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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

Where sugar beet sugar comes from: sugar beet fields

Grown exclusively in more temperate climates, these are large heavy roots with rich foliage above the soil, not only numerous but broad to absorb maximum sunlight. These leaves provide the sugar to the root that then stores it - up to 25% of the root is actually sugar! Modern sugar beets date back to mid-18th century Silesia where Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, subsidised experiments aimed at processes for sugar extraction and it was in 1747 that Andreas Marggraf isolated sugar from beetroots and demonstrated that the sugar that could be extracted from beets was identical to that produced from cane.

The process of sugar beet sucrose production

A rotor beater cuts off the head of the beet left in the field while the beets are pulled out of the ground. At the processing plant they go through a revolving drum showered with water, to separate the dirt, rocks and gravel which are then sold to landscapers or road builders as a by-product. Clean beets are then sliced to increase the surface area, allowing the sugar to be more easily extracted. They are soaked in hot water to break the cell membranes and extract the sucrose. The sugary liquid is then purified: the non-sugary pulp is pressed and dehydrated to form pellets sold as animal feed – a further by-product of the refining process. Ensue many steps to filtrate and obtain the final sugar, and the water used is mostly repurposed and reused. Processes of centrifuge, heating and cooling are required to create the sugar crystals.

The sugar beet's nasty little problematic secret

So why are they not just replacing sugar cane? Unlike naturally occurring sugar cane, sugar beets are an engineered plant that have been genetically modified (read GMO) to resist the commonly used herbicide known as glyphosate (you might have heard of the brand "Roundup Ready" that commercialises it). The herbicide-fighting plant offers farmers a simple and effective crop production: they can continue to weed at little cost and with just a few sprays of the product, while not affecting the plant.

This article states that the difference between using cheap glyphosate vs paying labour to hand-weed can be nearly $500 per acre. As such, there has been a decline in companies willing to use sugar beet as activist groups put pressure on agroindustrial companies to source from non-GMO sugar beet producers. It hasn't always been an issue, but over the years there has been increasing concern around modified foods and a trend towards "organic" and "natural" foods that has driven even Hershey's to phase out the sugar beet from their chocolates since 2015. For most scientists and environmentalists, the herbicide-tolerant sugar beet would be the winner but consumers (led mostly by the information spread by activist groups) are preferring to opt for sugar cane. That is the consequence of being conditioned to fear genetically engineered foods even though there is absolutely no difference between the two end products. Since organic certification prohibits GMOs, most organic sugar is cane sugar. Unlike beet sugar, cane sugar is always non-GMO because there are no commercially viable GMO sugar cane varieties. That is not to say that the herbicide is harmless to living forms other than weeds, and that is where the real problem lies, not in the fact that it is genetically modified. Many pesticides commonly used to grow food in the U.S. and Europe kill bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. These same pesticides also harm human health. Among those of highest concern are neonicotinoids, chlorpyrifos and glyphosate. Some countries have been taking action, and the European Union widened the ban on using neonicotinoids - the insecticides blamed for killing bees - in 2018.

Conclusion for sucrose: it really comes down to knowing where your sugar comes from and whom produces it.

Is unrefined sugarcane more sustainable?

Unrefined sugar cane is a bit of a fab that tries to mask the environmental destruction caused by sugar cane production where cane is still burnt in 90 percent of cases. When unrefined, the whole cane is harvested, crushed and slowly heated to evaporate the water in the cane juice over low heat which requires a lot of carbon-based energy. Laboriously, workers stir and then sieve the light brown slurry which we covet as "pure, unrefined" cane sugar. Ironically, it's not as pure as the white refined sugar, hence the tint and you'll be paying up to 10 times or more the cost of the white stuff. Reputable organic and health food bloggers who don't follow fads will be able to tell you more, and if they don't go into detail then they probably aren't as knowledgeable about sugar as you think but following a food trend.

And just to be clear, there is no reason for unrefined sugar to be significantly healthier than refined sugar. If it contains only sucrose, then whatever and wherever the sucrose is extracted from makes no difference. If it does have something else, it's been added in small quantities, has no significant advantage to your health.

Leaving the sugar cane and beets to the bottom of our list for now, and on to Canada's sweet favourite

Maple Tree Syrup

Where Maple Syrup comes from: maple trees

The sugar maple (A. saccharum) is tapped for sap, and while any Acer species may be tapped for syrup, many do not have sufficient quantities of sugar to be commercially useful. The maple syrup production is concentrated in Quebec, Canada.

How to obtain maple syrup from maple trees

As with any crop, be it a low-grown beet or tall sugar cane, there are varying ways to grow and harvest the trees. Unlike sugar cane and sugar beet harvesting that destroys the whole plant and causes soil erosion, maple trees do not require annual tilling. Trees are tapped by drilling holes into their trunks to collect the sap (literally by opening the tap!). The sap is boiled-down to evaporate most of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup, a process generally done close to the source to reduce transport cost and energy. The sap can also be made into maple sugar or maple taffy. It takes about 40 litres of sugar maple sap to make 1 litre of syrup and one tree can produce 20 to 60 litres per season. When tapped and well-tended, the maple trees can yield sap for over one-hundred years, acting as a renewable source of sugar. Sugaring, the term for producing maple syrup, has been passed down in some families over generations using the same trees. Dead and diseased trees are used, either as lumber, or during syrup season to fuel the evaporator.

