Organic Sugar: What Does it Actually Mean?

Updated: Sep 29

On my quest to discover all certified organic sugars being sold on store shelves across the United States, I found three different types: raw cane sugars, unrefined cane sugars, and beet sugars. The most common is often labeled simply as "organic sugar".

To be certified organic, sugars must be extracted from organically grown sugar cane or sugar beets plants. They must be processed, handled, and packaged according to a long list of rules. The law—the National Organic Program or NOPwas established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read on to learn 30 facts about organic sugars and why buying them might benefit us.

Note: 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.

Certified Organic Sugar is Strictly Regulated

  • The use of the term "organic" in food labels is strictly regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP), which was established and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Sweeteners labeled with the organic claim must comply not only with the USDA's organic standards but also with the FDA's regulations for labeling.

  • Organic Sugars must be sourced from organic cane or beet that has been grown according to the NOP standards. Farmers must use practices that maintain or enhance the soil and water quality while conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. They are inspected by the USDA or a certifying agency following a long list of strict rules.

  • Organic farming practices include crop rotation. Genetically modified (GM) seeds, chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and sewage sludge are not allowed. Organic does not automatically mean "pesticide-free" or "chemical-free". A variety of sprays and powders are allowed. Still, such substances must not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water. To draw a comparison: organic farmers have restricted access to 27 synthetic pest control products while over 900 are registered for use in conventional farming.

  • A common misconception is that organic sugar is unrefined and minimally processed. The claim "organic" in fact, relates not only to the way a crop is grown, but also how it is processed, handled, and packaged. Just like growing organic crops, organic processing is regulated by the NOP, and manufacturers of organic sugars must comply with it.

  • To be claimed as an organic sweetener and display the USDA's organic seal on the package's label, the seller must be certified by a NOP-authorized agent or the USDA. The name of the certifying agency must be stated on the product's label. People who sell or label a sugar "organic" when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $17,952 for each violation.

Organic Sugar Certifying Agency

How do Organic Sugars Stack up?

Organic sugars might be from sugarbeet and sugarcane plants. The vast majority of the products I found in stores are made from cane — as opposed to refined sugars, which are almost split in half (42 percent from cane and 58 percent from beet). Find below where organic sugars come from and how they compare:

1) From Sugar Beet

  • Organic sugar from beet is not made in the USA: The United States is one of the only countries in the world that grows both cane and beet plants. However, only GM varieties of sugarbeets are planted. Consequently, there is no farming of organic beets and no production of organic beet sugar.

2) From Sugar Cane

  • Organic sugar from cane is from South America or Africa: Except for one brand (see next), all organic sugars and syrups I found on store shelves across the country are imported. Brazil and India lead the conventional sugar market worldwide, but Paraguay is the leading producer of organic sugar. About 60% of Paraguay's sugar is organic.

  • Only one producer of organic sugar in the USA: America's only producer of certified organic sugars and syrups is Florida Crystals Corp. The company pioneered organic sugar farming in the country. Florida Crystals brand of organic sugars is produced in a sugar mill in South Florida. They offer three types of organic sugar and one syrup—check them out at their Amazon storefront here.

There are two types of organic cane sugar - raw & unrefined: The most widely available are raw sugars. Unrefined options include Sucanat and traditional brown sugars such as jaggery and panela. 

Raw Sugar

The vast majority of the organic sugars in stores are raw cane sugars. The most common has blonde crystals and is labeled simply as "organic sugar". Others include organic molasses, organic brown sugar (light and dark), organic powdered sugar, and organic cane syrup.

To learn details about these sweeteners read a previous post titled Raw Sugar: From Turbinado to Demerara, Find out Exactly What it is. Here is what we need to know about the most common organic raw sugar: