A sweet passion
President: Alessandro AMBROSOLI - G. B. AMBROSOLI S.p.A. Secretary: Alessia Fiano
Originally used by pharmacists to sweeten the bitter taste of potions, sugar is the basic ingredient of an infinite variety of confectionery products: candies and pastilles (hard, soft, filled and gummy candies, fruit jellies, marron glacés, nougat, confetti). Today many producers have introduced new lines of products to their traditional products, replacing sugar with reduced calorie sweeteners. The various types of candies can basically be grouped into three categories, distinguished not only by the different composition of the recipes, but also by specific processing procedures: Hard/filled candies, Soft candies, Fruit drops-jellies gummy candies. In addition to candies, the confectionery sector also produces liquorice, chewing-gum, marron glacés, nougat (torrone) and confetti.
THE MARKET BY NUMBERS
In 2020, Italy produced 102,698 tons of confectionery products worth over 1 billion euros. Confirming the traditional export vocation of the sector, the Italian confectionery manufacturers have exported over 44,000 tons of products for a value of 172.6 million euros in the last year. As regards the domestic consumption, the latest data describe an annual per capita consumption of about 1.6 kg.
It all started with sugar
To write about the history of confectionery, it is necessary to start with the history of sugar. The Greeks and Romans used honey to sweeten their food, but it seems that they already knew of the existence of sugar cane, which at the time was grown in the Indus valley. In the first century AD, the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote about the cultivation of sugar cane on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and it seems that in around the 5th century the Persians were the first to make extensive use of it.
Sugar cane came to Europe with the Arabs
Sugar was introduced into the Western World by the Arabs, who first planted sugar cane crops in Sicily and Andalusia. Sugar was already being used in Cyprus and Crete when the two islands fell under Venetian rule: from that moment on, Venice became Europe’s largest supplier of sugar.
Delicious after-dinner digestive aids
Sugar was mainly used to make confectionery products: spices or dried fruits (cloves, ginger, coriander seeds, etc.) were dipped in a sugar syrup and cooked in large pans. The operation was repeated several times to create a thicker coating. These sweets were considered excellent digestive aids and it was a must to serve them at the end of a meal. They were such a success that throughout the Middle Ages it was customary for people to always carry a bag with them and have a supply in the bedroom. This is why they were called “Epices de Chambre”.
Venice, the candies capital
From the 15th century onwards, the Venetians were famous confectioners: their sugar decorations were masterpieces and they were offered to important people visiting the city. To curb this “ephemeral art”, the Venetian Senate issued a regulation to regulate the amount of sugar that each Master Confectioner was entitled to. During the same period, the first books on the art of confectionery were published in Venice, translated into all the main European languages, which met with immediate success in Europe, especially in France.
From cane sugar to beet sugar
Sugar only became widespread in Britain a century later, when the cultivation of sugar cane expanded into Guinea, Madeira and Brazil. From that moment on, Lisbon was the capital of the sugar trade. The production of cane sugar, which started in the 17th century, increased during the 18th century and reached its peak in the 19th. The confectionery industry specialised in numerous products and the world of bonbons expanded, especially in France. The sector's impressive growth was mainly due to the discovery of beet sugar which, by reducing costs, gradually led to today’s wide-spread diffusion of sugar.
French confectionery conquers the world
In the 19th century, France was the largest sugar producer in Europe. This gave vent to the creative imagination of French confectioners, who enriched the market with a myriad of sweet products that delighted both children and adults all over the world.
A brief history of chewing gum
The Ancient Greeks were the first to use latex, a substance extracted from rubber trees, but it was the Mayans who discovered “chicle”, the sap from the Sapodilla – a red fir tree native to Central-America – which they boiled and then chewed. In the 19th century, “chicle” was introduced into the United States by the Mexican General López de Santa Anna, who was looking for funds to finance the liberation of Mexico City. He then partnered with the inventor Thomas Adams to transform latex into a product suitable for chewing. It only turned into a true business after Santa Anna’s death, when Adams – together with some businessmen – founded the American Chicle Co. In 1890, a drugstore owner in Kentucky began selling chicle gum flavoured with balsam and coated with a sweet substance: chewing-gum was born. Within a few years it spread across the United States and then around the world, thanks to an experienced businessman called William Wrygly. Chewing gum arrived in Italy immediately after the Second World War, thanks to American soldiers. Cinema also contributed to making “American gum” fashionable: Marlon Brando was seen chewing it in the films “On the Waterfront” and “The Wild One”. Nowadays the gum base is made with synthetic resins and elastomers, which are colourless and tasteless, with the addition of food colourings, flavourings, sugar or sweeteners.
