Sugar – is it sugarcane or sugar beets?

Do you know where the sugar you used to bake your Christmas cookies comes from? Sugar is available in many different forms.

The sugar we use comes from two different plants: sugar beets or sugarcane. Worldwide, 70 percent of our sugar comes from sugarcane. Sugarcane is a tall grass that grows in tropical areas. In tropical setting like Hawaii and Jamaica it grows in fields and looks similar to corn.

To get sugar from sugarcane, the cane is pressed to extract the juice, then boiled, and spun to produce raw sugar and syrup (molasses). The raw sugar is then sent to a refinery where it is washed and filtered to remove remaining non-sugar ingredients and color. It is then crystallized, dried and packaged into refined (or granulated) sugar.

To get confectioners (or powdered) sugar for icings and baking the granulated sugar is ground to a smooth powder, and contains about 3% cornstarch to prevent caking.

Molasses comes from the sugarcane extraction process. The quality of molasses depends on the maturity of the sugar cane, the amount of sugar extracted, and the method of extraction. There are three major types of molasses: unsulphured, sulphured and blackstrap.

Many restaurants now have packets of "Sugar in the Raw" with their other sweeteners. This is Turbinado sugar, which is a raw sugar that has been partially processed, removing some of the surface molasses. It is a blond color with a mild brown sugar flavor and is often used in tea.

Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals coated in molasses syrup. Dark brown sugar has more color and a stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar.

Most of the sugar we eat here probably came from sugar beets. Sugar beets are a root crop resembling a large parsnip grown mostly in the temperate zones of the north.

Beet sugar processing is similar to sugarcane, but it is done in one continuous process without the raw sugar stage. The sugar beets are washed, sliced, and soaked in hot water to separate the sugar-containing juice from the beet fiber. The sugar-laden juice is purified, filtered, concentrated and dried in a series of steps similar to cane sugar processing.

Did you ever know that sugar could be so complicated, yet taste so good? As you eat Holiday sweets, think about all the hard work people did to grow and produce that sugar product.