Frank O'Kelly Written by Frank O'Kelly

How sugar is used in the food services industry?

Food service is returning to life, following the government’s latest announcement that cafes, restaurants, and pubs will be opening their doors to more than just takeaways from 4 July.

These sectors, from fine dining experiences to layby burger vans, are major consumers of pure sugars not just as ingredients for their core food offerings, but also to accompany drinks, as sauces, and to enhance flavours. We explore the applications of pure sugars on the tabletop and by the roadside, and the factors food service businesses should consider when selecting their ideal sugar product.

Selecting pure sugar products to accompany hot drinks

No matter what clientele a cafe, restaurant or pub attracts, they always rely on pure sugars in crystalline and syrup form to accompany hot beverages. Consumers add sugar to hot drinks to enhance the sweetness of their beverage and for flavour. Depending on the type of hot drink and the nature of the food service outlet, the type of sugar selected to accompany the hot drinks varies.

For instance, a burger van typically provides only straight sucrose to accompany its selection of convenient teas and coffees – white crystalline sugar. A high street coffee shop, such as a chain or an artisan cafe, will typically provide straight sucrose, soft brown sugar and/or demerara sugar. Soft brown sugar better develops the flavour of the wider range of coffee styles offered. Demerara sugar’s mellow notes best complement the bitter taste of richly-blended coffees, so may also be found in restaurants.

All the high street chains, most artisan coffee shops and other food service outlets also offer a range of flavoured syrups. Although popular in the US and many European countries, outside of artisan cafes flavoured vanilla, caramel, gingerbread and other syrups were less well known in the UK to flavour hot drinks until relatively recently.

Although popular as cocktail mixers and in desserts, their use in coffee and chocolate derivatives has increased in popularity with consumers during the last two decades, alongside the growth in the coffee shop chains and franchises that offer them. Syrups are liquids so blend more readily into the drink than crystalline sugars to provide a subtly different taste.

Flavoured syrups are typically produced by adding flavourings, be they naturally occurring or artificial, depending on the customer’s preference to an invert sugar syrup. With caramel flavoured syrup being particularly popular in high street chains, cane sugar is often found as the sugar constituent, producing highly effective results in cappuccinos and within the last decade, frappuccinos.

Flavoured syrups have been a fairly recent addition to high street coffee shops in the UK, and their application provides a subtly different flavour to crystalline sugars. 

Practical considerations when selecting pure sugars to accompany hot drinks

Flavour is of course important when selecting sugars to complement hot drinks, but there are also commercial factors. These largely fall into the category of supply and packaging practicalities.

Traditionally, tabletop sugars would be supplied in the structure of a cube because they were easier to produce and transport on an industrial scale, while perfectly denoting to consumers ‘a teaspoon of sugar’ portion. However, sugar cubes are no longer the most common method of supply because they do not enable consumers to easily moderate their sugar intake.

Today, sachets or stick packs (the thin paper cylinder packs) are more popular methods of supply. Coarser sugars such as granulated and demerara are used in sachets. Whereas finer sugars such as caster or soft brown sugar fit more comfortably in commercially viable stick packs than coarser sugars, which reinforces why cafes often offer these sugar products.

Sauces rely on pure sugars for function and flavour

Sauces are another tabletop flavour-enhancing product in food service outlets. Returning to the burger van example, industrially produced tomato and barbecue sauce are mainstays on their stands. Invert sugar syrup, a liquid product where the sucrose has been broken down into glucose and fructose, is a common ingredient in these sauces because its functional properties facilitate large-scale manufacture. Furthermore, the production of barbecue sauces usually requires molasses to enhance the rich and smoky flavour of the sauce.

However, many restaurants, including smokehouses and gourmet meat restaurants, prefer to stock artisanally produced barbecue sauce or create a homemade version. As these sauces are produced for more bespoke needs, and depend on the chef creating them, the sugar ingredients also vary. They range from a higher volume of molasses for a richer and slightly bitter end result, to a muscovado sugar for a more subtle flavour.

Invert sugar syrup is a vital ingredient in the production of sauces and condiments.

Pure sugars serve a crucial function in afternoon teas

Sugars underpin many of the ingredients found in that classic British delicacy, the afternoon tea, and other light meals. Cafes and coffee shops depend on pure sugars for their stocks of jams and chutneys that accompany afternoon tea dishes, such as scones, sandwiches and cheeseboards. As well as enhancing sweetness and flavour, pure sugars serve a vital functional purpose in the manufacture of jams and chutneys.

During the production of jam, pure sugars help bind the single fruit preserve into its jelly-like texture, with the sugar’s humectant properties also extending the shelf-life of the end product. Granulated sugar is recommended for this process because it creates the coarse mouthfeel of jam. On an industrial scale invert syrups are used in preserves with low-acid fruits to control crystallisation.

With chutneys, however, there is a wider range of fruit and vegetable ingredients that can be combined in any one chutney. Consequently, chutneys are typically produced using fine texture sugars, which is a crucial differentiator between jams and chutneys.

For example, when selecting the ideal sugar for a caramelised onion chutney, the clue is in the name. Light cane muscovado sugar is the ideal sugar constituent because its caramelised flavour develops the taste of the chutney and its fine texture provides a smooth mouthfeel.

With functionality proving just as important to the end product as flavour, it demonstrates that jam and chutney manufacturers require consistent and high-quality pure sugars and syrup ingredients. This can only be achieved by industrial sugar producers with extensive expertise who can leverage this knowledge using the latest manufacturing equipment.

Ragus has over 90 years’ experience manufacturing pure sugars and syrups for all types of food services. Contact us on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk and we will help you find the best pure sugar product for your unique needs.