The Price of Sweet

Within the first five pages of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s locavore memoir, Plenty, there’s a rueful exchange about what the authors will do without sugar where they unconvincingly telling each other they’ll just use honey.  Though we’re not planning to cut ourselves off from sugar altogether, we’re confronting a similar dilemma about finding an affordable local alternative for more of our sweetening needs.

At a trip today to our local organic market, we picked up  some of the local maple syrup that they sell in bulk.  We weren’t under any illusions that maple was going to be anywhere as cheap as sugar, but ideally being able to skip the packaging might bring the price down somewhat.

We ended up with a majestic quarter milk bottle of Grade B for a little under $6.

mapleThe bulk syrup was selling for $11.25/lb, which sort of seemed like a lot, but is actually considerably cheaper than the cost for a small bottle from Crown Maple, the area’s most high-profile syrup producer.  They sell a 375mL bottle for $17, which comes out to about $15.20/lb.   Crown also sells syrup by the gallon for $95, which comes out to $8.41/lb. – a clear winner in the price department, assuming you’re willing and able to shell out $95 for maple syrup.

But then what does a pound of sugar cost?  We often get a 4lb. bag for between $3 and $4, so that’s about $0.87/lb.  I’ve read in some places that when using maple as a replacement for sugar, you cut the amount by 25% (you supposedly get a less sweet recipe, but with a richer flavor), but even if you get more bang for your buck with each ounce, that still leaves you paying at least seven times as much for local maple.

Depending on how much baking or jam-making we’re doing, we can go through a 4lb. bag of sugar in a month.  Assuming for the moment that maple can always be an appropriate substitute for sugar we would potentially be spending $302 each year on maple syrup instead of $42 on sugar.  While the extra $260 a year wouldn’t be the end of the world in and of itself, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea to increase our food budget so much just for sweetener.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find a compromise.  For example:

  • We aim to cut our sugar purchasing in half (no more than one 4lb. bag every two months)
  • We buy a gallon of maple syrup to get the better price and use that in place of sugar whenever we can (and also honey, which is produced by several local farms and seems to sell for $6-7/lb)
  • To avoid breaking the bank we just use less sweetener in our food, we use less sweetener overall.  We probably need to set a clear budget for this to actually make it work.  Could we make it through the year with only one gallon of maple, five pounds of honey, and eight pounds of sugar ($132 total)?  That budget would halve our annual sweetener use from 48 pounds to 24 while more than tripling our current sugar spending estimate.

This is one of the no doubt many situations where the “easy” solution to buying local is going to mean paying more.  Those dollars will support a better kind of economic system and often mean buying better quality stuff, but it won’t be sustainable for our household budget to just keep taking on increases in our living expenses.  We’ll have to find the right mix of strategies that allow us to save money by buying local (like our CSA) and ways that we can just buy less stuff to offset the places where local products are going to cost us more.

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6 Responses to The Price of Sweet

  1. Katharine says:

    I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the new cookbook “Baking with Less Sugar” by Joanne Chang. Her Flour bakeries in Boston are amazing, so she knows her stuff. Here’s some info:

    • tina says:

      Ohhh that cookbook looks pretty awesome! Thanks for the input. As more of the baker in the household, I’m trying to wrap my head around doing this project and baking. I appreciate all the tips and comments!

  2. Kathleen says:

    If your experiences are anything like mine, you’ll find your usage gradually decreases as you use more natural sweeteners. With the exception of preserves and some baked goods, my family found that sugar (even organic “raw” sugar) started to be a bit overwhelming in comparison to honey and sorghum (we’re too far south for maple to be local for us).

    I started with deliberate substitution and deliberate reduction, but as the tastebuds get used to the changes, they’ll need less sweetener to taste the sweetness.

  3. Theresa says:

    have you thought about growing (or using locally grown) stevia?

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