The detriments of eating a sugary diet are now widely known, yet it can still be confusing to navigate the ins and outs of sugar consumption given how many types of sweeteners and sugar alternatives — including coconut, raw and cane sugar, as well as stevia and others — are now available.
Is cane sugar better for you than refined sugar? Below we’ll look at exactly what cane sugar is, how it’s processed, and the potential pros and cons of including it in your diet.
What Is Cane Sugar?
Cane sugar is defined as “sugar obtained from sugar cane.” Sugar cane (or sugarcane, which has the genus name Saccharum) refers to several species and hybrids of tall perennial grasses in the Andropogoneae plant family.
Other plants in the same family include corn/maize, wheat, rice, sorghum and many forage crops.
Sugarcane plants have fibrous stalks that are rich in sucrose (sugar). They are native to tropical regions of Southeast Asia and New Guinea, although they are now widely grown around the world in warm, temperate climates.
Here are some more interesting facts about cane sugar:
- Sugarcane is the world’s largest crop by production quantity.
- Today it is cultivated on an estimated 64 million acres in 90 countries. Brazil is where 40 percent of the world’s total cane sugar is produced.
- Table sugar is extracted from sugarcane in specialized mill factories. Not only can it be used as a sweetener, but it’s also fermented to produce ethanol (alcohol). Other products derived from sugarcane include molasses, rum, cachaça and bagasse.
- Sugar cane has been consumed or thousands of years in places, such a Polynesia, Island Melanesia, Madagascar, southern China and India.
- Starting in the 18th century, sugarcane plantations began to be established in the Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations.
Sugar refining determines how raw sugarcane is turned into various types of sweeteners. The process of turning raw sugar into table sugar as we know it can include steps, such as:
- dissolving in syrup
- clarifying with phosphoric acid, calcium hydroxide and carbon dioxide
What is the difference between sugar and cane sugar?
Here’s what you need to know about cane sugar vs. white sugar:
- Conventional white sugar (or refined sugar, granulated sugar or table sugar) is made from re-melting single crystallization sugar (organic cane sugar) and refining it to remove all traces of molasses and mineral. It’s then re-crystallized to form pure sucrose.
- White sugar is considered a double crystallization sugar. It gets its white color from carbon filtration and ion exchange. It’s available in various sizes for different purposes, such as fine, ultra-fine, etc.
White/table sugar is further refined than cane sugar. Types of cane sugar include:
- Organic cane sugar — Crystalized organic cane sugar comes from stalks that are harvested and crushed, clarified to remove solids, heated, and concentrated into a syrup. This syrup is made up of sugar and molasses and is then crystallized, boiled and put in a centrifuge to separate out some of the molasses.
- Whole cane sugar — This type is also called evaporated sugar or non-crystallized sugar. It’s put in a centrifuge, but the molasses is not separated out of the crystals. Juice from the crushed sugar cane stalks are clarified, and the liquid is evaporated until the sugar crystallizes into a block that can be chipped off in chunks or ground.
- Raw cane sugar (also called pure cane sugar) — Raw sugarcane can describe sugarcane that is simply chewed to extract the stalk’s sweet juices. There is actually no official definition of “sugar in the raw,” but some manufacturers use this term to refer to demerara and turbinado sugars, which are single crystallization sugars that have gone through a centrifuge to wash off some molasses with steam — however the molasses inside each crystal remains intact.
- Sugar cane juice — Sugarcane juice usually refers to a combination of fresh sugar juice, extracted by hand or mills, often mixed with a touch of lemon juice to make sweetened drinks
- Brown sugar — Brown sugar is a combination of crystalized sugar and molasses. Sometimes molasses is added back into conventional white or organic cane sugar, while other times it’s made from crystalized sugarcane in which molasses is not removed or is only partially removed.
Cane sugar is a pure source of carbohydrates, providing four calories per gram or 16 calories in a level teaspoon (four grams). Other than providing calories and carbs, isolated sugar has no other nutrients.
