I’m standing in my local grocery store, staring at a rainbow of sweet flavors. Bright in its pink-and-white bag is that old standby, C&H Pure Cane Sugar. It’s priced a little higher than the store’s house brand, but is it really any different? Light glints off the clear plastic bags encasing a range of brown sugars, from light to dark. The Sucanat, an unrefined cane sugar, appears coarse and brown, but my nutritionist recommends it for its extra nutrients. There’s also the exotic-looking demerara, with its chunky brown crystals; my mother-in-law loves it for its rich flavor.
Does the color brown connote a healthier choice? If the sugar is imported or organic, does it taste better? And how would my sugar cookies look and taste if I made them with a raw sugar instead of a refined white sugar?
It doesn’t take much digging to learn that sugar is basically sugar, no matter what it’s called. Refined sugars are really just plain sucrose, with no vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, or fiber. As nutritionist Marion Nestle points out in her book What to Eat, sucrose is just one type of caloric sweetener, this time “composed of two single sugars (monosaccharides), one of them glucose (blood sugar) and the other fructose (fruit sugar).” Raw sugars, such as Sucanat or muscovado, contain minerals in addition to the sucrose; some varieties even contain iron, calcium, and vitamins.
“Because they still have some nutrients intact, [raw sugars are] not as shocking or stimulating to our system,” says Seattle-area nutritionist Ami Karnosh. “They tend to be better for our bodies.” Eat sugar alongside other nutrients, Karnosh recommends. “That’s not to say an oatmeal cookie will save you from a sugar rush, but it’s a healthier alternative to one without oatmeal,” she says.
But, Karnosh adds, take a closer look at the various colors, textures, and flavors of sugar, because they matter in the kitchen. Refined white sugar, for example, lacks scent or strong flavor, but pastry chefs swear by its cooking properties. Raw sugar, on the other hand, always carries the aroma of the place it was grown; this complexity can make a dessert shine or add flavor to a cup of coffee.
Sugars differ in both production and processing. Here’s a primer explaining most of the sugars on the shelf.
Refined white sugar, also called standard granulated sugar and table sugar, is far removed from its original source. It’s usually made from sugar cane, a tall, grass-like stalk that resembles bamboo cane and grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Most commercially produced refined sugar comes from plantations in Latin America, East Asia, the Caribbean, and from large commercial cane operations in the United States. (Table sugar is also made from sugar beets, which are grown in more temperate areas of North America and Europe.)
Sugar cane is usually crushed to extract its juices within 24 hours of harvesting. The resulting liquid is filtered to remove impurities, then heated to concentrate it and supersaturate the sugar content. This is when sugar crystals form. Then the sugar is spun in a turbine, separating out much (but not all) of the cane’s natural molasses. (Molasses is a syrupy by-product of processing sugar cane or sugar beets.) In organic milling, crystals are then packaged and sent to markets.
In conventional production, the raw sugar is then shipped to a refinery in the U.S. “The raw crystals are liquefied, crystallized, bleached, and decolorized. Then the process is repeated again and again,” says Karen Stevenson, the marketing communications manager for Wholesome Sweeteners, a supplier and manufacturer of organic, natural, and fair-trade-certified sugars, syrups, and nectars based in Sugarland, Texas. “The refining process completely removes any remaining molasses from the sugar.”
The cultivation of conventional sugar cane can be rough on the environment. In conventional sugar operations, cane is grown with the aid of numerous fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants. If defoliants aren’t used, the fields are burned to rid the cane of debris; the burning pollutes the air and destroys wildlife habitat. Next, harvesting machines slice the cane from the fields. (In Wholesome Sweeteners’ cane fields, however, the cane is hand-cut with machetes. The leaves are trimmed from the cane stalks and left to decompose naturally in the fields, restoring nutrients to the soil, reducing erosion, and preventing weed growth.)
Working conditions in some sugar fields might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. For example, the 2006 television documentary “Big Sugar” showed viewers the shantytowns occupied by Haitian sugar-cane workers working on the Central Romana plantation in the Dominican Republic. Earning $2 for 12 hours of work, the workers struggled to buy food at the company store and received little medical attention. According to Mark Ellam, the video journalist who visited the shantytowns, “What I saw was straight out of a book before the Industrial Revolution.”
But there’s a bright side to modern sugar production: The byproducts of the sugar-cane plant can help create electricity. “When the cane is crushed, what is left over is a very fibrous, pulpy mix called bagasse. When it is dried, it makes a really effective fuel,” says Wholesome Sweeteners’ Stevenson. Wholesome Sweeteners uses bagasse to run its sugar turbines. And Florida Crystals’ renewable-energy power plant in western Palm Beach County, Florida, uses bagasse and urban wood waste to provide power for its Okeelanta facility’s milling and refinery operations as well as almost 60,000 homes.
Both the organic and conventional sugars generally taste and smell the same and share the same cooking properties, says Steve Clarke, the director of industrial research and development for Florida Crystals, although the organic product still contains a bit of molasses and has a light brown color.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs
Clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops
How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems