liquid form, some of the production processes for these beverages are automated, resulting in more efficient manufacture.
How is sugar used in alcoholic drinks?
Sugar is either added to or found naturally in a huge variety of alcoholic beverages, from lagers, ales, porters and stouts to wines and whiskey. Without its presence, drinks would not be alcoholic. Alcohol arrives in drinks by extracting a source of natural sugar, usually through heating, leaving this to ferment and then adding a catalyst. Typically, this catalyst is yeast, which feeds on the sugar present to produce carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.
Varying the source of natural sugar used and specific aspects of the overall production process is what leads to the many types of alcoholic drinks we have available. By looking at the production method for lagers, ales, porters and stouts versus that of whiskey, a distilled spirit, we can see this in action.
Producing lagers, ales, porters and stouts begins by extracting the natural sugar present in a grain, such as barley, wheat or malt. The same is true of whiskey, but it was what happens after the sugar has been extracted that leads to them becoming vastly different drinks. For lagers, ales, porters and stouts, the grains are heated in water (resulting in a liquid known as wort), drained, boiled and have hops added for flavour, before being left to ferment for a specific period at a set temperature. Whiskey also starts with producing a fermented wort from grains, but this is then heated to a temperature that causes some of the water present to vaporise and cooled back down to liquid form, in a process known as distillation. The result is a much more concentrated, smoother and alcoholic drink.
Although naturally present, sugar can also be added when producing alcoholic drinks. This is sometimes perceived as resulting in an inferior product, particularly by many modern microbreweries that focus on small batch craft beers and lagers. Sugar, however, has been added in this way for centuries and it still results in a perfect end product.
How is sugar used in hot drinks?
Sugar is principally added to these drinks to add sweetness. This is the case for pre-mixed powdered hot drinks, such as hot chocolates, flavouring syrups typically used by high street coffee shops, and the range of crystalline sugars consumers add to hot drinks themselves.
Glucose syrup, produced by hydrolysing starch, is typically used in the manufacture of pre-mixed powders. As it is a highly concentrated source of sugar, a relatively small amount is needed to achieve the desired sweetness. It is also a humectant, which means that these pre-mixed powders have a long shelf life.
Furthermore, glucose syrup is also used in these powders because of its dissolving qualities. Its smaller molecule size means that when liquids are added it dissolves far quicker and with much less agitation. This convenience better suits end consumer needs.
From a consumer’s perspective, the sugars most commonly added to teas and coffees are white sugar (sucrose) and demerara sugar. The former is usually found in cubes or individual serving sachets and more associated with providing sweetness to English breakfast tea. Demerara sugar is better suited to coffee, with its caramel flavour perfectly complementing coffee’s bitter taste.