Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Sugar

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Everybody wants a little sugar in their bowl, but what exactly is in that taste of sweet stuff? In this installment of Real Food Right Now, we look at the sweet and sour sides of sugar.

A Brief History

Sugar is so common - on every diner table, available freely in packets at every coffee shop and service station - that it is hard to think of it as a luxury item. But there was a time when sugar was more expensive than gold. 

Sugar cane is believed to have originated in Polynesia and then to have spread to India where it was discovered in 510 BC by the invading Persian Emperor Darius who called it "the reed which gives honey without bees." Though sugar cane was valued for its sweetness, it did not transport well, limiting its distribution. It gained some ground in Europe during the Middle Ages but was still a highly rarified luxury item. It wasn't until Columbus sailed the ocean blue that the story of sugar really began.

Unfortunately, the tale of sugar in the New World is also that of the slave trade. The labor-intensive cultivation, harvesting and processing of sugar and sugar-based products, most notably rum, relied nearly entirely on the abundance of slave labor - laborers who could not reject the often deadly living and working conditions of the sugar plantations. It was a model that started in Europe. Portuguese explorers established cane fields on the islands off of the west coast of Africa and relied on slaves from the continent to work them. But slavery exploded with the advent of trans-Atlantic crossings that brought African slaves to the Caribbean and the colonies, creating the powerful "Triangle Trade" between England, Africa and the Americas. Although slavery has since been abolished, the global demand for cheap sweets is a constant enticement for producers to cut corners. Sugar growers remain under constant scrutiny for their poor treatment of workers (which some have likened to a form of modern-day slavery) and the sustainability of their growing and producing practices. (More on this, below.) 

Beet sugar, which is derived from white beets but looks and tastes exactly like cane sugar, was discovered in the mid-1700s by German chemist Andreas Margraff. It wasn't until the Napoleonic war, however, that beet sugar had its moment. When Britain blocked France's access to New World sugar, Napoleon turned to beets for his nation's supply of sweets and the beet sugar industry was born.

Although sugar beet processing did not get underway in the states until 1870, it has been quick to catch up to that of domestic cane sugar production. Since the 1990s, both types of sugar were grown in the United States in equal proportion. Beet sugar, which is less expensive to grow and produce and is not limited to warm climates, even began to gain advantage over cane sugar, particularly in commercial production. However, consumer demand for non-GMO products have dampened the future of this predominantly genetically engineered crop. Candy companies, such as Hershey's, have removed beet sugar from their products, causing the price of beet sugar to fall.

Factual Nibbles

According to the World Wildlife Fund, "A dozen countries around the world devote 25 percent or more of all their agricultural land to the production of sugarcane."

America runs on sugar. Sugar cane is a growing source of the ethanol that is used as a fuel additive.


Sugar cane is a tropical, perennial grass. It thrives in hot, humid conditions where it grows from six to twenty feet tall. A central stalk is surrounded by long, fibrous leaves which must be removed before processing (see more on this, below). The canes can be harvested by hand or mechanically. After harvest, the canes will regrow with each successive crop diminishing in yield until the field needs to be replanted. The United States produces a fraction of the world's sugar cane. We grow the majority of our cane in Florida and Louisiana and a sliver in Hawaii and Texas. Globally, Brazil is the leading producer of sugar cane, followed by India. 

Sugar beets are related to table beets and Swiss chard, all of which enjoy a cool, temperate climate. Warm days and cool nights are the ideal conditions for sugar beets, which are grown all over the world. The largest producer is Russia, followed by France and then the United States.

Their slow growth rate makes sugar beets particularly susceptible to weed invasion, which robs the root vegetables of necessary nutrients. Weed abatement methods range from hand weeding to intense applications of toxic herbicides, a choice which largely determines the environmental impact of the crop.

Cane Sugar Processing

Removing the leaves from the canes facilitates the harvest. Often, the fields are burned to singe the leaves off of the stalks. While the practice makes harvesting more efficient and clears the area of the venomous snakes that often inhabit the fields and threaten harvesters, the practice contaminates the air with ash and particulates and releases a cloud of carbon emissions. 

After harvesting, the canes are pressed to release their sweet juice. The spent cane is often burned to fuel the processing facility. The juice is clarified with lime and carbon dioxide, which pulls out dirt and fiber from the liquid. The juice is boiled to concentrate it. The liquid is then crystalized and spun dry, resulting in gold-colored, raw sugar. This is true "brown sugar," sugar crystals that are still coated with a thin film of molasses. To create white sugar, the crystals are washed, dissolved, filtered, crystalized and dried again to remove the natural molasses.

Beet Sugar Processing

The entire beet is dug from the ground. The green tops are removed from the beets and left to rot in the fields, but uses for these nutritious greens are being explored. The roots are sliced into chips. The chips are then diffused in hot water and pressed to release their juice. The spent beet flesh is dried and turned into pellets for animal feed. The juice is clarified, evaporated and crystalized to turn it into white sugar. The molasses by-product is not suitable for the table but can be used in cattle feed or fermented to make alcohol.