A brief history of nougat (torrone)
In his cookbook De re culinaria, Apicius describes a confection that could be a precursor to today’s nougat: it was made with honey, almonds and egg white. Among other things, the name torrone (the Italian word for nougat) derives from the Latin verb torrere (to toast), referring to the almonds used in the recipe. Some say that nougat could be of Arabic origin: there is evidence of a confection made with almonds, honey and sugar, with spicy aromas, being imported into Italy from the Middle East by the Venetians. This sweet product was famous and popular from the Middle Ages onwards: it was traditionally made at Christmas and for all important holidays. White nougat was also served as a delicacy at wedding banquets. The menu prepared for the wedding of Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti, which took place in Cremona in 1441, included a confection made of almonds, honey and egg white, in the shape of the city’s tower, known as Torrione. Cremonese tradition has it that the name “torrone” actually derives from the town’s Torrione, and indeed it is undeniable that the city of Cremona has always been famous for its nougat, which was sought-after throughout Italy. Up until the last century, nougat was made by bakers after they finished making the bread, and it was in fact a former baker’s boy called Secondo Vergani who, in 1881, opened the first nougat factory, thereby initiating modern industrial production. The creativity of nougat producers has over time resulted in infinite varieties of nougat: hard, soft, large, bite-size, mixed with chocolate. Asides from Cremona, several other towns are renowned for their nougat-making tradition, such as Alba, Mombercelli and Novi Ligure in Piedmont, Siena and Benevento, not to mention the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria. Sicilian nougat is also reputed as one of the finest.
A brief history of liquorice
As evidenced by ancient Chinese writings, liquorice has been used for its health benefits for thousands of years. Liquorice was in fact an important plant in Ancient Egypt, and the Greeks were also well aware of its therapeutic properties: antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, emollient, antitussive, antispasmodic, expectorant. The Scythians attributed thirst-quenching qualities to liquorice and in fact always carried it with them during long journeys across the desert. At the beginning of the 1300s, Palestro de Crescenzi wrote in his “De agriculture” treatise that “(...) anco la regolizia masticata e tenuta sotto la lingua mitiga la sete e l’asprezza della lingua e della gola” (Translation: “(...) and even liquorice, chewed and held under the tongue, soothes the thirst and sharpness of both our throat and tongue”). In Italy, liquorice has been around for millennia and is mainly harvested in Calabria. In 1715, factories were opened to process the roots of the plants that grew spontaneously on the plains in the province of Cosenza. Chronicles from the 19th century document a significant amount of liquorice being exported to France and England.
candies and Pastilles
A solution of sugar and glucose syrup is vacuum boiled until the water evaporates and the mixture becomes soft and compact. The ingredients that characterise the sweets are added during the cooling stage. They are then shaped, left to cool completely and finally packaged.
These are typical Italian candies and may contain honey, fruit syrups, coffee or liqueurs. They are processed in such a way as to prevent the sugar syrup from crystalizing. In this way, after adding the flavourings, the fillings remain soft and melts easily in the mouth.
Toffee was invented by a Parisian confectioner at the beginning of the twentieth century and, in addition to sugar, it also contains cream and vegetable fats. The ingredients are mixed and then extruded, after which the toffee is cut and left to cool, obtaining its traditional light to dark brown colour.
Gummy Candies are soft and chewy because they contain high percentages of gum, usually gum arabic, an exudate obtained from the bark of an Acacia tree that grows in Africa. The gum arabic is purified and added to a solution of glucose syrup and other sugars.
Pastilles are cold processed: icing sugar, gum tragacanth, gum arabic, flavourings and other characterising ingredients are mixed together. Once a smooth paste has been obtained, it is rolled out into a sheet. This is then shaped into the pastilles with a mould and they are left to set.
Soft and Hard Liquorice
To make soft liquorice, sugar and flour are added to the liquorice extract: the mixture is then processed and cut into long ribbons. To make chewy liquorice, the extract is mixed with sugar, glucose syrup and gum arabic. Pure liquorice cubes can be obtained simply by drying small pieces of the extract.
Liquorice is an herbaceous perennial that grows spontaneously in various Mediterranean countries. It’s scientific name ̶ Glycyrrhiza glabra ̶ means “sweet root”. The Italian regions of Calabria, Sicily and Abruzzo are well-known for their particularly high-quality liquorice. It comes in the form of pastilles, sticks, sugar-coated, to name but a few. It also has numerous medicinal properties and is used, for example, to treat coughs, hoarseness, ulcers of the stomach and duodenum.
