Molasses, Unsung Hero

January 18, 2010

As far as superfoods go, molasses is about as sexy as your grandfather. It isn't exotic like açaí, full of trendy Omega 3's like flax seed or fish oil, or I-can't-believe-it's-good-for-me decadent like red wine or dark chocolate.

Still, molasses is a nutritional powerhouse. A tablespoon of blackstrap molasses meets 10% of daily potassium requirements and 20% of calcium, iron and vitamin A requirements. This is particularly significant if you don't eat much (or any) dairy or red meat; blackstrap molasses can help vegetarians and vegans avoid anemia and calcium deficiency.

What is molasses?

One of the least sweet natural sweeteners, molasses is a byproduct of sugar processing. Juice extracted from sugar cane is boiled to crystallize the sugar. The sugar is removed, and what's left is a thick syrup called mild molasses. Repeat the process and the remaining syrup is called second molasses. Blackstrap molasses is what remains after this boiling has be done three times; it is the most nutritionally-dense variety of molasses, since it is the most concentrated.


Molasses has a fascinating history in the United States. It was originally exported from the West Indies to the US for production of rum, such a lucrative trade that the British levied steep taxes with the largely-ignored Molasses Act of 1733, later softened in 1764 in hopes that more would comply.

It was the sweetening agent of choice for Americans for most of the 19th century because refined sugar was too expensive. As prices on white sugar fell after WWI, so did molasses' popularity, but it remained a common ingredient in distilled alcohol. On January 15, 1919, a molasses storage tank at Boston's Purity Distilling Company burst, sending a fatal wall of molasses through the streets; 21 people died, and 150 were injured in the disaster. As prohibition took effect in 1920, molasses became synonymous with bootlegging.


Today, molasses rears its head around Christmas as an ingredient in gingerbread, then retreats into the shadows for the remainder of the year. Still, it's easy to work molasses into your diet. I stir a tablespoon into my morning oatmeal and sprinkle a pinch each of ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon for a spicy morning indulgence. Enjoy it in cakes, cookies, donuts, and sauces.

When buying molasses, look for unsulphured varieties. Sulphur dioxide is added as a preservative when processing young sugar cane; molasses made from mature sugar cane does not require this treatment. Sulphur muddies the flavor and can be irritating to some people.

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