Sugar is one of the major ingredients used in the baking industry. Interestingly, in some cases, sugar use exceeds that of flour. Sugar provides sweetness but also functionality in the baking process. The Baker takes a look at sugar as a vital component in baked goods.

According to the South African Sugar Association, the local sugar industry is one of the world’s leading cost-competitive producers of high quality sugar. This diverse industry, which combines the agricultural activities of sugarcane cultivation with the manufacture of raw and refined sugar, syrups, specialised sugars and a range of by-products, produces an estimated average of 2.2 million tons of sugar per season per year. About 60% of this is marketed in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), while the remainder is exported to Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The cane growing sector in South Africa comprises approximately 29, 130 registered sugarcane growers who farm predominantly in KwaZulu-Natal, with a substantial investment in Mpumalanga and some farming operations in the Eastern Cape. Sugar is manufactured by six milling companies with 14 sugar mills operating in these regions.

Despite growing health awareness among consumers, the sugar industry is geared for growth over the next five years, according to IBIS World’s Global Sugar Manufacturing’s global market research report. The report says that while the global sugar manufacturing industry has had to contend with unstable production and price levels in the five years leading up to 2014, along with other factors which have all contributed to minimal industry growth during this time, the industry is expected to increase in the next five years due to rising demand for renewable energy, growing global sugar consumption and government policies.

Sugar adds taste, texture and colour to baked goods and provides energy for yeast in bread baking. Tender, moist cakes and the golden-brown, crispy essence of biscuits are due to the presence of sugar. There is no doubt that sugar is invaluable in the baking process. Not only does it add volume, texture and colour, it also acts as a preservative because it attracts moisture.

Sugar is also a necessary ingredient for flavour, pleasing colour, and tender texture, evenness of grain, moisture retention, improved shelf life and yeast fermentation in cakes, cookies, quick breads and yeast breads.

Flour, shortening, eggs, liquids, leavening agents and sugar are the basic ingredients of most baked goods and they work together to form the final structure of the product. When mixed together, the sugar acts as a tenderising agent by absorbing the water and thereby slowing gluten development. With the correct quantity of sugar in the recipe, the gluten maintains optimal elasticity allowing for gases to be held within the dough and thereby assisting the dough or batter to rise. Simply put, sugar aids tender crumb texture and good volume in the final baked product through preventing the gluten development.

In yeast-leavened baked goods, sugar provides food for the yeast that produces carbon dioxide for the leavening action. The yeast secretes enzymes that split the sucrose into simpler sugars, which are more easily fermentable. When glucose and fructose are present in dough the yeast ferments glucose first.

Sugar in baking applications

Sugar in the baking industry is used in dry, liquid or syrup form. Most of the dry sugar used in the baking industry is refined sucrose from sugarcane. Certain sugar such as fructose, inverted sugar and honey will retain water and thus extend shelf life.

There are many different types of granulated sugar which all differ in crystal size. Each crystal size provides unique functional characteristics that make the sugar appropriate for a specific food’s requirements. Sugar also varies in colour from white to dark brown depending on the amount of molasses added during processing.

It is important to keep in mind that changes in the properties of sugar may occur during storage and handling in the food manufacturing facility.

* White or regular sugar, extra fine or fine sugar

Regular or white sugar is found in every home and is most commonly used in home food preparation. It is the sugar called for in most cookbook recipes. The food industry stipulates regular sugar to be extra fine or fine because small crystals are ideal for bulk handling and not susceptible to caking.

* Fruit sugar

Fruit sugar is slightly finer than regular sugar and is used in dry mixes such as gelatine, pudding desserts and powdered drinks. Fruit sugar has a small, more uniform crystal size than regular sugar. The uniformity of crystal size prevents separation or settling of larger crystals to the bottom of the box – an important quality in dry mixes.

* Baker’s special sugar

As the name suggests, Baker’s special sugar was developed especially for the baking industry.  The crystal size of caster sugar is finer than that of fruit sugar and is commonly used for sugaring doughnuts and cookies, as well as in some commercial cake recipes to create a fine crumb texture.

* Superfine, ultrafine, or bar sugar

This sugar’s crystal size is the finest of all types of granulated white sugar. It is ideal for delicately textured cakes and meringues.

* Confectioners sugar, powdered sugar

This is granulated sugar ground to a smooth powder and then sifted. It contains about 3% cornstarch to prevent caking. Powdered sugar is ground into various degrees of fineness ranging from fondant to ultra-fine. Their fineness is categorised according to their particle size distribution.

* Coarse sugar

The crystal size of coarse sugar is larger than that of regular sugar. Coarse sugar is recovered when molasses-rich – sugar syrups high in sucrose – are allowed to crystallize. The large crystal size of coarse sugar makes it highly resistant to colour change or inversion at cooking and baking temperatures. These characteristics are important when making fondants and confections.

* Sanding sugar

Another large crystal sugar – sanding sugar – is used mainly in the baking and confectionery industries as a sprinkle on top of baked goods. The large crystals reflect light and give the product a sparkling appearance.

* Brown sugar (light and dark)

Brown sugar retains some of the surface molasses syrup which imparts a characteristic flavour. Lighter brown sugars are generally used in baking and for making butterscotch, condiments and glazes. The rich, full flavour of dark brown sugar makes it good for gingerbread and other full-flavoured baked goods.

Brown sugar tends to clump because it contains more moisture than white sugar.

* Invert sugar

Sucrose can be split into its two component sugars: glucose and fructose. This process is called inversion and the product is called invert sugar. Commercial invert sugar is a liquid product that contains equal amounts of glucose and fructose. Because fructose is sweeter than either glucose or sucrose, invert sugar is sweeter than white sugar. Commercial liquid invert sugars are prepared as different mixtures of sucrose and invert sugar. Invert sugar is used mainly by food manufacturers to retard the crystallization of sugar and to retain moisture in the packaged food. The particular invert sugar that is used is determined by the function – either retarding crystallization or retaining moisture.

* High-fructose corn syrups (HFCS)

HFCS are among the most widely used syrups in the food industry. These are manufactured through the enzymatic conversion of glucose in the corn syrup to fructose. Commercially available HFCS contain amounts of fructose ranging from 42% to 90%.

In the baking industry, the most widely used HFCS are those containing about 42% fructose.

* Natural liquid sweeteners

Natural liquid sweeteners include honey, maple syrup, molasses, malt and malt syrup, and maple and sorghum syrups. Honey resembles the HFCS and the different types are categorised according to colour and flavour obtained from the nectar source.


Canadian based Guelph Food Technology Centre’s director of research and technology, Dr. John Michaelides, wrote in an article on the use of sugars in baking, that concern is growing over the amount of sugar in our diet. “Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic ailments are becoming more predominant in developed and developing countries, and sugar contributes to these increases. Thus, attempts are being made to develop foods, including baked goods, using alternative low-calorie sweeteners.”  Dr Michaelides pointed out that in addition to artificial sweeteners; there is also a demand for baked goods made with more natural unrefined sugars. “Recent research indicates that unrefined sweeteners may contribute certain antioxidant health benefits to our diets.”

While there are many lower calorie replacements for sugar on the market, it remains an essential ingredient for the baking industry.