A true symbol of America, chewing gum gained worldwide popularity through American GIs in WWII. It is generally produced in the shape of a ball, as sugar-coated tablets or in sticks. The gum base is mixed with food colourings and flavourings, depending on consumer tastes and the imagination of the producer. According to some psychologists, chewing gum relieves both physical and muscle tension, while in the opinion of many eminent doctors it also aids digestion. Finally, contrary to what is often said, chewing gum can also be beneficial to our teeth because it increases the flow of saliva, thereby promoting remineralization of tooth enamel.
The Italian chestnut, and in particular the Piedmont chestnut, has turned marron glacé into a luxury food product. It is believed that this confection was invented by Caterina de’ Medici. The Etruscans and Romans made extensive use of its floury pulp, as there was an abundance of chestnut trees in Tuscany and Lazio.
Soft and colourful fruit jellies were initially invented to preserve fresh fruit so that they could be eaten year-round. Fruit jellies can be made with any type of fruit, mixing the juice with a basic mixture of glucose syrup and other sugars, to which pectin is added. Pectin is a soluble fibre, usually obtained from fruit, which thickens sugary syrups.
The “classic” Italian nougat recipe is a delicate mixture of honey, almonds or hazelnuts, and egg white. Lemon or bitter almond extract is added to give the product it’s characteristic flavour. Other variations to the traditional recipe, created in different regions in Italy, include the addition of pistachios, chocolate, liqueur or candied fruit. Once a typical Christmas product, today it is available year- round, also thanks to practical bite-size portions, called torroncini.
The pride of the Italian confectionery industry, confetti are especially popular in the southern regions. The production of confetti began in Italy in the 15th century, at the Monastery of Santa Chiara in Sulmona: this is where the tradition of using confetti, threaded onto silk threads, to make wedding favours was born. Confetti are still offered on the occasion of family celebrations such as baptisms, communions, weddings and anniversaries. The best confettiare produced in Abruzzo, Campania and Sicily.
The production of candies is based on sugar’s solubility and its ability to recrystallize: the sugar solutions are boiled until they become concentrated and form a syrup (a supersaturated solution), which becomes a “glassy” solid when cooled. If the syrup is stirred during the cooling process, a mass of minute sugar crystals forms.
These are the two basic processes for making hard candies and filled candies. Sugar alone is not suitable for these recipes because its solubility at normal temperatures is not very high, therefore causing sugar crystals to form in the hard candies. This problem was solved by adding glucose syrup and/or invert sugar to the sugar, which increase its solubility in the syrup, thereby promoting the formation of micro sugar crystals in fondants and delaying the formation of granules in boiled sweets.
The various stages of the production process can be summarised as follows.
Hard candies/plain and filled
• Arrival and storage of the raw materials.
• The ingredients are measured and mixed, with particular attention to dissolving the sugar crystals.
• The mixture is cooked in vacuum steam cookers at 120 °C to 160 °C.
• The cooked paste is extracted and placed on a rolling machine to reduce the thickness and lower the temperature to about 70 °C.
• The paste is rolled into long ropes with a truncated-cone roller and then shaped to a uniform size. For filled candies, the filling is injected into the ropes before they are made uniform.
• The individual sweets are formed with moulding machines and finally they are cooled. • Packaging.
• Arrival and storage of raw materials.
• The ingredients are measured and mixed, with particular attention to dissolving the sugar crystals (higher water content and the presence of fat).
• The mixture is cooked at between 80 °C and 120 °C.
• The mixture is cooled on a chilled wheel.
• The paste is transferred to a pulling machine where it is stirred by mechanical arms to incorporate air and thereby obtaining a soft consistency.
• The paste is rolled into long ropes and then made uniform by a rope sizer machine. • The ropes are cut into individual sweets.
Fruit drops/jellies/gummy candies
• Arrival and storage of raw materials.
• The ingredients are measured and mixed (for these types of candies the dissolving process for the gelatine/ gum arabic is essential, and must be carried out at about 60 °C).
• The gelatinous solution is filtered and the other ingredients are added.
• The mixture is first cooked at between 70 °C and 100 °C, then at a constant temperature of about 50/60 °C to facilitate pouring.
• The mixture is poured into moulding trays previously coated with starch to facilitate removing the sweet candies.
