“I’m curious how it is that a nutrient-rich product like molasses can be the byproduct of sugar, something we’re repeatedly told has no nutritional value. I can’t reconcile the two things!”
Molasses traditionally lends its rich, complex, tangy sweetness to gingerbread and other baked goods, barbecue sauces, and baked beans. Aside from its distinctive flavor, it’s a more healthful alternative to refined sugar, but why?
Both refined sugar and molasses come from sugarcane and sugar beets. Molasses intended for human consumption just comes from cane, though, so let’s focus on that here.
Sugarcane (saccharum officinarum) is a tropical member of the grass family. With succulent stalks that can be up to three inches in diameter and 12 to 15 feet tall when mature, sugarcane yields the highest number of calories per unit area of cultivation of any plant. According to Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (which has a great economic botany collection), sugarcane probably originated in New Guinea, where it’s been cultivated since about 6000 B.C. Initially grown for the sole purpose of chewing or sucking the internal tissue, you could argue that it was the world’s first quick-energy bar.
The process of making sugar by boiling down cane juice was developed in India, likely during the first millennium B.C.; scholars think the word sugar comes from the Sanskrit “sharkara.” The brown, sticky unrefined sugar called jaggery is a staple ingredient in Indian cooking, and the roots and stalks of sugarcane are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a myriad of ailments, including skin and urinary tract infections, bronchitis, heart conditions, loss of milk production in lactating women, cough, anemia, and constipation.
Sugar is extracted from boiled-down sugarcane juice by mechanical means. And that brings us to molasses—the viscous liquid that remains after the extraction process. Molasses is high in nutrients (including B vitamins, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium) because they are present in the plant itself. The nutrient content in molasses varies depending on the grade of molasses, which is why it’s helpful to have a grasp on how sugar and its byproduct is made.
To remove as much sugar as possible from cane juice, the extraction is done in three stages, or boilings, and each one produces a different grade of molasses. Every brand of molasses is produced a bit differently, so always check the label for the nutrient content.
Light molasses (aka “original” or “mild” molasses) is the product of the first boiling and has a mellow flavor. Most of what you see in supermarkets is labeled “unsulfured,” meaning that it hasn’t had sulfur dioxide added as a preservative, and that is what you want; sulfured molasses is harsher in flavor than unsulfured. Light molasses, by the way, is not the same thing as cane syrup, which is simply sugarcane juice boiled down to a syrup (it’s produced in similar fashion to maple syrup). It’s sweeter than molasses because no sugar is removed during cooking. (Steen’s cane syrup, produced in Abbeville, Louisiana, since 1910 is recognized by Slow Food USA in its Ark of Taste as an endangered Slow Food product.)
Robust molasses (aka “dark” or “full-flavored” molasses) is what is left after the second boiling. It’s not as sweet as its light counterpart because it doesn’t contain as much sugar, but it’s got more complexity, depth of flavor, and nutrients—including antioxidants. In a 2008 study of the total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar, researchers found that dark and blackstrap molasses (below) had the highest concentration of any sweetener.
Blackstrap (from stroop, the Dutch word for “syrup”) molasses is what remains after the third and final boiling, after which the majority of sugar has been extracted. It’s very dark in color and too overpowering to use in most recipes, so it’s most often used as a nutritional supplement.
Sorghum molasses (aka sorghum syrup) isn’t a true molasses at all; it’s not a refined-sugar byproduct but made from the tall, cane-like sweet sorghum plant (Sorghum bicolor). It’s rich in nutrients, too, and its slightly sour edge—what any Southerner would describe as a whang—makes it one of my favorite sweeteners.
The industry term boiling, by the way, doesn’t begin to convey the horrors of the method, in which slaves once ladled scalding-hot cane juice from one kettle to another. In 1834, the Creole sugar chemist and engineer Norbert Rilleux—the son of a French planter-engineer and slave mother, who was educated at the L'Ecole Central, in Paris—invented the closed-coil multiple-effect pan evaporator, which took much of the dangerous hand labor out of the process. It is still used today.
Molasses isn’t the only cane product that’s valued for its nutritional benefits, by the way. Raw sugarcane juice, long enjoyed with lime and a pinch of salt throughout the tropics and subtropics, has found its way to Los Angeles farmers markets and juicing websites, where it’s touted as a wonder food, in part because of its polyphenols—naturally occurring chemical compounds with antioxidant properties—and low glycemic index.