Sugar cane is planted at varying times, indicated by the local environment. In some areas, this is year-round. 

Sugar beets are planted in the summer and harvested in the fall in Northern states such as Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, in the higher elevations of Colorado and in coastal California. In warmer areas, such as the Imperial Valley of California, they are planted in the fall and harvested in the spring before temperatures climb.

Environmental Impact

Sugar cane has multiple negative impacts on the environment:

Water use: Sugar cane is a slow grower, often taking about a year to reach maturity, and must be watered consistently during this period, making it one of the world's thirstiest crops.

Habitat loss: While sugar cane fields are notoriously popular territory for snakes, they rob native animals, such as birds, of their natural habitat.

Biodiversity: Sugar cane fields are monocultures that stay in production for years with no crop rotation or underplanting.

Pollution: The burns implemented as part of the harvesting process pollute the air

Soil erosion: The process of clearing the land for new plantings and flooding the crops for irrigation creates a cycle that washes away precious topsoil.

Additionally, the intense conditions of the hot, tropical sugar cane fields and the isolation of their locations often lead to poor conditions for the migrant workers who cut the cane. Sub-standard living conditions, minimal wages and the absence of health and safety violations are common in the industry.

The sugar beet crop is almost entirely GM (genetically modified). Called "Roundup Ready," GM sugar beets can be doused with copious amounts of the weed killer glyphosate (aka Roundup), an herbicide that has been called out as a possible carcinogen, without being affected. Glyphosate leaches into ground water and area tributaries through run-off and has also been implicated in the proliferation of super weeds, which require increasing doses of herbicides to adequately suppress them. GMO sugar beets also threaten to cross-pollinate with neighboring crops of chard and table beets.


Most often, sugar is presented in its white, granulated form. You can also find brown sugar, which has been sprayed with the molasses that was removed during processing. Raw sugar leaves some of that molasses intact. Powdered sugar is a mixture of white granulated sugar that has been crushed into a fine powder and corn starch added to prevent clumping.

What to Look For

It's impossible to tell cane from beet sugar by look or taste, but you can learn more about your sugar by reading its package. It will tell you the source of your sweetener, as well as these important indicators:

Fair Trade

Buy Fair Trade certified sugar. The certification indicates that workers are treated fairly and more sustainable environmental practices are being put in place in the growing and production of the sugar cane. 


Buying sugar that is certified organic guarantees that you will not be consuming GMOs, and that the crop has not been grown or processed with toxic applications. 


Bonsucro is an international organization that is developing an internationally recognized protocol that improves sustainability of sugar cane production across all sectors of the industry.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body 

Sugar is also known as sucrose. One ounce, equal to two tablespoons of sugar, has 108 calories, 28 grams of carbohydrate, zero grams of fat or protein and negligible amounts of nutritional vitamins or minerals.

Excess sugar in the diet can lead to diabetes, obesity, heart problems and other issues. Many in the health industry suggest that eaters limit consumption.

Shaving even small amounts of sugar from your diet can lessen health impacts and free up the natural resources used by this environmentally intensive crop. 

You might also enjoy alternative sweeteners. Sugar alternatives such as agave syrup, date sugar, honey, maple syrup, palm sugar and stevia can often be swapped in for all or part of the sugar called for in your recipe.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Sugar brings gloss and sheen to jams, jellies and other sweet spreads. It gives structural integrity to foods such as whipped cream and whipped egg whites and helps jams set to a firm texture. Sugar preserves food as it inhibits bacterial growth. Sugar caramelizes when heated, encouraging browning.


Kept in a cool, dark place, sugar will keep indefinitely.


Caramel Sauce

This simple caramel sauce highlights the delightful sweetness of sugar and shows off one of its best tricks - its ability to caramelize. As it turns from white to clear to golden brown, the sugar takes on a surprising depth of flavor. Take the sugar as dark as you dare for the deepest, most beguiling sauce. 


1 cup organic white granulated sugar

½ cup heavy cream

A pat of butter

A pinch of salt 


Have ready a small dish of water and a pastry brush. Pour the sugar into a medium saucepan or saucier and drizzle ¼ cup of water around the perimeter of the sugar pile. Set over medium low heat. Allow the sugar to dissolve, gently swirling the pan as necessary to keep the heat of the mixture even. Dip the pastry brush in the water and use it to wash down the sides of the pan to keep crystals from forming. Continue to simmer until the caramel reaches a deep golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. This will happen slowly at first, with spots of hay-colored syrup forming in the hot spots across the pan. Continue to swirl and wash down the pan to keep the color of the caramel consistent. Toward the end of the cooking time the syrup will transform from lightly to richly colored and will become deeply flavored very quickly. Be vigilant in these last moments to keep from scorching your caramel.

Remove the caramel from the heat and slowly whisk in the cream. Continue to whisk until smooth. Add the butter and salt and serve warm over ice cream, other desserts such as pies and cakes or bowls of sliced fruit.   

Sherri Brooks Vinton  wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit