Sugar and the environment

What’s the difference between white and raw sugar in terms of environmental impact? What about raw and brown sugar – are these the same product?

Let’s take a brief look at how each of these cane sugar variations are created.

How raw sugar is made

Sugar cane is initially pressed and the juice is then mixed with lime to achieve the desired ph balance and to help settle out impurities. The resulting liquid is reduced through evaporation, then a centrifuge used to separate sugar crystals. It is then dried further to produce granules. The brown color of raw sugar is due to presence of molasses.

How white sugar is made

“White” sugar is created in a couple of ways.

Mill white sugar is the result of sulphur dioxide being introduced to the cane juice before evaporation. It effectively bleaches the mixture.

In the production of refined white sugar, which is the most common product in the Western world, the raw sugar syrup is mixed with a heavy syrup and run through a centrifuge again to take away the outer coating of the raw sugar crystals.

Phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide are then added to the juice which then combine and absorb or trap impurities. Alternatively, carbon dioxide is used to achieve the same effect.

The resulting syrup is then filtered through a bed of activated carbon to remove molasses and then crystallized a number of times under vacuum. It is then further dried to produce white refined sugar like we buy in the store.

Brown sugar

Brown sugar is refined white sugar with a molasses syrup mixed in, then dried again.

Sugar use in other countries

While the sugar cane plant is a somewhat thirsty plant, it’s one of nature’s best photosynthesizers. In many countries, simple crushed sugar cane is the way you get your sugar fix, or other treats that require little further processing of the sugar cane.

Sugar cane and the environment

Environmentally speaking, the less processing required means the less energy used, less waste products and fewer chemicals.

While whole or crushed sugar cane can be difficult to source in the city, out of the options remaining, raw sugar is the more earth friendly option and brown sugar oddly enough is the worst choice.

It never ceases to amaze me the number of food processing sequences that take something out of a food, only to add it back in later on, such is the case with brown sugar. Another example of this is breadmaking flour that has most of vitamins destroyed in the milling/bleaching process only to have vitamins needed to be added back in.

The bad news about sugar and the environment doesn’t end with how the syrup is processed into a final product.

Effluent and waste from sugar mills creates major problems for local environments. Pesticides and herbicides applied during cultivation contaminate the ground and water supplies. Added to these problems is the firing of sugar cane prior to harvesting which pumps millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other chemicals into the atmosphere each year. Natural habitats in sensitive areas are often cleared in order to grow sugar cane to meet increasing demand.

Do we need added sugar?

Our collective sweet tooth causes far more damage than just cavities. Our sugar choices should go beyond the type of sugar we buy or the type that’s present in products we purchase; it’s also a question of consumption levels. The simple fact of the matter is that most of us have no need for the amount of added sugar we consume. Sugars can be made by our own bodies through the conversion of carbohydrates present in many foods, or through various forms of sugar other than glucose present in fruit and vegetables.