Black strap molasses seems to be the shining light for the sugar industry in an increasingly health-conscious world, where refined sugar is becoming demonized as being a major contributor to obesity.
Once a luxury, sugar is grown as a major crop in many tropical areas of the world, the Australian industry being developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by the use of indentured labour, often from the Pacific Islands. The practice of kidnapping workers was known as ‘blackbirding’ and the South Sea Islanders involved were known as ‘Kanakas’.
After the practice was abolished, some of these workers returned to their island homes but many remained to further develop the industry, which is now the third most important supplier of raw sugar in the world. The Australian sugar industry is highly efficient and has adopted a leading role in sustainable farming practices.
Sugar is a grass from the stems or canes of which sugar is extracted by mechanical crushing. Until fairly recent decades sugar was cut by hand after first being burned to remove much of the dead grass, a romantic but back-breaking occupation. 'Trash' is still set fire to, after harvesting, in preparation for new plantings of cuttings.
Unfortunately, no organic sugar is grown in Australia – this, obviously, also applies to sugar by-products such as molasses, so if you live in Australia and wish to buy organic, know that it will be an imported product, with all the associated economic and ecological costs that practice involves.
During the refinement process, the extracted raw sugar is boiled until the sugar crystallizes. The residue from the first boiling is lightish in colour and is sold as golden syrup, which you may remember from your childhood. The second boiling produces a darker viscous residue, known as treacle, while the third is molasses. Black strap molasses is an ‘Americanisation’ of the British name for this nutritious product, used extensively for animals and, increasingly, as a superfood for humans.
Molasses is rich in nutrients, especially minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc and copper. It is less sweet than processed sugar crystals, having only 54% sucrose, half of which is glucose and half fructose.
The cellulose material discarded after the crushing of the sugar cane is called 'bagasse' and is used as a bio-fuel to power the sugar mill and also for paper-making. A waste product of the use of bagasse is 'mill mud' and ash, used as fertliser for new plantings and for domestic gardens. There is some concern about the indiscriminate use of this by-product because of possible chemical contamination.
Sugar cane juice is often on offer at local markets in Tropical Australia, usually being mechanically pressed ‘on the spot’ from lengths of sugar cane grown on the vendor’s sugar plantation.
It contains some nutritional properties such as calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium in its fresh, raw state and makes a refreshing drink, especially when combined with lime juice and fresh ginger. These benefits are notably absent once it has been refined and turned into sugar crystals.