Food and science converged in our house recently with an impromptu sugarcane experiment. The exercise began a few weeks ago when my daughter came home from school and announced that she had learned something important: “Sugar is bad.” This statement disturbed me. Obviously too much sugar isn’t good for anyone, but it doesn’t seem productive to talk about foods as essentially “good” or “bad,” especially to a 6-year old.
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Eating too much of any food can be bad, even if that food is full of nutrients and comes straight from the garden. And talking about sugar, both naturally occurring and manufactured, is especially complicated. Refined white crystals are “sugar,” but so are honey, maple syrup and molasses. There are important scientific distinctions between fructose, sucrose and glucose. I discussed all these things with my daughter, but she only seemed confused.
The sugar problem
I’d been mulling over the sugar problem for days when I took my daughters to our local farmers market. And there, lying on a table in glorious 6-foot-long stalks, was the answer to my conundrum.
“Look girls,” I said. “Sugar!”
In spite of their frank disbelief, I decided these stalks of freshly-cut, locally-grown sugarcane would turn “the sugar problem” into “the great sugarcane experiment.”
My two daughters watched in awe as the owner of the stall, Mee Thao Her, chopped the sugarcane into 6-inch long chunks. Next she stripped off the hard green outer coating to reveal the cane’s porous white center. She handed each of my daughters a small chunk, and watched as they placed them carefully in their mouths. My first-grader beamed, “It tastes like sugar!”
“Because it is sugar,” I said.
She was clearly dubious. I realized we had to ratchet up the experiment. We bought a full 6-foot stalk of cane and brought it home.
My plan was to help the girls turn this stretch of green stalk into crystallized sugar, the kind they would recognize. Some quick research revealed a possible problem. There are three kinds of sugarcane: crystal cane, syrup cane, and chewing cane. Her raised “chewing cane” on her family’s farm in Fresno, so I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to make crystallized sugar from this sugarcane. But in my family, we’re always up for a culinary challenge.
Taste-testing the experiment
Before we began our experiment, I introduced the concept of the scientific method. We talked about what color we thought the finished product would be (yellowish-green) and how the juice would taste (like sour sugar.) After much discussion we developed a hypothesis: If we chop up the sugarcane, peel it, strain it, boil it, and dry it, we will create sugar crystals.
It seemed simple enough. First we cleaned and stripped our sugar cane. My husband eagerly volunteered, happily wielding the large machete he keeps in the trunk of his car “for emergencies.” Next, we chopped the tender white centers into 1-inch chunks and ground them up in the food processor. We poured the resulting fibrous mass through a series of coffee filters and cheesecloth into a measuring cup. An hour later, our 6-foot long stalk of sugar cane finally yielded 2 cups worth of pale yellow juice. My eldest daughter said that it tasted like sugar, but “grassier.”
We boiled down the juice, filtered it again, and reduced the juice a second time. The result: our twice-boiled sugarcane syrup tasted like molasses, but sweeter and less bitter.
My next step was to try to crystallize sugar from this boiled-down juice. Realizing it might not work with “chewing sugar,” I hedged my bets by creating a second jar, this one containing a super-saturated solution of refined white sugar in water. I coated two strings with a dried sugar solution. This would be the “seed” for our future sugar crystals. My daughters placed the “seed” strings into each Mason jar and covered them with a paper towel to keep the flies out.
Then we waited.
It took three days, but the result was worth it. In one jar was a string of perfectly crystallized white sugar. This was no surprise to me, because my own parents had performed this “magic trick” with me when I was a child. In the other jar was a quarter-cup of golden-bronze liquid, with only a bit of thick golden syrup clinging to the string.
My daughters were amazed. We examined the contents of the different jars with a magnifying glass. We tasted each sample — the gritty crystals and the luscious syrup. We discussed the difference between the two kinds of sugar. We also talked about the fact that sugar wasn’t a magical white substance that came in a bag from the grocery store. Sugar is a naturally occurring substance. Sugar comes from Mrs. Her’s farm in Fresno.
Sugar is sugar
I told my daughters that sugar is vitally important to make our bodies work the way they should. And that too much of sugar can cause serious problems. I didn’t go into a list of issues like diabetes, tooth decay, America’s obesity epidemic, high-fructose corn syrup and the host of other problems that undoubtedly lay behind the phrase “sugar is bad.” These are all serious problems that I want my daughters to be aware of. But sugar isn’t bad. Sugar is sugar. I think my daughters now have a better understanding of what that substance is.
Some of my family’s theories about sugar-making proved incorrect. Actually most of them did. But the most important hypothesis yielded positive results. With some help, and active participation, kids can learn to think about sugar in a meaningful way and to start making conscious food choices.
Top photo: My daughter supervises the first filtering process during our sugarcane experiment. Credit: Susan Lutz