Granulated white sugar, the favorite and most widely available sweetener, is extracted from cane and beet plants. We call it simply "sugar" or table sugar, no matter where it comes from. Most of us cannot distinguish one from the other. However, it turns out some consumers argue they have different aroma, caramelization, and baking performance. This blog post explores what could be responsible for those differences in culinary performance but if you are looking for other details about it, refer to a previous post What is granulated sugar?
Impurities: Some Say 'Tiny But Meaningful'
The only possible explanation as to why beet sugar has been claimed to have different culinary performance than cane sugar is due to the so-called impurities. Impurities are undetectable by the vast majority of consumers because they are present in minuscule amounts. Here is what you need to know about about it:
Table sugar is considered one of the purest food products. Chemically speaking, it is an astonishing 99.95% pure sucrose regardless of whether it is made from cane or beet. The remaining 0.05% is mostly water plus what is called impurities.
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 sugar 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 these plants are listed below.
Sugar Cane (sugarcane or simply ‘cane’)
Is a grass, that looks like bamboo, and can reach 10 to 20 ft in height.
Is cultivated in warm, moist, tropical or semitropical climates.
Contains 12-14% of sucrose, 12-14% of fiber, and 73-76% water.
In the U.S., cane is grown only in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Brazil is by far the largest world cane grower.
Processed in a Sugar Mill to produce raw and unrefined sugars. A Sugar Mill is always located close to cane fields. Cane is so perishable (much more than beets), it needs to be processed immediately after harvest to avoid intensive loss of sucrose.
In a Sugar Refinery, located close to areas of heavy sugar consumption, crude raw sugar is further processed into refined sugars.
Sugar Beet (sugarbeet or simply ‘beet’)
Is a root with a cream color (not the red one we often see in stores); belong to the spinach family
Is cultivated in temperate climates; adapts well to very cold and warmer climates
Contains approximately 14 to 20% of sugar, 5% of fiber, and 75 to 77% water
The United States is one of the few countries in the world growing both cane & beet
Is grown in eleven states, being Minnesota the top producer; Europe is by far the top world producer
Once harvested, to avoid sugar loss, beet is often processed right away, but may be stored up to a week (below 90°F) or up to 6 months (refrigerated) before processing
As opposed to cane sugar, which is processed in two facilities (Sugar Mill & Sugar Refinery), beet sugar is refined in a single facility, a Sugar Factory; American sugar factories are among the world's most efficient producers of beet sugar
In the United States, only genetically modified varieties of sugar beets are planted and consequently there is no farming of organic sugar beets; in the other hand, Europe grows only non-GMO beet.
Image credit by Bee Culture www.beeculture.com/whats-for-lunch/
The point I want to make here is the composition of cane and beet sugar is not exactly the same because they come from different plants.
2) THE METHOD USED TO MAKE SUGAR
Another reason why cane and beet sugar 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.
How is sugar made?
Put simply, beet and cane sugar are made essentially the same way. Juice is collected, its water is boiled off and sugar crystals are separated from everything else (impurities). This is called the refining process.
Although the term ‘refined’ carries a negative connotation, is means ‘to purify’. During removal of impurities, aka the refining process, sucrose is not chemically changed. Instead, sucrose crystals are physically separated from impurities naturally present in the cane or beet.
The processes and the chemicals used to refine vary, but after cane or beet juice is collected, four basic steps summarize the refining process:
Clarification of the juice: use chemicals, such as lime and carbon dioxide gas, forming precipitates removed by filtration
Boiling: multiple evaporators, under vacuum, boil juice (syrups) at reduced pressure and so, at mild temperatures
Crystallization: in multiple evaporators, 'seed sugar crystals' are added to supersaturated syrups to start forming crystals
Centrifuging: looking like a salad spinner, centrifuges separate the sucrose crystals from the syrup (molasses) that surrounds it
The refining process result in white sugar (99.95% sucrose) going out as the final product and nonsugars (impurities) accumulating in thick dark syrups, aka molasses, that are separated by centrifugation. Cane molasses are sold to consumers but beet molasses are not palatable.
For more details, refer to previous posts on the production of refined sugars.
The processes and the chemicals used to refine cane and beet sugar are not the same because their starting material - cane or beet juices - have different composition.
Two substances are present in the cane and beet juice, and must be separated: sugar (sucrose) and nonsugars. Nonsugars are referred to as ‘impurities’ as they interfere with the sweet taste and decompose into less palatable chemicals during the concentration process of the juice. Beet and cane sugar have similar sugar content but dissimilar amount of impurities. Beet juice contains about 2.5% impurities and cane juice approximately 5%. Impurities may be glucose, fructose, proteins, complex carbohydrates, coloring substances, and minerals.