Below is the nutritional value of a one-ounce/28-gram serving of cane sugar (about two tablespoons):
- 105 calories
- 28 grams sugar
- 28 grams carbohydrates
- 0 grams protein
- 0 grams fat
- 0 grams fiber
What are the benefits of cane sugar? While hardly any expert will recommend consuming sugar in high quantities, there are some uses for sugar when it comes to providing you with carbohydrates, which can be used for energy, and for making food taste better.
- Adding cane sugar to recipes can improve the taste, color, texture and mouthfeel. For example, sugar can help improve browning or caramelizing of foods, including those that are nutrient-dense, such as roasted vegetables and healthy desserts. While it doesn’t naturally contain vitamins and minerals, it may help encourage people to consume more nutrient-rich foods if it helps make them more appealing.
- Sugar facilitates the process of fermentation in fermented foods, such as kombucha and yogurt, and sometimes sourdough breads, cultured veggies and soy sauces.
- Sugar can help keep foods from spoiling very quickly and can preserve the color and taste, extending the shelf life.
Risks and Side Effects
Why is cane sugar unhealthy? Here are some of the reasons that, when eaten in high amounts, sugar is bad for you:
- High sugar consumption can contribute to inflammation and chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease and even certain types of cancer.
- Because it’s easy to over-consume and can contributes many “empty calories” to your diet, it can also lead to weight gain and fat gain, including dangerous visceral fat accumulation.
- It may also contribute to sugar withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming it, along with other issues like candida overgrowth, tooth decay and mood-related issues.
How many grams of sugar per day should you consume? According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should limit added sugar consumption to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories (and ideally a lot less).
On a typical 2,000-calorie diet, this translates to about 50 grams of added sugar per day, which many experts warn is still a relatively high amount.
While small amounts of sugar in your diet may not pose a risk to your health, assuming your diet is overall nutrient-dense, there are fortunately now many sugar substitutes available that can help you cut your intake. Here are some alternatives to cane sugar and table sugar:
- Raw honey — Raw honey contains beneficial enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. It’s relatively low on the glycemic index and can provide benefits such as supporting skin health and immune function.
- Stevia — This plant contains stevioside, an element in the leaves that makes it more than 200 times as sweet as sugar. It’s available in several forms, has zero calories, zero carbohydrates, and is ideal for diabetics or dieters.
- Monk fruit — This plant contains compounds that, when extracted, provide 300–400 times the sweetness of cane sugar, however it contains no actual sugar or calories and has no effect on blood sugar.
- Organic blackstrap molasses — It’s a good source of copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6, although it does affect blood sugar levels and contains calories.
- Coconut sugar — It’s made by extracting sap from the blooms of the coconut and then heated. It contains polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients.
- Sugar alcohols — This group includes xylitol, erythritol and mannitol, among others. While these naturally occur in some foods and plants like berries, seaweeds, pineapples, olives, asparagus and sweet potatoes, they are isolated and made in a lab. Most have a similar sweet taste as sugar and are mostly non-caloric or very low in calories. They also do not raise blood sugar levels like regular sugar does, but they can be hard for some people to digest.
- Cane sugar is defined as “sugar obtained from sugar cane.” Sugar cane (or sugarcane, which has the genus name Saccharum) refers to several species and hybrids of tall perennial grasses in the Andropogoneae plant family.
- Is cane sugar healthy? Overall, it’s not that much different from regular white sugar, although it’s less processed. It’s still relatively high in “empty calories” and lacking nutrients.
- What’s the difference between cane sugar and white sugar? Conventional white sugar (or refined sugar, granulated sugar or table sugar) is made from re-melting single crystallization sugar (organic cane sugar) and refining it to remove all traces of molasses and mineral. It’s then re-crystallized to form pure sucrose. The two have the same amount of calories and carbs and are used mostly interchangeably.
- While sugar may help improve the taste and shelf life of some foods, some healthier alternatives can include raw honey, stevia extract, sugar alcohols and monk fruit.