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Sugar or sugars ?

Sugars are small-sized carbohydrates that produce a sweet, sugary taste; sugars include glucose, fructose, lactose and, of course, sucrose, synonym for sugar.

Following the rules, the name “sugar” used in its singular form is reserved exclusively for sucrose.

What is whole sugar ?

The term “whole sugar” is a purely commercial designation and does not correspond to a clearly defined endorsement from a regulatory point of view, unlike white sugars, raw sugars and brown sugars (see Decree 2008-1370 of 19 December 2008). “Whole” sugar is generally a raw or brown sugar (more than 85% of dry matter sugar). Raw and brown sugars, from both sugarcane and beet, contain a substantial fraction of “non-sugar”, mainly water, minerals, colourants and aromatic ingredients. Micronutrient content is low, but higher than that of white sugar.

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Is brown sugar only produced from sugarcane ?

No. It is true, however, that we generally find raw sugar produced from cane, in shops, otherwise known as “brown” sugar when bulk packaged.

Raw sugar is also produced by sugar beet and is referred to as “vergeoise” sugar (in France, equivalent to Demerara sugar in the UK); it is traditionally used in the north of France and in Belgium.

What ‘special’ sugars exist ?

Special sugars include Vergeoise, obtained by prolonging sugar cooking during crystallization cycles. Its colour and taste are produced by the formation of caramel-type coloured compounds during the hating process.

Brown sugar, extracted directly from cane juice, is a rum-flavoured, raw granulated sugar.

Candy sugar” is produced by crystallizing hot, concentrated sugar syrup slowly and over a longer period of time (a dozen days).

Vanilla sugar is sugar flavoured with natural vanilla.

The characteristic white powder of icing sugar is obtained by finely grinding granulated sugar and adding starch or silica to prevent lumps from forming.

And last but not least, we can also mention liquid sugar, the sugar used for making jam (that also contains citric acid and pectin to accelerate the gelling process), sugar cubes and sugar loaf.

What are the physical and chemical properties of sugar ?

Sucrose is a diholoside, formed from a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule.

Its molecular formula is C12H22O11 and it has a molar mass of 342 g/mol. Its official nomenclature is as follows: α-D-glucopyranosyl-(1-2)-β-D-fructofuranoside.

Sucrose has the property of deflecting a plane of polarized light towards the right (its optical rotation is known as “dextrorotatory”). Highly soluble in water, at 0°C, up to 180 g of sugar can be dissolved in 100 g of pure water. When dry heated, it begins to melt at around 160°C, then becomes caramel (molasses) before burning at around 190-200°C and leaving a sugar charcoal residue.

Under the effect of temperature and pH, sucrose in solution hydrolyses by releasing glucose and fructose molecules. This new mixture is known as “invert sugar”.

What is “invert sugar” ?

“Invert sugar” is an aqueous solution obtained by sucrose hydrolysis. It contains glucose and fructose in equal proportions, and may also contain a fraction of sucrose. The origin of the word “invert” comes from the reaction that takes place when sucrose is hydrolysed. All sugar solutions have the ability to deflect a plane of polarized light. As such, sucrose and glucose, which deflect the plane towards the right, are known as “dextrorotatory”. Fructose, however, is “levorotatory”; it deflects the plane of polarized light towards the left. When sucrose is hydrolysed, the fructose released, which is highly levorotatory, inverses the deflection of the plane of light.

Three processes exist for manufacturing invert sugar: acid hydrolysis, inversion via ion-exchange resins and inversion via enzymatic hydrolysis (the enzyme used is an invertase).

What is refined sugar ?

Only white sugar from sugarcane is refined sugar. In a beet or sugarcane mill, the sugary juice is collected, then filtered and concentrated through evaporation before being crystallized. Beet sugar is naturally white whilst can sugar colours, from blonde to brown, when crystallized as a result of the pigments that only exist in sugarcane.

To make this raw cane sugar white, it is melted again and its colourants are eliminated in a refinery: this is known as refining. In France, 96% of the white sugar that we consume comes from beet sugar whilst the white sugar from sugarcane (source of the only refined sugar) represents only 4% of commercialized sugar in France.

Apart from sugarcane and beet, do other sugar-producing plants exist ?

Basically, all plants that contain chlorophyll produce sugar through their complex photosynthesis process.

As such, sugar can be found in a wide variety of trees, in almost all fruit, in the roots, stems and leaves of a myriad of plants and, also, in the secretions of different animals (honey, milk).

Although a few of these other sources are exploited (maple sugar in Canada, coconut and palm sugar in Thailand, date sugar in Pakistan), sugar beet and sugarcane remain the two highest-yielding sucrose-containing plants.

What is the difference between sugarcane sugar and beet sugar ?

It is almost impossible to find a difference between white cane sugar and beet sugar when tasting; this is totally normal as they are both produced from a single and same sucrose molecule.

Brown sugar generally contains between 85 to 98% sucrose as well as colourants, minerals and aromatic ingredients; the last three are used to differentiate the different sugars. Brown sugar from beet has a sugary flavour that is enhanced with a caramel or “brûlé” (burnt) taste whilst the taste of brown sugar from sugarcane is more akin to cinnamon and rum; a wide variety of tastes exists based on production source and conditions.

Micronutrient content (mainly minerals) in white sugar is minute as a result of the pureness of crystallized (granulated) white sugar.

Mineral content in brown sugar is quite significant for both brown cane sugar (0.45% minerals) and brown beet sugar (0.80%).

Notwithstanding, when we talk about this content in relation to units of daily consumption, the quantities that are really consumed ‘via’ brown sugar are extremely low.

Does a use-by date exist for sugar ?

For granulated sugar, also known as “crystallized sugar”, use-by labelling is not compulsory. The lack of moisture in crystallized sugar means that there is no microbiological risk and, as such, no Best-By Date (BBD) for sugar.

In addition, as regards taste, crystallized sugar is extremely stable, and, as such, is exempted from Best-Before labelling.

The European Directive 79/112/EC on labelling, recently amended by European Directive 200/13/EC (1), details a positive list of food products that are exempted from such labelling; “crystallized sugar” is part of this list. (1) 200/13/EC of 20 March 2000, published on 6 May 2000.

What is the difference between white sugar and brown sugar ?

The difference in colour between the two sugars does not stem from the plant that they come from, but from the level of sucrose purity.

Today, beet sugar mills produce white sugar almost exclusively, which comes from the first crystallization cycle. Prolonged heating during the subsequent cycles lead to the formation of caramel-type coloured compounds.

Brown sugars, some of which are commercialized under the name of “vergeoise” (in France, equivalent to Demerara sugar in the UK), are obtained at this stage. As the cane stem contains colour (dye) precursors, first cane sugar samples (first crystallization cycle) are already coloured. This raw sugar, commercialized without any further processing, is known as “cassonade (in France, brown sugar in the UK).

Most of the brown sugar production, however, is shipped to refineries that eliminate the colourants and produce white sugar.

Does organic sugar exist ?

Yes, you can find sugar produced from organically-grown sugarcane and beet on the market. This “organic” sugar is extracted in traditional sugar mills.

It is rigorously identical to standard sugar. The main difference is in the cultivation techniques used on the sugar plants and not on the sugar itself.

However, organic sugar production in Europe is limited. The organic sugar market in Europe represents around 100,000 tons, 90% of this comes from sugarcane. Organic sugar from beet is produced on a very small scale, in Austria and in Germany.