These days (and I mean during Christmas time) you can find a lot of talk about sugars and sugar syrups in the popular press, much of it insinuating that somehow raw cane sugar and/or cane syrup and/or molasses are the real sweeteners, more authentic and/or more chemically or morally pure than white sugar and especially corn syrup. But truthfully, when all’s said and done, while the some of the molecules may be of slightly different sizes, the crystals of different shapes, some more rigorously filtered than others, chemically it’s pretty much all the same stuff.
The romanticism, however, remains. Which begs the question: why? I think the reason is that at this time of year we gravitate toward things that taste old. Which is to say, things that taste like what grandma used to make, because we all know there was nothing quite like the feeling of comfort we all got eating hot cookies in grandma’s kitchen. Of course grandma (maybe grandma’s grandma for some of you really young squirts) probably didn’t use a sweetener like molasses because it tasted better. Likely, she used it because she had to. For you see while refined white sugar has technically been available for many hundreds of years now, for the vast majority of that time it’s been prohibitively expensive.
In fact it wasn’t until the widespread cultivation of the sugar beet that the price came down far enough for the average person to afford. And even then, when it came to liquid sweeteners, molasses was really the name of the game. As recently as the 1940’s molasses was the sweetener of choice in many parts of the country (especially the South) and used in everything from candy and baked goods to soda pop.
All that changed of course with the advent of corn syrup, which, like refined white sugar, does indeed have a different taste than its predecessor. It’s far cleaner, which makes it more broadly useful, especially to industrial food manufacturers. But of course it doesn’t have that old-school, warm-in-the-belly feeling that molasses (and/or brown sugar which is crystallized sugar with the residual molasses left in it) gives you. In fact it’s interesting to note here that many of the big trends in industrial sweets the last couple of years are based on so-called “brown” flavors, which is to say things like molasses and caramel, anything that provides those old, comforting cooked sugar notes.
Funny how the things that are one generation’s necessity becomes another generation’s nostalgia. Like heavy old telephones or street cars. Our ancestors put up with them because, well, they had to. We, their obscenely rich progeny do it because, well, we can.