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Sweet Comeback for MolassesSweet Comeback for Molasses

July 11, 2006

6 Min Read
Sweet Comeback for Molasses


Photo: Weber-Stephen Products Co.

Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and molasses? Molasses’ role in U.S. history makes it almost as American as these other icons. It goes back to the 1600s, when traders bartered African slaves for Caribbean molasses, which was then transported to New England. Here, the molasses was made into rum by the earliest settlers, and bartered for other supplies to help build the colonies. As the Union strengthened, molasses worked its way into the daily diet of both northern and southern colonists, as white sugar was too expensive. However, after the states unified and sugar cane became abundant, molasses was demoted by the affluent to a byproduct. However, it was often the only form of sugar available to slaves and the poor of the rural South.

With its sweet, slightly bitter flavor profile and desirable brown hue, northerners continued to recognize sugar cane molasses for its unique properties. It became the tried and true ingredient for the Pennsylvania Dutch’s shoofly pie, the German immigrant’s gingerbread and the Bostonian’s baked beans.

Today, molasses is making a comeback in America, as it is embraced as being less-refined and more pure than table sugar. This more-natural halo, along with the high mineral content certain grades of molasses possess, has product developers exploring the use of this viscous syrup in all types of applications.

Will real molasses come forward?

White table sugar—sucrose—is produced from sugar cane or the misshapen, whitish-brown roots of sugar beets. Sugar beets grow in the temperate climates of states such as Idaho, Minnesota and North Dakota, whereas sugar cane comes mainly from the tropical regions of Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. In the end, once refined, cane sugar and beet sugar are chemically identical. They are both pure sucrose and are labeled without identifying the source.

Molasses is defined as the remaining syrup after the available sucrose has been repeatedly evaporated, crystallized and centrifuged from sugarcane juice or sugar-beet juice. Compared to sugar-cane refineries, beet-sugar processors are technically challenged, as beets contain impurities with offensive tastes and odors that must be removed. These impurities survive in the molasses, which is considered inedible by humans and goes to animal feed.

Cane-sugar molasses is a natural extract considered as GRAS (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 182, Section 20). FDA does not provide any composition or organoleptic specifications. Flavor strength and color vary by the grade of molasses, which depends on a number of variables, including cane variety, climate and soil conditions, cane maturity and processing.

With sucrose having a relative sweetness of 100, molasses ranges from 70 to 105. It is important to work closely with suppliers, in order to select the right molasses for an application, as specifications range greatly. In general, sugar-cane molasses has a Brix (spindle method) of 79% to 80%, total sugars of 45% to 75%, invert sugars of 15% to 45%, sucrose of 25% to 40%, ash of 2% to 10%, organic non-sugar carbohydrates of 3% to 15% and pH of 5.0 to 6.0. Color ranges from amber to coffee, while flavor can be delicate to robust.

Part of the reason for these large ranges is that, to extract as much sucrose as possible from sugar cane juice, crystallization is performed in three different steps, each of which results in a different grade of molasses and a different type of sugar. The expressed juice from sugar cane starts out with specifications of water: 78% to 86%; sucrose: 10% to 20%; reducing sugars: 0.5% to 2.5%; organic non-sugar carbohydrates: 0.5% to 1.0%; and ash: 0.3% to 0.7%.

In first place 

“First” molasses is the product of centrifuging off the raw sugar crystals from sugar cane juice. First molasses, which in centrifugal terms is the supernatant, still contains some removable sucrose. To produce the molasses syrup, the supernatant is mixed with some un-crystallized sugar syrup, followed by crystallization and another centrifugation. First molasses has the mildest flavor and the lightest color of the three types of sugar cane molasses. It is appropriately called light molasses.

The remaining sugar cane juice, scientifically referred to as the pellet, can be crystallized at this step to naturally produce dark brown sugar. However, many brown-sugar manufacturers find it more economical to simply spray molasses onto refined white sugar. Thus, the pellet goes on to a second boiling.

“Second” molasses comes from this second boiling. This second supernatant is more concentrated than the first, and is darker and more flavorful. Second molasses is commercially referred to as dark molasses. At this point the pellet can be crystallized to make light brown sugar, or go onto a third boiling, which produces “third” molasses.

Third molasses is the final molasses and goes by the name of blackstrap molasses. It has a very high mineral content and has traditionally been sold through health and natural food stores to supplement the diet. The very dark color of final molasses is due to the extreme caramelization of the remaining sugars and to chemical reactions induced by the high temperatures repeatedly reached during each boiling. Together with the high concentration of minerals in this final supernatant, blackstrap molasses has a very harsh bitter flavor.

There are exceptions to every process, including molasses production. For example, raw sugar cane juice can be clarified and evaporated to 79% to 80% solids to produce whole-juice molasses. This molasses is relatively harsh in flavor and dark in color. There’s also sulfured molasses, which has sulfur dioxide added to lighten and preserve the molasses.

Some varieties of sorghum, a genus of about 20 species of grass, contain a sweet juice that can be boiled down into syrup. The end product is sometimes called sorghum molasses, but in the traditional sense, it is syrup.

Why use molasses?

As mentioned, natural markets regard refined sugar as “too processed,” which presents sweeteners such as molasses with a development opportunity. Molasses also possesses some unique characteristics, making it very useful in certain applications, particularly in baking.

For example, molasses is characterized as having a caramelized sugar flavor profile with hints of licorice or anise. It is bitter and sweet at the same time. Molasses can mask unpleasant flavors, such as the bitter taste of bran and flaxseed. It also enhances flavors such as butterscotch, caramel, chocolate, coffee, licorice, maple, praline, roasted peanut and rum. Molasses provides a natural caramel color and can mask the gray-brown color of certain wheat-containing baked products.

Molasses is as effective as sugar on an equal-solids basis. Its high total-solids content contributes to a food’s body, mouthfeel and viscosity.

If you decide to reformulate products, a good rule of thumb is that molasses is a one-to-one substitute for dark corn syrup, honey or maple syrup. To replace firmly packed brown sugar, it’s a 133% replacement by volume.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., a network of professionals in business-to-business technical and trade communications, has been writing about product development and marketing for 11 years. Prior to that, she worked for Kraft Foods in the natural-cheese division. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected]

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