Beet Sugar v. Cane Sugar August 2010

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.

Sweetly,
Sugarmama

Heather says:

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.

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Comments

  1. So, to sum it all up there is not a big difference. I have always wondered about the two as I stood in front of the bags of sugar on the baking isle. Thanks for the clarification.

    • That was my takeaway. However, people whose livelihoods are dependent on the perception of whether or not those differences matter are naturally going to focus on them.

    • I found this very interesting while studing High FruitosecCorn syrup for Honey bees

    • Sandra Sunley says:

      There is no clarification here at all, just a lot of I dont knows. The major difference is that beet sugar crops are genetically modified organisms. I dont personally want to eat that garbage, carmelized or not.

  2. sugar beets are also a big crop in alberta. i've never thought there was any significant difference between beet and cane sugar

  3. When my daughter took a cake decorating class, she was instructed to make sure she got powdered sugar made from cane not sugar beets. Supposedly the icing comes out with a slightly different texture which doesn't work quite as well.

    Not being any sort of a baker myself, I can neither confirm nor deny.

    • I have a feeling most of us will fall into the same category as you, unable to tell the difference. Then of course there will be a few people who can tell the difference and another few people who will either fool themselves into thinking they can or want to believe they can.
      Have you ever watched Malcolm Gladwell's TED talk? It's fascinating. What we think we like (or perceive) we like may not be actually what we have convinced ourselves we like.

  4. I think the anti-beet sugar probably came from the fact that sugarbeets are genetically modified organisms – GMOs – implanted with the Roundup ready gene. GMO sugarcane is available but was a huge marketing flop (though last year Brazil started planting GMO sugarcane on a trial basis)

    Interesting you posted this today – have you seen this? A judge ordered farmers to stop planting GMO sugar beets because the genes could harm the environment and there needs ot be an environmental study done. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704

    FWIW, Imperial Sugar (and Dixie Crystals, a subsidiary) use non-GMO sugar cane if you are trying to avoid GMOs like I am.

    • I didn't bring up the genetically modified portion because I couldn't find anything definitive on sugar cane and if I mentioned the beets being genetically modified and it turned that that most of sugar cane was, too it would have been unfairly biased.

    • Thanks for the link!

    • And like most anything else, you can buy organic beet sugar that is not made from GMO beets.

      We have a family in our (small) church congregation in which the mom, 4 of 6 kids and 3 of 5 grandkids are allergic to cane sugar. In doing my research for potlucks, I've found that many people who have reactions to cane sugar are able to handle beet sugar, as is the case with this family. And you'll find plenty of sources out there that say it's impossible to be allergic to sugar – I'm sure they'd all love it if that were the case, but the migraine headaches and the eczema and scaling skin they develop after eating something that wasn't clearly labeled is proof enough for me.

      • I miss frosting says:

        Where do you purchase organic beet sugar? Have you found it in powdered form? I have only found it on an Austrian site so far and would prefer to buy US grown if it exists.

        • You can run granulated sugar in your food processor to make confectioners, which should suit your needs perfectly. (I'm not a baker, I got that tip from @madatmama) Good luck

        • I buy NOW brand organic beet sugar – I'm not sure if they have a powdered version.

          • I just bought an Organic Beet sugar today. Does it taste like cane sugar? I am planning on doing some baking with it.

    • Andrea Hana says:

      Thanks for the info!

  5. AFAIK, Roundup Ready sugarcane is still in field trials. Here's one link, there are lots of others but they are dense and boring. http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=589
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_
    http://www.financialexpress.com/news/GM-sugarcane

  6. I'm with Milehimama…beet sugar is almost all, if not all, GMO. I use Sugar in the Raw and Imperial only for baked goods. I can very clearly taste the difference between beet sugar and cane sugar, and I don't like beet sugar. For beverage sweetening, I use agave nectar and stevia (which I grow). I used to use honey, but it tastes weird since the bees started getting sick, so I'm leery of it. I got one little jar of local honey that seems OK, and am rationing it.

  7. Aha! Now I understand why you can’t buy molasses here – it’s because Denmark is a beet sugar country. Whenever I asked people insisted that “melasse” is pig food. It never occurred to me that it’s because of a different sugar crop. And that explains why their Brown sugar is so weird. Much has been made clear!