To conclude, the argument that cane and beet sugar do not have the same aroma, caramelization, and baking performance may be because they come from different crops which require different refining methods.
Cane & Beet Sugar: Interchangeable?
Refined sugars 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 differences between table sugar from beet and cane. The taste and sweetness is 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 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, whereas 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 to 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, which is counterbalanced by the fact that American sugar factories are among the world’s most efficient producers of beet sugar.
Ingredient: Cane or Beet Sugar?
The familiar table sugar along with other twenty refined sugars are referred to as simply 'sugar'. They may be produced from beet in a Sugar Factory or from raw sugar in a Sugar Refinery. Have you ever noticed that the package of refined sugars, such as brown, confectioners, or granulated, usually does not make reference to the source of sugar? There are three reasons:
By law, only sweeteners derived from cane and beet should be declared on food labels as 'sugar'. Therefore, producers of cane and beet sugar are not required to mention the source of their product, as the image below shows.
As defined by the Food and Drug Administration, sugar shall refer to sucrose obtained from cane and beet only. 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.
Typically, if the label of a commercial sugar does not identify if it is from cane or beet (as in most store brands), the product is from beet or a blend. For those brands, portions of each in any given serving vary over time based on price from the producers so that it can be cane one time, but beet another, or both cane and beet mixed. If a brand is always cane, it will often be labeled as such. Keep reading to find out why they are blended.
Why are Sugars Blended?
Blends of cane and beet sugar are commercialized because many sugar producers do not sell their products directly to consumers. They have their products sold and distributed by sugar marketing organizations, which may blend beet and cane sugar, based on price and availability. The top marketers in the country include:
Domino Foods Inc (DFI) is the top distributor of refined sugar from cane in the country. It sells cane sugar only. DFI is owned by American Sugar Refining (ASR Group), based in Florida, which is the leader in the production of refined sugar. Top Brands: C&H, Domino, Florida Crystals, Tate & Lyle, Lyle's.
United Sugars Corp (United) is the nation’s second largest marketer of refined sugar. It provides beet & cane sugar, distributing almost 25% of the total refined sugar in the country. United is a cooperative owned by 3 producers: American Crystal (beet sugar), Minn-Dak Farmers Coop (beet sugar) and US Sugar Corp. (cane sugar). Top brand: Crystal Sugar.
Cargill claims to be the leading marketer of refined sugar in the country. It sells and distributes cane & beet sugar from the U.S. and Mexico, representing the following sugar producers: Louisiana Sugar Refining (cane sugar), Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop, Spreckels Sugar Co. (beet sugar), Wyoming Sugar Co. (beet sugar), Zucarmex (cane sugar from Mexico), and other producers from Mexico. Top Brand: Café Delight.
Who Makes our Beet & Cane Sugars?
In 2018-19, the United States produced about 8 million tons of sugar annually, ranking in sixth in global production surpassed by Brazil, India, European Union, Thailand and China. It also imports almost 3 million tons. American sugar producers and processors receive a variety of government supports. An overview of the sugar industry in the United States is as follows:
For production of refined sugar from beet: there are 22 sugar factories
For production of raw sugar (obtained directly from cane): there are 16 sugar mills
For production of refined sugar (from crude raw cane sugar): there are 8 sugar refineries
Sugar Factories do not process beet throughout the whole year
Beet campaign period is from 3 to 6 months (9 in California)
Sugar Mills do not process cane all year round, having season length from 3 to 10 months
Sugar Refineries produce refined cane sugar 12 months/year
Sugar Refineries process domestic raw sugar and/or imported from cane-growing countries
The top producer of refined sugar is American Sugar Refining (ASR Group)
American Crystal Sugar Company is the largest beet sugar producer in the U.S.
American Crystal, based in Minnesota, is a coop owned by almost 3000 beet growers
American consumers pay an average of 70 cents per pound for table sugar
Some brand names of refined sugar in the United States are listed below.
BRANDS OF CANE SUGAR
BRANDS OF BEET SUGAR
BRANDS OF SUGAR FROM CANE, BEET OR BLENDS
Refined sugars from beet and cane may be used interchangeably for all purposes
Chemically speaking, both cane and beet sugar are 99.95% sucrose
The difference lies on about 0.02% of sugar, which is undetectable by the vast majority
The price of cane sugar you pay in stores is similar to that of beet sugar
One is not healthier or better for you than the other.
Learn more on a previous post titled What is Granulated Sugar?
The term 'sugar' can cause confusion as it has many definitions, so read this: What Is Sugar?
To compare cane sugars, refer to this blog post: Cane Sugar: Unrefined, Raw & Refined
Read more on how refined sugar is produced here: What is Refined Sugar?
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