This is where the greater environmental impact kicks in: processing maple sap takes approximately 60 gallons of oil or a cord of wood to produce 20 gallons of finished syrup. Open wood furnaces emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and formaldehyde and oil-consuming furnaces rely on non-renewable sources. Fortunately, more modern alternatives to the traditional process are being explored but remain expensive such as "reverse osmosis" machines to lower the water contents before boiling so as to reduce the boiling time needed to obtain the syrup.

Other factors that make maple syrup production more or less sustainable include the diversification of plants in the maple forest, also called the maplebush. Diversity is crucial to maintaining a healthy and balanced woodland ecosystem. Also, the clearing of woodland ground with herbicides and other weed killers harms plants and animals whose lives can be destroyed by the foreign or intensive use of such chemicals. When they are not affected, maybe more resistant to such chemicals, they can still be ultimately affected by the loss of the smaller ecosystem contributors. When a forest looses its rich biodiversity on the microscopic level, the entire food chain is jeopardised.

Most organic farmers support a diversity of tree species and understory. Unlike with sugar cane and sugar beets, maple trees shield their saps well, as such generally don't require pesticides, and much of the production and processing is carried out without using them. However, maple trees are at risk from attacks by insects like the Asian long horned beetle, which kills entire plantations if left to multiply unchecked and unfortunately, as this beetle has no natural predators, the more ecologically-friendly practices (importing natural predators) cannot be used against it. Damage is limited by the choice of pesticides the producers use, such as ones that break down more quickly.

Benefits beyond the palette: maple trees for the planet

The industry also protects healthy forests, which in turn provides carbon and other ecological benefits.

Maple tree syrup could help fight climate change, as they sequester carbon. In places like New England where dwindling forests risk disappearing altogether, cross-sector incentives to produce the syrup can help make those forests financially viable for farmers and other landowners who might otherwise be inclined to cut them down for timber or sell them to developers. Temperate forests where maples thrive act as carbon sinks, for one, removing from the atmosphere excesses of carbon dioxide that has spiked since the industrial revolution, at a rate that exceeds that at which the planet can cope while we have simultaneously been reducing the natural abilities to counter its release. This means that about two-and-a-half acres of diversified temperate forest holds an approximate equivalent of 100 tons of carbon.

And now for the controversial, "unethical"...

Local/Ethical Honey

Honey is a substance produced by honey bees.

The honey bee is a bee genus that is used commercially to produce honey, visiting over 1500 flowers in order to collect enough flower nectar to fill its honey stomach (a separate, second stomach) that uses enzymes to turn the nectar into honey. The bee regurgitates the liquid into the hive for house bees to finish the honey-making process, which is later extracted from their hives by beekeepers.

The process of honey making and its controversy

There is enough material out there documenting how conventional honey production is not just unethical but detrimental to the environment. While in part biased because of their agendas, it is still worth reading about it here and here. But did you know that many common foods that vegans rely on for nutrients (such as almonds) rely on honey bees too?

Commercially farmed honeybees suffer from crowded and stressful living conditions, including being treated with antibiotics and being transported long distances to various farms to help with pollination, and as such, since the late 2006s, millions of honeybees have succumbed to “colony collapse disorder,

Regenerative, sustainable beekeeping vs. the standard honey production industry

As such we stumbled in our research across Bee Boys and this made sense to us and is why we have not scraped out honey from our comparison. This video goes into depth about why the honey bee today needs ethical human interaction to survive, whether we can possibly make honey without killing bees (at least not intentionally), and other insights such as the power of honey and symbiotic relationship we as humans have with honey bees. We love the newly-discovered term “beeganism” too.

The carbon footprint of honey production

A UC Davis study found that honey from “backyard” beekeepers, or producers with fewer than 10 bee colonies and an annual output of 100 kilograms or less of honey, has the smallest carbon footprint. This is also because unlike large commercial producers, they don't have transport and processing emissions to account for (most is manual and non-energy intensive). They also practice good beekeeping allow bees to engage in natural behaviours like swarming and overwintering. While not in Singapore, local honey is cultivated in Thailand, the Phillipines, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania to name a few asian sources. Sourcing local does help, although it is usually less significant than the processing methods used. Supermarket-bought honey is to be avoided as there have been frequent scams of use of antibiotics in the process (as such the bee-keeping ethics are equally questionable).

So what is the most sustainable sweetener choice between the 4?

Maple syrup is our pick, mostly because of its ability to fight climate change and because its production also protects our forests and wildlife. But some honey producers are maintaining bee health and we could find ourselves in need of seriously increasing their populations if we continue to destroy our pollinators with pesticides - so keep them in mind and support bee-loving honey makers. The BBC's video does a great job at explaining what would happen to our food supplies if bees went extinct.

There are many more sugar alternatives out there of course, so if you have a better sugar suggestion, we're up to compare!

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