What’s the difference? Sugar beets vs. Sugarcane and Other Sugar Basics

May 16, 2016

Most of the sugar in the world comes from two sources: sugarcane and sugar beets. So what’s the difference?

Sugar, or sucrose, is a naturally occurring carbohydrate found in all fruits and vegetables. Most of the sugar in the world comes from two sources: sugarcane and sugar beets. So what’s the difference?

Sugarcane is a type of tropical grass that grows well in warm, moist, and tropical climates. Four states produce sugarcane: Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Texas. It can reach 10-20 feet in height, and it is harvested by chopping off the stems or canes while leaving the roots so that the plant can grow again, making it a highly stainable crop. The process of separating sugar from the plant is accomplished in two steps, first at a mill and then at a refinery. Cane accounts for approximately 80% of the sugar produced.

Sugar beets on the other hand, flourish in temperate climates where the soil is rich; the growing season lasts about five months. Farms can be found in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Sugar beets are an underground root crop and need to be planted yearly. Since sugar beets are grown and harvested seasonally, factories generally operate for a campaign (a period of time) of four to seven months. During this time, facilities operate 24/7!

Pure cane sugar is non-GMO. Beet sugar can be derived from genetically modified plants. Currently, the US does not require labels to designate whether the sugar is derived from sugar cane or beets. The one way to tell is to look for "Pure Cane Sugar" on the package.

Sugar products:

  • Powdered sugar is just white sugar (refined) that is ground into powder.
  • Turbinado sugar is raw sugar that has been refined to a light tan color by washing to remove surface molasses.
  • Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals coated in a molasses syrup. Many sugar refiners produce brown sugar by boiling a special molasses syrup until the sugar crystals form. A centrifuge spins the crystals dry. Some of the syrup remains giving the sugar its color and molasses flavor.  Brown sugar can also be produced by blending a molasses syrup with white sugar crystals.
  • Demerara sugar is a light brown sugar with large golden crystals, which are slightly sticky from the molasses.
  • Raw sugar comes from cane sugar that is ground and pressed to extract the sweet liquid. Crystals that form in the liquid are considered raw sugar. It is then filtered and dried.

Granulated sugar will last indefinitely if stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.