Friday, October 9, 2009

AFJ 2009: Sugar In and Around Baton Rouge

While some members of the Association of Food Journalists breakfasted on churros and brandy milk punch, it was a croissant dipped in honey for your blogger. It would not be the last time something sweet crossed her lips. Before we get down to the granular level of the information we received on sugar throughout the day, I have to moan aloud about the candied bacon that was laid across an incredible crab and roasted beet salad that was part of our Sugar Barons dinner at Houmas House in Darrow. Can life get any better than candied bacon? I think not. Each course of the dinner featured some sugary aspect in honor of the industry that built plantations like Houmas House.

We began the day on the bus from New Orleans to St. Gabriel, where parts of the old women's prison have been turned into a sugar research station run by LSU. On the trip over, Charley Richard (pictured in blue shirt), whose consulting firm serves the international sugar industry, shared some facts about the growth of the sugar industry in Louisiana. It's one of four states producing sugar cane in the U.S. with Florida, Texas and Hawaii rounding out the quartet. The can production accounts for 46 percent of the production in the country with the other 54 percent coming from sugar beets in more northern states. For more industry information, Richard recommended the American Sugar Alliance and the American Sugar Cane League. The latter represents the Louisiana cane growers.

We tromped into the cane fields to watch cane being cut by a combine. Joining us Kenneth Gravois (left), who is the resident director of the station. Gravois also showed up the pollination of cane crossings that are more resistant to cold and disease. Sugar cane is a tropical plant, and Louisiana is temperate so the harvest can be threatened by all kinds of weather.

We saw a short slide show reinforcing what we had seen outside while eating biscuits dipped in cane syrup. There was also raw cane to try. Simple rule: Chew but don't swallow.

We drove to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, which is the largest nutrition research center in the world. It's also part of LSU. George Bray, the founding director who is now the Tom Boyd professor of medicine. Bray shared a compendium of research on the effects of fructose on health, including the obesity epidemic, increased triglycerides, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The introduction of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener in 1967 has paralleled the rise in obesity. Bray also noted that sucrose, which most of us know as table sugar, is just as high in fructose as high fructose corn syrup. Some food manufacturers are replacing HFCS with sucrose since some of the buying public is avoiding HFCS. His conclusion? Eat only naturally occurring fructose, which is found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption has been tied to weight gain.

Then Dr. Catherine Champagne presented on "Sweeteners in Nutrition and Cooking." Her information offered a breakdown of the pros and cons of each of the sweeteners, including the sugar alcohols. The memorable health risks of sweeteners included aspartame's phenylalanine, which harmful to people living with Phenylketonuria (PKU). The product carries a warning label. Saccharine can cross the placenta, but there have been no studies on its effect on babies in utero.

Champagne also presented maximum daily amounts for each sweetener in a chart. She and Bray also offered their e-mail addresses to anyone needing further information.

Our final stop at LSU was the Rural Life Museum. After a sharecropper's lunch and a lecture by Chef John Folse (top of page, holding meat) on the history of cane production which had a questionable timeline and a stunningly benevolent view of sharecropping, the members looked around the museum. Highlights included the dogtrot house, the syrup house and seeing the boiling syrup strained. David J.W. Floyd, the director of the museum, explained the syrup making process, noting that the principles were similar to evaporative stills.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

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