• The candies are dried slowly at a low-temperature.
• Sugar-coating for fruit jellies: the trays of candies are moistened with steam, sprinkled with sugar and steamed again to set the sugar.
• Polishing (only for gum arabic-based gummy candies): the candies are sugar-coated, but without the trays being exposed to steam first; they are then sprayed with a sugar solution and finally polished with special rollers.
The properties of essences
Lozenges are a classic confectionery product: the essences or extracts in the filling release a refreshing, healthy aroma. Chewing gum has the same effect, as both the gum and the sugar coating can contain aromatic ingredients.
Peppermint – Refreshing and a digestive aid, it stimulates gastric and bile secretion. Eucalyptus - It has an antiseptic effect on the respiratory system, as well as antibacterial, antiviral, balsamic, expectorant and antipyretic (counteracts fever) properties. Eucalyptus extract is therefore recommended against respiratory infections, such as colds or bronchitis, and has a calming effect on coughs.
Citrus - Lemon essential oil has antiseptic properties useful for treating bronchitis and mouth infections. Furthermore, it has been shown to slow down the synthesis of endogenous cholesterol, which is produced by our body.
Anise - Green anise essential oil aids digestion and, at the same time, has an antiseptic and antispasmodic action on the intestine.
Pine - The scent of pine is associated with the essential oil extracted from the buds, considered by traditional medicine to be useful in treating inflammation in the respiratory tract.
The properties of liquorice
The therapeutic potential of liquorice derives from its numerous active ingredients, of which the most important is glycyrrhizin. The concentrated juice performs numerous functions: it protects the stomach (with anti-inflammatory and healing actions on the gastric and duodenal mucosa), strengthens the immune system (useful against chronic inflammation), regulates the balance of salt in the body and raises blood pressure when it is low. Liquorice in sweets and chewing gum also has an antibacterial action, stopping the development of microorganisms in dental caries.
In recent years, the production of sugar-free sweets and chewing gum has been the most interesting trend in the confectionery industry. Originally the idea was launched for dietary purposes, but it has since evolved into an active form of protecting teeth and gums. There has always been much research in this field, identifying substitute ingredients for sugar.
Fructose – This was the first alternative to sugar. It is produced industrially from sugar or flours, for example corn flour. Fructose provides the same calories as sucrose (4 per gramme), but it is sweeter: in fact, it is 1.7 times sweeter than sugar. Therefore, a smaller amount is needed to achieve the same sweetening effect as sucrose.
The family of polyols – The success of polyols is due to the fact that compared to dietary sugars they potentially cause less tooth decay. However, they can produce laxative effects if eaten in access. For this reason, there is a legal obligation for all products containing polyols to include the following words on the label: “Excess consumption may cause laxative effects”.
Maltitol – It derives from maltose and has a sweet taste that is similar to sugar. It is non-cariogenic and can also be consumed by diabetics. Particularly suitable for gummy candies, its energy value is about 2.4 kcal per gramme (compared to sugar’s 4 kcal/g).
Isomalt – It is crystal white and produced from sucrose. It provides about 2 kcal per gramme. Being less sweet than sugar, it is used in combination with intense sweeteners. It is non-cariogenic and suitable for diabetics. It is ideal for making hard sweets, confetti and sugar-coated chewing-gum.
Sorbitol - Occurring naturally in various fruits and berries, it is industrially produced from glucose. It has a low or no cariogenicity and its sweetening power is about 50% that of sucrose, providing 2.4 calories per gramme. It is used in combination with intense sweeteners.
Mannitol – This is also produced industrially from fructose. It has a lower sweetening power than sugar and provides only 1.6/2 kcal per gramme. It is also combined with intense sweeteners to increase the sweetness of the candy or chewing gum.
Xylitol – A low-calorie natural sweetener derived from plants, with the same sweetening power as sugar. The xylitol used in chewing-gum is not fermented by bacteria in the oral cavity and therefore stops the formation of acids that corrode tooth enamel. It is also antibacterial, as it inhibits the growth of Streptococcus Mutans, the microorganism responsible for the formation of dental caries.
The positive effects on teeth
While sugar-free sweets guarantee a lower calorie intake and do not stick to the teeth, “sugar-free” chewing gums offer additional benefits. Chewing gum after meals and snacks helps keep the teeth clean when it is not possible to use a toothbrush. Chewing in fact stimulates salivation, which has a cleansing action and helps remove food residue, as does the mechanical action of the gum.
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