The modern world has grown very conscious about diets, healthy options, and, generally, just staying fit. Everywhere you go, you see ads for health, health, and more health—exercise this, eat that, don’t drink this. One could even say that the world has become a health nut.
One of the benefits of being health-conscious is being aware of anything that might make our physical bodies susceptible to illnesses and diseases. At the top of that list is calorie control (and to a certain extent, sugar intake).
You don’t have to be a sweet tooth to know that the world runs on sugar and sweets, and it’s not just chocolates and candies. Even the healthy meal that we meticulously choose contains some kind of sugar or sweetener that then results in calories.
The two main sources of sugar are cane sugar and beet sugar. So we will try to find out which one could be potentially healthier and which one should we stay away from—sugar beets vs cane sugar.
Sugar Beets vs Cane Sugar
First of all, let’s take the obvious out of the way. Cane sugar comes from, well, sugar cane (stalks); while beet sugar obviously comes from beets (root crop).
Both sources contain a considerable amount of sugar relative to its weight. A fully mature sugar cane contains about 15-20% sugar and a ripened sugar beet has an estimated 17% sugar.
Both sugars have the appearance as pure white so you normally won’t be able to notice the difference on sight alone. Also, both sugars are regularly used for cooking and other food preparations around the world. Let’s move on to the contrasts.
Cane sugar is grown primarily where the sun is prominent; usually in tropical countries. Plenty of sun and plenty of water. Cane sugar is the main source of sugar for most countries in the world as they are very low maintenance and produce a good yield.
Beet sugar comes from beet (beta vulgaris). almost all beets are cold-weather crops and they grow best during the cool seasons. Beet sugar is responsible for 30% of the world’s sugar production.
To most people, the taste of cane sugar and beet sugar (after they have refined) are identical. Professional chefs can possibly distinguish some slight distinctions.
However, as it relates to cooking (and more evidently, in baking), cane sugar is the runaway choice. If you cook simply for fun or hobby, then you might not notice the difference but the seasoned cooks know better.
As hard as it is to explain, cane sugar somehow gives more flavor to the meal compared to beet sugar. This is not to say that sugar beets do not sweeten the food, it does; it just tastes a little off, somehow. Many consider the taste of cane sugar superior to beet sugar but there is no scientific way to prove that; it is basically subjective.
One of the main reasons that cane sugar is the preferred option is because it caramelizes more efficiently than beet sugar. This means that texture-wise, cane sugar doesn’t lump as quickly as beet sugar and therefore requires less stirring.
Another difference is that because beet sugar doesn’t caramelize as quickly and thoroughly, it is not the favorite choice for baked goods and pastries. They almost always go with cane sugar.
Sugar Extraction Process
During the maturity stages of the sugar cane, sugar is collected in the stalks. In fact, cane sugar is basically extracted from the stalks as a natural essence.
The stalk is then passed through a piece of equipment that crushes it into minute pieces which result in the complete removal of the juice from the cane. The natural juice is then crystallized through the process of purification and evaporation. This removes the water content, which is unnecessary for the product.
After crystallization, the result is called raw sugar. This still contains the brown substance (usually thick and sticky) called molasses. The raw sugar is then refined by filtrating the molasses to become the finished product, the white sugar.
Beet sugar is processed differently. After pulling the beetroots from the ground, dirt is removed completely after which the beets are sliced into thin pieces. They are sliced to expedite the sugar extraction because if you remember, beets are usually either round or globular in shape and those are harder to produce sugar from.
Hot water is then mixed with the thin slices inside a diffuser. This expedites the removal of sugar from the beets. Even after the water cleansing, the sugar solution most certainly still contains beet flesh and therefore has to go through a couple more process—filtering and evaporation.
The evaporation brings out the sugar syrup. The thick solution is then boiled to remove the water surplus, and this produces the beet sugar crystals.
Both cane sugar and beet sugar go through very different processes of sugar production but the end result is undeniable—they are both refined sugar (sucrose, to be more precise). And it doesn’t matter if you are a health nut or not, everybody knows that white sugar is not the healthiest food ingredient in the world.
Even though beet sugar and cane sugar are filled with natural minerals and nutrients, it doesn’t nullify the not-so-healthy effect of refined sugar.
Consider that just one teaspoon of white sugar contains 16 calories due to the refining process. For perspective, regular brewed coffee contains 1 calorie for every cup.
The white sugar readily turns to glucose and this is what causes sugar spikes (with the corresponding sugar rush and crash). This is the very reason why refined sugar has been rightfully blamed for causing various illnesses and diseases. The lower end of the consequences would be weight gain and obesity, with the most extreme cases being CVD (cardiovascular diseases) and diabetes.
So if you had to choose which sugar is healthier, sugar beets vs cane sugar? The straight and honest answer would be neither of them.
Although they have phytonutrients and other minerals that the body needs, it doesn’t outweigh the effects of the refining process. So if you really have to, use white sugar in moderation.