  8. I just realized that we forgot to mention maple sugar, which is expensive, but excellent. And no GMOs, either.

  9. There is another aspect to the great sugar debate. If you are a baker and have inconsistent results, it could be because of the sugar you are using. The root of the sugar beet plant is used to produce beet sugar. Sugar cane is a grass and is grown above ground. This may seem inconsequential, but there is no way to completely remove the impurities that are present in beet sugar. No matter how well they wash the beet roots, minuscule impurities remain. Those impurities can wreak havoc in baking. Cane sugar is by nature a "cleaner" product. There are flavor differences as well, but they can be hard to detect unless you taste them side-by-side. If you want consistent results in baking, always use cane sugar.

    An interesting footnote to the brown sugar discussion … because molasses from beet sugar is not fit for human consumption, and is thus removed completely during the refining process, it has to be added back to make brown beet sugar. They use cane molasses to coat the beet sugar granules! For additional information, there is an excellent article written by Carolyn Weil, a highly respected baker and cookbook author, discussing this issue: http://articles.sfgate.com/1999-03-31/food/176834

    • Jane,
      I read that article while researching this post.
      I also read an statement by the culinary institute stating that there was no difference. Now the second may have been funded by a board of beet growers. So, I took the second one with a grain of salt and phrased the post the way I did. "There are minute chemical differences that are worrisome to some cooks." :)

      • Your research was evident! There was a fascinating discussion about sugar at one of the Baker's Dozen meetings in San Francisco. In that room of extremely talented and experienced bakers, the consensus was definitely use cane sugar. I tend to believe them, :o)

  10. The information here is interesting, thank you for bringing the topic up. I personally pay for cane sugar because after living near beet processing plants for a while, I can taste and smell the beet sugar stench in the white sugar itself. And I do notice a big difference in the brown sugar taste.

    I didn't notice much difference before I lived there, just a slight impression that C&H was nicer. I don't bake enough to notice a difference there, other than preferring the taste of brown cane sugar. I read about the adding molasses back in years ago, and did a taste test that convinced me of what I like.

    Food, economics, chemistry, etc. This is an interesting entryway into a lot of potential research.

  11. A question from a non-baker (but someone's who's had just enough chemistry to be dangerous): if you're buying refined, granulated sucrose sugar, you are buying the molecule C 12 H 22 O 11. Isn't it then by definition the same, totally identical, whether it comes from beets, sugarcane, or whatever source?

    Dan
    Casual Kitchen

    • Dan, that was my first thought, too. I think what it comes down to are the residual, trace chemicals (and I don't mean the scary kind) left behind after processing. I don't believe (I could be wrong) that what we buy as table sugar is as pure as the lab grade sucrose we played with back in Chemistry. There are probably byproducts, which aren't necessarily a bad thing, that affect the properties of sugar when heated.

      I believe in the resource article it mentioned a small percentage of difference, chemically speaking, between the two. It must be this that causes the issues. Amateur cooks may not notice, but people who spend their livelihoods working with sugar products may notice the subtle differences.

  12. The chocolate-shop owner told me that beet sugar candies would not spike my diabetic sugar levels like cane sugar does, so I'm trying to research her comment. If it's that the miniscule difference between these two would help us, why havent i found it so far in the diabetic stuff I now have to learn about. And how to know if something I buy is cane or beet, would be important for labels for diabetic foods __

    • Unfortunately she is mistaken. Beet and cane sugar should both be treated as table sugar (that's what they are) in a person's diet.
      As a diabetic you need to be especially careful.
      Check with your insurance policy to see if nutrition counseling is covered, if so take advantage of the benefit.

  13. It makes a huge difference to me if sugar is from cane or beets, because I'm allergic to cane sugar but not beet. I have a lot of other allergies, too, so have to make my baked goods myself, and I go out of my way to buy sugar that is specifically labeled as beet sugar. I wouldn't call it a health food by any means, but a little of it satisfies the cravings and I'm sure it's not as bad as the HFCS that's ubiquitous in so many processed foods.

    • I am also allergic to sugar cane and have been using beet sugar as my sweetener. My question is, does your body process the sugars the same.

  14. There is also a difference to some vegetarians, as cane sugar may be refined using bone char, whereas beet sugar is not. http://www.sucrose.com/bonechar.html

    • I am glad you noted this, as I recently found out from PETA about the bone char issues, and am in search of non GMO (pref. OG) beet sugar.

