"Sugar" Means 40+ Sweeteners from Just Two Plants

Updated: Sep 29

I get asked all the time: What is cane sugar? Beet sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, maple sugar, apple sugar? What's the difference between this versus that type of sugar? What's added sugar, free sugar, and single-ingredient sugar? And that is one of the reasons this blog is called "WhatSugar".

So, to write this post, I went on a quest to discover all sweeteners available on store shelves that, according to the Food and Drug Administration, means "sugar." What I found was amazing. Over forty sweeteners sold in a variety of forms—unrefined, raw, and refined—with different crystal sizes, moisture, molasses, and sucrose content.

This post is to make you aware that, by law, the term "sugar" refers to sweeteners made from only two sources—sugar cane or sugar beets— and have sucrose as the main component. If you ever wondered how all those types of sweeteners compare, this post is for you.

Sweeteners From Cane & Beet


The term "sugar" can cause confusion as it has many definitions.

For most of us, sugar is commonly associated with one sweetener—the familiar granulated white sugar. But by law, sugar means sucrose obtained from sugarcane or sugarbeet and comprises more than 40 sweeteners. On the other hand, chemically speaking, sugar encompasses almost 100 sweeteners derived not only from sugarcane and sugarbeet but also from other sources.

1. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the place we can find the laws that have been passed concerning sweeteners. The CFR is divided into 50 titles based on the subject. Each title is divided into chapters according to the issuing agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Each chapter has subchapters, parts, sections, and subparts.

Title 21, which is the portion of the CFR that governs food and drugs, contains most laws for sweeteners. Title 7 of the CFR is related to agriculture and has honey regulations, as it is derived from animal sources. For instance, a citation of a regulation is as follows: 21 CFR 101.4(b)(20), which means title 21, part 101, section 4, subpart b,20.

Here are the laws that define "sugar":

  • Only sweeteners derived from sugarcane and sugarbeet should be declared on food labels as "sugar" (21 CFR 101.4(b)20). Therefore, producers of cane and beet sugars are not required to mention their product's source, as the image below shows.

  • Sugar shall refer to sucrose obtained from sugarcane and sugarbeet only, as defined by 21 CFR 184.1854(a). So, if we see the term "sugar" in the ingredient list of any sweetener or food, it must be from cane or beet, and not from any other source.

  • Some cane and beet sweeteners might be called by a name established by common usage, as in 21 CFR 101.4(a)(1). Sweeteners with usual names include molasses, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, muscovado sugar, demerara sugar, and cane syrup.

In FDA's view, evaporated cane juice, dried cane syrup, and dehydrated cane juice should not be used in place of "sugar" as they are false and misleading because they suggest the sweetener is liquid.

By law, most sweeteners from cane and beet should be declared on food labels as 'sugar'.

Therefore, according to the FDA, sugar is defined as sucrose obtained from sugarcane or sugarbeet plants only and comprises more than 40 caloric sweeteners.

2. From a Food Science Perspective

Chemically speaking, the term sugar means a simple carbohydrate. Glucose, fructose, and sucrose are simple carbohydrates, and so, each one is a sugar. Alone or combined, sugar is what caloric sweeteners are made of.

So, in regards to food, the term sugar is used to indicate caloric sweeteners. Honey is a sugar. Maple syrup is a sugar. So are agave nectar, coconut sugar, and date syrup. Therefore, sugar encompasses a wide array of caloric sweeteners from many different sources. Explore them by visiting my caloric sweeteners page.

The bottom line is that sugar encompasses almost 100 caloric sweeteners derived not only from sugar cane or sugar beets but also from other sources.

Those "sugars" are referred to as "added sugars" by the Food and Drug Administration, American Heart Association, and in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls them "free sugars." The FDA defines those sweeteners as "single-ingredient sugars" which are intended to be consumed alone or added to foods by consumers, and thus will be an added sugar to the diet when consumed.

In this post, we'll explore sweeteners that, by law, might be labeled as "sugar" and include only those made from sugar cane and sugar beet plants. Note that the terms sugar cane and sugar beet are made up of two words. To simplify, I connect the words and use sugarcane and sugarbeet or I simply use cane and beet.



Find below a list of caloric sweeteners derived from cane and beet with various crystal sizes, molasses, sucrose, and moisture content. Sucrose is the predominant component in all of them. They are grouped based on the degree of refining—refined, raw, and unrefined.

To learn more about the different cane and beet sugars, please refer to previous posts:

Cane Sugar: unrefined, raw and refined

Refined Sugars—from Cane or Beet

Refined sugars are made from cane and beet plants. As I discussed in Cane vs Beet Sugar: A Difference?, some refined sugars are made up of a blend of cane and beet sugars. All molasses are from cane, as beet molasses are not palatable. Cane sugars are produced in a Sugar Refinery using raw sugar as starting material. Beet sugars are made in a Sugar Factory. Visit my refined sugar page to learn more. To find out how refined sugars are produced, refer to a previous blog post: