Sugar Beets vs Sugar Cane: which one is better?

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If you have a major sweet tooth and often consume baked products, processed foods, sweets, sodas, and other food products made with sugar, you have already had experience with sugar from beets and sugar cane. 

These two plants are the world’s main sources of sugar. While a 2016 study suggests that sugar may not be as bad as many have come to believe, there are still many dieticians and health professionals who suggest that the consumption of unnatural sugars can be harmful to health. (1)

Whichever side of the argument you stand, most of the sugar that you will consume in your life will be sugar extracted from sugar beets or from the popular sugar cane plant. (2) (3)

While there is debate over the safe consumption of sugar, there is research that suggests that sugar is an important part of the human diet. 

Gillian Eggleston shared a study on the National Library of Medicine where she shares that most people are not in the know when it comes to the importance of sugar to body cells such as brain cells. 

She believes that there a high amount of ignorance surrounding the other functionalities of sugar beyond sweetening. There is also insufficient data surrounding the additional micronutrients that come with the consumption of sugar.

What are Sugar Beets?

Sugar beet and the popularly known beetroot are from the same family – the amaranth family. (4)

Sugar beets are typically grown with the intention of using it as a source of sugar. This sweet crop is loaded with sucrose and is the second greatest source of the world’s sugar. 

Before sugar beets gained a reputation as a great source of sugar, it was grown as a garden vegetable. 

The Germans are recorded as being the first to experiment with sugar beets to produce sugar. (5) (6)

This was done in 1747 by a chemist by the name of Andreas Marggraf. The first beet-sugar manufacturing plant was built in 1802 in Silesia.

The typical sugar beet can grow up to 4.4 pounds. You might be asking, “are beets high in sugar?”, well, sugar beets can contain up to 22 percent sucrose by weight. 

The issue with sucrose is that it is not the best for your health when consumed in excess.

Late September or early October is the typical time for harvesting sugar beets. There are currently two know methods of harvesting sugar beets. (7)

In one method, the topping and lifting of the sugar beets are done by two separate machines. In the other, both the topping and lifting is done by one machine.

What is Sugar Cane?

If you have ever been privileged to bask in the beauty of the Caribbean, you have seen or tried sugar cane before. (8)

Sugar cane is a tropical grace that originated in Papua, new guinea. It later spread to regions such as Hawaii, Southeast Asia, India, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the southern parts of the United States of America. 

It got to these regions because of migration and the slave trade. Sugar cane is well praised and sought after for its juice. (9)

The grass is also used as a source of sugar and is responsible for 70% of the world’s sugar supply. 

Another interesting fact about sugar cane is that it has the highest level of calories per unit area of any other member of the plant kingdom.

The stalk of the sugar cane is what supplies the juice that is then used to make sugar. 

If the stalk of a sugar cane is cut, but the root is left to thrive in the soil, it will regrow from the point that it had been cut. 

The typical sugar cane plant can take from as little as six months to as much as 2 years to grow to maturity.

The harvesting time of sugar cane is dependent on when they were planted. 

They are then harvested upon becoming mature on the sugar plantation. From the point of planting to the point of harvesting can take from 2.5 months to 11 months.

The typical approach to harvesting is that the human or machine cuts the stalk and then leave the root to regrow for the next season. 

The stems are then gathered and then loaded onto a truck or into some other container. (10)

Sugar Beets vs Sugar Cane: A Comparison

Sugar beet and sugar cane are not the same product. Both are used in the production of a number of foods such as sweets, processed foods, baked products and soda pop. 

While they are both used as sweeteners, they have differences that will be mentioned here. (11)

Production Process

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are produced differently. When processing beets to get sugar, the sugar beet is sliced thinly so that the juice can be easily extracted.

The juice then goes through a process of purification and heating to make a concentrated syrup. The syrup is then crystalized to form granulated sugar.

The production of sugar cane is done in a similar fashion to sugar beets. 

In some cases, cane sugar is processed with bone char, which is an ingredient that results from the charring of the bones of animals. 

The purpose of the bone char is to assist in bleaching and filtering white sugar. while bone char is used in the process, there is not bone char in the final form of the product.

Taste

Cane sugar and sugar from beets are pretty much the same when it comes to nutrition. 

However, they may have a different impact on your recipe. Cane sugar tastes different from sugar from beets. 

Beet sugar tends to have a slightly earthy taste mingled with an oxidized aroma and a faint burnt-sugar aftertaste. 

On the other hand, sugar made from the cane plant leaves a much sweeter after taste and it is characterized by a fruity aroma.

Professional chefs have shared that both sugar from beets and cane-derived sugar have a different impact on the texture of their food. 

Cane sugar has been praised for its ability to caramelize easier than sugar made from beets. 

Beet sugar influences a crunchy texture and offers a unique taste. This makes sugar from beets perfect for certain baked products.

Nutrition

These two sugar sources are nutritionally identical. When it is all said and done, the sugar taken from both beets and cane is pure sucrose. 

This compound is a combination of glucose and fructose. As mentioned earlier in this article, the sucrose content of sugar derived from both beet and cane is not safe to be consumed in high amounts. 

Frequently consuming high amounts of sucrose can lead to chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and liver issues.

Most health organizations suggest that the information in the following table represents a safe daily consumption of sugar.

Safe Sugar Intake

Men < 9 Teaspoons < 36 grams

Women < 6 Teaspoons < 24 grams

Bear in mind that this applies to sugar from beets and cane in all of its forms. It applies to white sugar, brown sugar, molasses and turbinado. 

You must also be aware of the amount of sugar you are consuming in sweets, soda, desserts, and baked products. (12)

Likelihood of Being Genetically Modified

A striking 95% of beet sugar on the U.S. market are genetically modified. For this reason, many people shy away from beet sugar and choose sugar cane instead. 

The concerns over GMO foods surround the impact they can have on the environment and health. 

On the other hand, there are some people who are in favor of GMO products. This is due to the resilience of GMO foods in standing up against insects, herbicides, and extreme weather.

There is conflicting research data on the effects of GMO products on health and the environment. 

Some researchers share a picture of GMO having a high potential of negatively impacting health while some researchers are sharing that GMO foods are safe to be consumed by humans. 

It has also been shared by some researchers that GMO products have a nutritional composition that is similar to conventional crops.

According to an article written by Laura Rutherford, a ninth-generation sugar beets farmer, growing genetically modified sugar beets results in environmental benefits.

As a result of the genetical engineering, farmers of GMO sugar beets have a reduced need to use chemicals to control weeds. 

As a result of GMO sugar beets, farmers are now able to use the mildest and safest chemical on the market, glyphosate.

Because genetically engineered sugar beets require fewer chemicals for the management of pests, they result in environmental benefits. 

The reduction in these chemicals means less water will be used in the farming of these crops, less fuel, and a smaller carbon footprint on the environment. 

In her article, Laura Rutherford shares that there are at least 25 specific environmental benefits from farming genetically engineered sugar beets.

Molecular Structure

The molecular structure of sugar is consistent in all crops that contain sugar. When a package of sugar says organic, this means that the plant that the sugar came from, whether beet or cane, was made according to organic agricultural standards. 

After a plant undergoes the sugar extraction process, the plant is no longer relevant to the process. The sugar that is produced from both the cane and the beet looks exactly the same.

A Word of Caution

When you consume high amounts of sugar that have been extracted from the sugar beet plant or the sugar cane plant, you must be aware of the potential health risks. Too much sugar can affect your:

  • Brain: Too much sugar causes a flood of the feel-good hormone, dopamine. This extraordinary amount of dopamine leaves consumers with a bit of an addiction to sugar and products that contain sugar.
  • Mood: You can get a boost of energy from a sweet product. This happens because sugar raises the blood sugar level in your body very quickly.
  • Teeth: consuming too much sugar can damage teeth. The bacteria that are responsible for cavities are lovers of the sugar that is left lingering in the mouth after a meal of sweet products.
  • Joints: It is often recommended that people who are experiencing joint pain resist the urge to eat sweet products. Sugar consumption increases inflammation in the body. The dreaded condition, rheumatoid arthritis, has been linked to sugar consumption.
  • Skin: The impact that sugar has on your skin is also based on the inflammation that it causes in the body. Eating too much sugar destroys the collagen and elastin in your skin and it also results in your skin aging faster.
  • Heart: The extra insulin in your system from the consumption of sugar affects the arteries in your body. Sugar causes the walls of your arteries to become thicker and stiffer than they should be. This can ultimately result in cardiovascular illnesses such as heart diseases, heart attacks, heart failures and strokes.
  • Sexual Health: Brunilda Nazario, a medical doctor, shared that high levels of sugar in men can result in impotence. The uncontrolled consumption of sugar affects your circulatory system, which then impacts the flow of blood in your body. This ultimately dwarfs the flow of blood needed for an erection.

Final Words

We have discovered that both sugar beets and sugar cane are major sources of the world’s sugar supply. 

Both contain sucrose which some are suggesting should be consumed in moderation because a large amount of sucrose over a period of time can produce adverse health effects.

The sugar cane plant and the sugar beet are separate and totally different crops. While this difference is clear, you will not be able to look at the crystals of white sugar derived from them and tell which came from sugar beets or sugar cane. They are absolutely identical.

Outside of the difference in the actual plant, the other major difference that we have discussed in this article is that sugar from beets has a different impact on the taste and texture of your food than sugar processed from the sugar cane plant.

Whether you choose sugar from beets or sugar from cane, your sweet tooth will be pleased. 

Be sure to have it in moderation and bear the information shared in this article in mind.

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