    • Jessica Rhind says:

      Yuck. Just use honey, maple syrup, agave nectar or stevia if your vegetarian (nix the honey if vegan).
      Sugar is the devil so hate to say it you probably shouldn’t be caring what cooks say about one sugar or the other. If they’re using it is such large quantities that they can tell the difference IT IS NOT GOOD FOR YOU TO EAT. Period.

      Good luck with that mission. It’s tough.

  15. We found out a few months ago that my son is intolerant to beet sugar, but is fine with cane sugar and his behaviour improved radically after it was removed from his diet. Further research has highlighted that a lot of children with ADHD can have a similar change in behaviour when beet sugar is removed from their diet so am 100% that there is a difference in the make up of cane and beet.

    This aside, in trying to research suppliers of cane sugar only foods, a number of them have said that cane is superior for boiled sweets, creme brulees, puddings and general cooking and generally tastes better. My aunt is a master baker and won't use beet sugar for her cakes or desserts at all. Interesting!

    • Roseanne says:

      Hello – I know this is an older post…but I am researching beet sugar allergies. My 17 yr old son has a severe allergy to beet juice and we are going to test him for beet sugar…I have been researching for some time and have found this is extremely rare. If you get this, I would be so appreciative for an email with any info you had. How old is your son? Thank you. Roseanne

  16. Ladies, First of all…U need to watch some documentaries to get educated: the Wal-Mart one….They discriminate against women & minorities…Abuse workers overseas…put mom & pop stores out of business…have security cameras outside their stores as a non-union data collector & NOT for the protection of their customers. Also, watch FOOD INC. Monsanto drains farmers of their life savings…also did U know that 88% of the cotton is genetically modified & that when sheep eat these plants they die….They non tlaked the government into making RoundUp Ready Alfalfa…Hay doesn’t even really require pesticides/herbicides…So Ur eating RoundUp in any burger that doesn;t come from organic or grass fed cows….GMO fed lab rats develope brain tumors & holes in their dendrites….R U sure U really want to eat GMOs…Not me…I’m boycotting!! Aspartame….bad news….Do Ur homework ladies!!!

  17. Ladies, First of all…U need to watch some documentaries to get educated: the Wal-Mart one….They discriminate against women & minorities…Abuse workers overseas…put mom & pop stores out of business…have security cameras outside their stores as a non-union data collector & NOT for the protection of their customers. Also, watch FOOD INC. Monsanto drains farmers of their life savings…also did U know that 88% of the cotton is genetically modified & that when sheep eat these plants they die….They now talked the government into making RoundUp Ready Alfalfa…Hay doesn’t even really require pesticides/herbicides to grow!!!…So Ur eating RoundUp in any burger that doesn;t come from organic or grass fed cows….GMO fed lab rats develope brain tumors & holes in their dendrites….R U sure U really want to eat GMOs…Not me…I’m boycotting!! Aspartame….bad news….Do Ur homework ladies!!!

  18. Sounds to me like we all need to just "say no to sugar" in any form. We have spent too much time looking for the easy way to do things that our food supply is "nutrition-free". Are there really any seeds out there that are pure and free from man's tainting hands/minds?

  19. mommainternet says:

    http://www.iherb.com sells Now brand beet sugar which is made from non-GMO sugar beets.

  20. KarenBooream says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHfI9jltIeA&feature=share

    I believe the woman who accosted you was talking about how involved Monsanto is in sugar production, and how buying sugar supports Monsanto, which people see as pure evil. Seeing as how they are the producers of Agent Orange, BGH, Round Up and Round Up ready crops, I’d have to agree with her.

  21. spenghali says:

    Oh the irony of that women ranting to you as she is shopping at WALMART. 

  22. cane molasses is mixed with beet sugar to make brown sugar from the western sugar coop not beet molasses

  23. california girl says:

    After reading this thread I just have to laugh because Obama is a big supporter of Monsanto and I be when this was written many of you were obama supporters. Well…now you know. Stop voting for socialists/fascists who want to control the world. The combination of a socialist/fascist is a communist. And that is obama.

  24. rickcostel says:

    Alas Heather, you have been left in the dark. The word of the day is GMO: ALL commercial grade beet sugars are Genetically mutated.
     
    Currently GM cane sugar isn’t commercially produced- rendering it the popular choice among nutritionists.  “Genetically modified sugar cane is regarded so badly by consumers at the present time that it could not be marketed successfully.” http://www.disabled-world.com/fitness/gm-foods.php#ixzz1zoUcapNg

  25. rickcostel says:

    The problem is not “who we vote for” but the election process itself.
    All the shenanigans in the GOP and their influence on the mainstream media have left us with a clueless rich puppet for Goldman Sachs as our republican nominee.
    If things were honest in the GOP, we would have Ron Paul as our nominee an ultimately our president. Polls show Dr. Paul to have the highest electability, but they stole his win in Iowa and killed his momentum on the campaign and the media blacked him out.
     

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  27. CorenneStewart says:

    There is convincing evidence that GMO foods can be directly linked to autism, ADHD, MS, allergies, and other human health concerns. Beet sugar is GMO; cane sugar, thus far, is not. Your son’s behavior changing when you eliminated beet sugar makes perfect sense and has been documented numerously in experiments and reports by laypeople regarding children and also animals exposed to GMO soy, corn and beet sugar. Say no to GMO and, yes, Obama has been quite a disappointment for many of us liberal thinkers. 

  28. I have a cane sugar intollerance/allergy/sensitivity :( and got into a debate about how I am allow honey, beet sugar, maple etc. but just have to avoid things like… cane, sucrolose, glucose etc. I was saying its hard to stay away from cane sugar allergy it is in everything in many different wordings… the lady then tells me honey is made with cane sugar but they dont put it on the label… and that beet sugar is no different then cane… wow!! I couldnt believe how upset she got when I tried to explain there are different types of honey but also I can digest beet much easier then cane… she just wouldnt believe me lol …. so here I’m researching.. thanks for all the comments it really helps to see that I am not the only one :( …..

  29. If I am going to take the time to bake then I am only going to use the very best ingredients i.e. Pure Organic Cane Sugar

  30. Jason Peterson says:

    “Thou mayest freely eat but” is a commandment of God in the garden of Eden (But is the original name of Beet), later on after man was driven from the garden of eden then “Eve bare cain, a tiller of the ground”. Yet God put a curse on the ground because of man and womans involvement with the snake and that they were ashamed they were naked after eating fruit. So man was driven from the garden to till the ground from whence he was taken. Then Cain came along. So its no wonder that Man is addicted to Cain since he is tilling from the same ground. Now the reason the Lord had no respect unto Cain was beacuse the Lord did not like Cains fruit of the ground, not because of Cain in general. The big question is whether is there is much difference between Cane sugar and Beet sugar? One is phallic and the other pertains to other cures of the body.

  31. I am diebetic which sugar spikes my glucose least? Thanks

  32. The San Francisco Chronicle did extensive testing comparing the results of the two sugars. The differences were most notable among brown sugars, but there were notable differences in taste tests with all sugars, and cane sugar always won. If you seldom bake or don’t care that much how your cakes, etc. turn out, it probably doesn’t matter. If you take your baking seriously, it’s a good idea to say “no” to beet sugar. You may add whatever political or religious arguments you wish, but this is the bottom line, based only on efficacy.

  33. Anneke Vandam says:

    Wow. This site has an incredible amount of information and misinformation. I hope that people are not using the scientific or agricutltural information posted as formal sources because much of it is innaccurate. Now, to get this back to a reasonable conversation… I was looking for postings on the differences in powdered sugar. I am American born and now living in Europe so I have baked with many different sugars. I have noticed that making American ‘bakery style’ frosting is more difficult in Europe. We use Crisco here and I make my own butter (dairy farmers wife) so the only difference is the sugar. In Europe, sugar is from sugar beets (and it’s all non-GMO as that is not allowed here), but it seems to have less texture. The volume to weight ratio is the same. The American (Domino) sugar has less ‘dust’ when agitated. I read that there are small amounts of cornstarch in the US version so I add a teaspoon to each recipe and that helped. Has anyone else had this experience of less stiff ‘bakery style’ frosting as a result of sugar beet based powdered sugar?

