Hi Home Ec 101,
Today as I was taking some Great Value sugar off the shelf at Walmart I was practically assaulted by a woman intent on convincing me that beet sugar is an evil, chemically-processed, imported product and the more expensive cane sugar is so much better, natural, healthy, and made in the USA. Now, honestly, we are talking about refined white sugar here so I’m pretty sure both natural and healthy have left the building. I managed to tell her that sugar beets are actually a local Minnesota crop and made my exit with my evil bag. But I have been wondering, are there advantages or disadvantages to one or the other? Incidentally, there is no information on the bag of Great Value Pure Sugar indicating where it is made or what the plant source is.
The sugar industry has been a source of debate for many years. In fact, it started after the War of 1812 -which if you didn’t know, lasted a bit longer than a year. To encourage the growth of sugar in Louisiana, the United States government imposed a steep tariff on imported sugar. This tax was put into effect to provide an artificial floor price for sugar grown in the US, as a means to try to make the industry profitable. So the American sugar industry has always had a lot of artificial support.
You’re right, when talking about refined sugar, nutrition pretty much needs to be taken out of the equation. The amount of sugar we consume should be in such small amounts that the nutrition of the ingredient itself doesn’t matter.
Sugar refining has been around a long time, since the seventh century at least.
Sugar beets are grown commercially in twelve states, as a summer crop in northern states like Michigan and Minnesota and as a winter crop in warmer climates like California. Sugar cane is only grown commercially in four states: Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Hawaii. Anecdotally, I see sugar cane grown by small farmers in South Carolina, but it isn’t on the grand scale of commercial production.
Chemically speaking table sugars refined from cane and beet sugar are quite similar, but there is a minute chemical difference that worries some cooks. Cane sugar may caramelize better than beet, but the difference may not be noticeable to most. (That doesn’t mean that highly skilled cooks and industry professionals wouldn’t notice the difference). The main source of contention seems to be the behavior of refined beet sugar in baking. I am not a professional baker, nor have I paid much attention to whether I have been purchasing beet or cane sugar, other than trying to reduce the amount I use overall.
The bigger discrepancy seems to be with brown sugar made from beets. Brown sugar made from beet sugar has molasses added to the refined white sugar. The molasses byproduct from beet sugar production is sold as an addition to animal feed and not used in food for human consumption. With cane sugar the brown sugar may be a less refined product as it a step in the production process.
There are also arguments about which sugar is more energy efficient to produce and arguments about which is more environmentally friendly.
So which sugar is better? I can’t give you a good answer, but I do know when I worked in the restaurant industry, we used Sugar in the Raw for our creme brulee to ensure it caramelized beautifully.
Just be aware that US labeling law does not require the origin of the sugar, whether cane or beet, to be noted on packaging. If you notice a difference in your baked goods that call for brown sugar, it could be that the company has switched to from one form to another as the production of beet sugar grows.