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What's a sustainable sugar?

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

It's Christmas and that probably rings very sweet to most of us: from Christmas pudding to vegan cinnamon waffles and candy canes there's a lot of sugar to be had during this festive season.

There is a lot of controversy - as with many sustainability debates - over the most eco-friendly sugar source out there. Over the year, ideologies have clashed about what sustainability really means. There is an issue with trying to compare processes and production. Sometimes, the most sustainable processes score less well than others that don' take into consideration the impacts of the production. So let's try to break it down in bite-size pieces we can make a more informed choice from.

Sugar compared : the healthiest sugar, most affordable sugar, and most sustainable sugar.

sugar cane and sugar beet, air pollution or land pollution? take your pick.

Sucrose, also what you know better as the typical white table sugar, where the only difference between sugar cane sucrose (C12H22O11) and sugar beets sucrose (still C12H22O11) is the source. Chemically speaking, the end product is identical and your taste body can't tell them apart. But there's a bit of a battle between which is better, for the environment and our health.

Sugar Cane

Where sugar cane sugar comes from: sugar cane plantations

The most common and well-known sugar, it is sometimes grown organically and certified as such. It grows exclusively in the tropical and subtropical zones. This crop is actually a grass that forms lateral shoots at the base to produce multiple stems that grow into cane stalk. A mature stalk typically comprises of 12–16% soluble sugars (and up to 73% water). it's quite a sensitive crop whose harvest can be compromised by cold and harsh climates, wrong soil type, lack of irrigation, insects, etc.

The process and problem of sugar cane sucrose production

The WWF particularly don't approve of the sugar production from sugar cane. The cause? Not only does the crop require massive amounts of water, but the sugar cane is actually burned prior to harvesting to as to quickly remove leaves and dry out the cane. As the water evaporates, the sap inside the cane crystallises. In Florida, that's an annual 150,000 acres of sugar cane being burnt being October and April, one that also impacts locals by its hazardous air pollutants such as Formaldehyde and toxic acenaphthylene.

As always, one process is not representative of all the production in the world, and in some parts of Brazil and Australia, the approach is less destructive as they process first to cutting aways parts that then serve to mulch fields.

Sugar Beet sugar