    • i think 3% cornstarch is in powdered sugar. in Russia my sister in law beats SUGAR to death with a mixer and makes frosting. powdered sugar is almost not available. (a packet of 2-5 grams for decorating- about a spoon full!! for 50cents)

  34. it seems to me, sugar really gets a bad rap. we eat it indiscriminately, and in large volumes. people always have. obesity has lately ballooned as a problem. whether sugar is to blame or unhealthy (live in the A/C and NEVER exert oneself) lifestyles are the culprit (i’d HAVE to choose the latter) has never clearly stated. but considering (at least since 1812…,) hundreds of years of sugar consumption never hurt anyone who is healthy, and sucralose, aspartame, and all the OTHER (some banned in USA, still available in Europe) fake sweetners have becopme no longer diabetic’s substitutes, but mainstream sweetners… i’d have to blame something other than sugar.

  35. it seems to me, sugar really gets a bad rap. we eat it indiscriminately, and in large volumes. people always have. obesity has lately ballooned as a problem. whether sugar is to blame or unhealthy (live in the A/C and NEVER exert oneself) lifestyles are the culprit (i’d HAVE to choose the latter) has never clearly stated. but considering (at least since 1812…,) hundreds of years of sugar consumption never hurt anyone who is healthy, and sucralose, aspartame, and all the OTHER (some banned in USA, still available in Europe) fake sweetners have becopme no longer diabetic’s substitutes, but mainstream sweetners… i’d have to blame something other than sugar.

  36. it seems to me, sugar really gets a bad rap. we eat it indiscriminately, and in large volumes. people always have. obesity has lately ballooned as a problem. whether sugar is to blame or unhealthy (live in the A/C and NEVER exert oneself) lifestyles are the culprit (i’d HAVE to choose the latter) has never clearly stated. but considering (at least since 1812…,) hundreds of years of sugar consumption never hurt anyone who is healthy, and sucralose, aspartame, and all the OTHER (some banned in USA, still available in Europe) fake sweetners have becopme no longer diabetic’s substitutes, but mainstream sweetners… i’d have to blame something other than sugar.

  37. it seems to me, sugar really gets a bad rap. we eat it indiscriminately, and in large volumes. people always have. obesity has lately ballooned as a problem. whether sugar is to blame or unhealthy (live in the A/C and NEVER exert oneself) lifestyles are the culprit (i’d HAVE to choose the latter) has never clearly stated. but considering (at least since 1812…,) hundreds of years of sugar consumption never hurt anyone who is healthy, and sucralose, aspartame, and all the OTHER (some banned in USA, still available in Europe) fake sweetners have becopme no longer diabetic’s substitutes, but mainstream sweetners… i’d have to blame something other than sugar.

  38. A family member was just diagnosed with AS and he found out he is severly allergic to beet sugar. How do you know for sure it is not in products, if it is not required by FDA to list it? Would sugar cane be okay to have if allergic to beet sugar?

  39. I recently made a batch of cupcakes for my daughters girl scouts and they all said the icing was disgusting… I was shocked cuz they all normally love the snacks I take in… Once I got home I drove myself crazy trying to figure out what happened and remembered reading something about cane vs beet sugar a few months back so I compaired my sugar I had left from my last bag with what was left this time and I really noticed a difference in taste when just tasting the sugar straight… From now on I’ll be sticking with Domino’s pure cane powdered sugar… I can’t have sad girl scouts running around :-)

  40. I beg to differ with the comment about hundreds of years of sugar consumption not doing anyone any harm. I am old enough to remember the mid 1950′s. We did not eat sweets nearly as often as people do now. We weren’t allowed. Desserts were for special occasions, and the portions were far smaller. Ice cream was an occasional indulgence, and one very small bottle of soda (less than 8 oz.) was consumed in a WEEK. Candy was in a covered dish, and eaten sparingly. Even the bags of M&Ms were tiny, and the candy bars miniscule by today’s standards, and we indulged in one of those maybe once a month. My mother’s generation was depression-era and WWII frugal, and she only got soda when she was sick. It was used to dilute the castor oil she was dosed with. If you bother to look at stastics that have been compiled of how per capita sugar consumption has increased over time, you will see that we are grossly overconsuming sugar when compared to our ancestors. No wonder we are developing record numbers of diseases that unbridled sugar consumption can cause (diabetes, esp.). Younger people are often quick to shoot off their mouths with ill-informed opinions. It is better to educate yourself and benefit from a longer-term perspective on issues and include pertinent facts.

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