Granulated white sugar, the favorite and most widely available sweetener, is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beet plants. We call it simply "sugar" or table sugar, no matter where it comes from, and most of us cannot distinguish one from the other.
However, it turns out some consumers argue they have a different aroma, caramelization, and baking performance. In this blog post, we explore what could be responsible for those differences. Also, when it comes to culinary performance, is cane sugar better or worse than beet sugar?
Impurities: Some Say "Tiny But Meaningful"
Table sugar is considered one of the purest food products. Chemically speaking, it is an astonishing 99.95 percent pure sucrose, regardless of whether it is made from cane or beet. The remaining 0.05 percent is mostly water plus what is called impurities.
Impurities are undetectable by the vast majority of consumers because they are present in minuscule amounts. However, the presence of those substances is the only possible explanation as to why some people claim they can detect the source of their table sugar and that beet sugar has different culinary performance than cane sugar.
Impurities include anything other than sucrose and result from: (1) the raw material, and (2) the process used to produce each sugar. The composition of impurities in cane sugar is not the same as in beet sugar. Learn why next.
What Are The Differences?
The composition of impurities in cane sugar is not the same as in beet sugar for two reasons:
1) The Raw Material
The slight difference in composition between cane and beet sugars results from the fact that different chemical components are present in each plant. The raw material for cane sugar is the whole stem of the cane, which grows above ground. On the other hand, the raw material for beet sugar is the entire root of the plant and so, grows underground. Other dissimilarities between cane and beet plants are listed below.
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.
2) The Process Used to Make Sugar
Another reason why cane and beet sugars are not exactly the same is a result of the process used to produce each one. The differences in composition between the crops require different refining methods and chemicals.
Watch video in a Sugar Factory here.
Watch video in a Sugar Refinery here.
The processes and the chemicals used to refine cane and beet sugars are not the same because their starting material — cane or beet juices — have a different composition.
Two substances are present in the cane and beet juices and must be separated: sugar (sucrose) and nonsugars. Nonsugars – referred to as "impurities" – include all dissolved substances except sucrose. Impurities are unwanted and have to be removed as they interfere with the sweet taste and decompose into less palatable chemicals during the concentration process of the juice. Impurities may be glucose, fructose, proteins, complex carbohydrates, coloring substances, and minerals.
The refining process results in white sugar (99.95 percent sucrose) going out as the final product and nonsugars (impurities) accumulating in thick dark syrups, aka molasses. Most impurities are removed during centrifuging, but a minuscule amount — about 0.02 percent — remains around the sucrose crystals. And these tiny impurities are responsible for the argument that cane and beet sugars do not have the same aroma, caramelization, and baking performance.
Cane & Beet Sugars: Interchangeable?
Refined sugar from beet and cane may be used interchangeably for all purposes. I list below some facts about them, to be able to draw a comparison:
Both cane and beet sugars are 99.95 percent sucrose, even though they come from different plants. They have a minuscule fraction of impurities (approximately 0.02 percent) that is in fact, different. In regards to human nutrition and health, there is no difference between white cane and beet sugars.
Differences in aroma, caramelization, and baking performance have been reported, even though most people cannot notice any discrepancies between table sugar from beet and cane. The taste and sweetness are the same for both sugars — a clean, pleasant sweetness from start to finish, that hits quickly without lingering. No aftertaste.
Some consumers have reported that cane sugar caramelizes better than beet sugar. Very experienced users claim beet sugar burns quicker to black making it harder to work with it than cane sugar. Reports that there is a slight difference in baking performance have also been made. Again, these culinary differences are undetectable by the vast majority of consumers.
Some people claim that beet sugar has a characteristic off-aroma, referred to as an earthy odor. Considering that beet is a root, one possible explanation could be the aroma of beet sugar originates from the fact that beet grows underground. Most of us are unable to discriminate between the aroma of cane and beet sugar.
In 2014, two studies by University of Illinois researchers, published in the Journal of Food Science, compared white granulated cane and beet sugars. The first study showed that the aroma of beet sugar is different than that of cane sugar. Beet sugar was characterized by off-dairy, oxidized, earthy, and barnyard aromas and by a burnt sugar aroma-by-mouth and aftertaste. In contrast, cane sugar showed a fruity aroma-by-mouth and sweet aftertaste.
In a second study, researchers compared foods made with beet and cane sugars. They concluded that significant differences between the sugar sources were identified when incorporated into simple syrup. No difference was observed in sugar cookies, pudding, whipped cream, and iced tea.
In the United States, the price of refined sugar from cane is similar to that of beet, even though production costs of cane sugar are lower than that of beet sugar. During the month of January 2020, the average price of white granulated sugar in two stores in Richmond, Virginia was 0.75 cents per pound.
Is it Cane Sugar? Beet Sugar? A Blend?
The familiar table sugar might be produced from sugar beet in a Sugar Factory or from raw sugar in a Sugar Refinery. Have you ever noticed that sugar producers usually don't state if their sugar is from sugarcane or sugarbeet? The reasons for that are listed below:
Producers of cane and beet sugars are not required to mention the source of their product (see image below) because, by law, only sweeteners derived from cane and beet should be declared on food labels as "sugar".
If you see "sugar" listed in the ingredients list, it must be a sweetener from cane and/or beet—and it comprises more than 40 sweeteners— because, as defined by the Food and Drug Administration, sugar shall refer to sucrose obtained from cane and beet only.