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Sugar Cane Processing and Common Types of Sugars

Sugar_Refining_Cartoon

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Sugar or sucrose can come from sugar cane (genus Saccharum) or sugar beet (Beta vulgaris). But for this article, we’ll focus on sugar cane and how sugar is obtained from it and processed. This plant grows 2 to 6 metres high and a single stalk contains approximately 12 – 14% sucrose. To make things simpler, the process of extracting sugar from sugar cane happens in two steps: at a sugar mill and at a sugar refinery.


A sugar mill is usually located beside the field where sugarcane is harvested. It’s where raw sugar is obtained from the plant and brought to a sugar refinery. At a sugar mill, the plant stalks are washed and then cut into shreds. Big rollers then press and squeeze the juice out of the shredded stalks. The juice is clarified, concentrated, and crystallised producing raw sugar. This raw sugar is then brought to a cane sugar refinery.


sugar-cane-and-brown-sugarAt the refinery, the raw sugar is converted to brown sugar, granulated sugar and other consumer products. Centrifugation and concentration are some of the essential processes undergone at the refinery. The final products consist of sugar crystals of various sizes. These are then packaged accordingly.

Here are the common types and forms of sugars we consume daily:

Type of Sugar Characteristics:
Processing and Appearance
Nutrients
White sugar
Also known as:
Granulated sugar
Table sugar
Refined sugar
sugar-cubes-on-white-background

Most common form of sugar.
It’s paper white in colour and composed of fine crystals.
There are many subtypes of refined or granulated sugar. Examples include castor sugar, confectioner’s/icing sugar, coarse sugar, baker’s special sugar and pearl sugar.
Zero nutritional value! No
vitamins, minerals.

100 % carbohydrates

Raw sugar
teaspoon-and-sugar

Raw sugar has gone through minimal processing. There are various definitions. At the very least, it’s the result of the first stage of the sugar refining process. Approximately the same as white sugar. May contain traces of minerals, though not enough to make a huge difference to its nutritional value.
Organic sugarcane-sugar-in-studio-light Organic sugar is sugar (from sugar beets or sugarcane) which hasn’t gone through the various refining processes and has a natural blonde colour.
It’s sugar grown organically. Without chemical pesticides or herbicides.
Approximately the same as raw sugar.
Castor sugar
Also spelt as caster
a-mountain-of-granulated-sugar
Castor sugar is granulated sugar that’s been ground to a powder (but not as fine as icing sugar) allowing it to dissolve quickly. It’s great for baking. Same as white sugar.
Icing sugar
Also known as:
Powdered sugar
Confectioners sugar.
powdered-sugar
Regular white sugar is finely ground to a powder. It usually contains an anti-caking agent such as  cornstarch.
As the term implies, icing sugar is predominantly used for icing, glazes, whipping creams, and confectionery.
Approximately the same as white sugar.
Brown sugar
Can be either light or dark.
Light brown sugar is also called golden brown sugar.
crystals-cane-sugar-heap-close-up
Brown sugar gets its colour from the presence of molasses. It can be refined (adding molasses to white sugar) or unrefined (some molasses was left after processing).
Raw brown sugar is normally unrefined, while soft brown sugar is usually refined and then molasses is added back in.
The only difference between ‘light’ and ‘dark’ brown sugar is the molasses content. Light has around 3.5% molasses while dark has about 6.5% molasses.
Is brown sugar healthier than white sugar?
The nutritional value of brown and raw sugar is only slightly higher than white sugar. While the molasses content of brown and raw sugar contains some minerals like iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, these minerals are only in trace amounts.
 
Molasses
Also known as black treacle
teaspoon
Molasse is a byproduct of sugarcane (or sugar beet) processing. Its what’s left after the sugar crystals have been removed. It has a thick syrupy texture.
There are different types of molasses. They differ in extraction, amount of sugar in them and the age of the plant they are from. These differences can also affect their nutrient content.
Molasses is a common cooking and baking ingredient.
Of all the types, blackstrap molasses has the highest nutrient value and the least sugar. It is the result of a third boiling of the cane juice so most of the sucrose crystals have already been removed.
Nutrients:

  • Minerals: calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulphur and zinc.
  • Vitamins: biotin, choline, inositol, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, thiamine.
Golden Syrup
Also known as light treacle
honey
Like molasses, golden syrup is a byproduct of sugar refining. It is made from refiners return sugar (after the first boiling). Approximately the same as white sugar.
Demerara
Also known as turbinado sugar
turbinado-sugar

Often used in tea and other beverages, this partially processed sugar has a blond colour because only the surface molasses has been removed.
Also used as toppings for crumbles, cakes, cupcakes.
The nutritional value of demerara is dependent on its molasses content. Though like raw and brown sugar, it doesn’t differ greatly from white sugar because the nutrients are only present in small amounts.
Jaggery
Also known by various other names such as panela or gula in other parts of the world.
brown-sugar

Jaggery is a traditional sugar predominantly consumed in Africa and Asia.
There are different types of jaggery as it can be made from different plants including sugar cane juice, coconut palm sap, and date palm. It’s unrefined which means the molasses content isn’t removed so it has a rich brown colour.
Unlike white table sugar, it contains small amounts of minerals though these can vary depending on the type of jaggery.
Nutrients:

  • Minerals: Iron, calcium and phosphorus.
  • Fibre: It contains some fibre and has a slightly lower glycaemic index than table sugar.
Fruit Sugar
This term is usually given to fructose which is what makes fruit sweet.
fruit-sugar-in-an-orange
A bit finer than table sugar with uniform crystals making it mix well in powders or other dry ingredients. So it’s often used for sweetening powdered and liquid beverages like soft drinks.
It’s usually made from cane or beet sugar (as sucrose is half fructose), but can also come from corn syrup.
While fructose has a low glycaemic index, research is showing it has damaging effects on the liver when consumed in large amounts such as in soft drinks. It’s also a lot sweeter than table sugar.
So stick with whole fruit with all its natural fibre rather than fructose alone.
Coconut sugar
coconut-sugar-isolated-on-white
Made from sap taken from the coconut palm. It has a similar taste to brown sugar.
Though sometimes it may be mixed with cane sugar so check the packet when you buy it.
It contains small amounts of minerals compared with white sugar.
Nutrients:

  • Minerals: Calcium, iron, potassium and zinc.
  • Fibre: Inulin – a prebiotic fibre which gives it a lower glycaemic index than table sugar.
Date sugar
dates-isolated
Made from dehydrated dates which are ground up. Because of this process, it’s quite expensive and does not dissolve in liquids. Date sugar is unrefined so contains nutrients from the dates.
Nutrients:

  • Fibre
  • Antioxidants
Maple sugar
scoop-of-maple-sugar-chunks

Maple syrup is boiled which causes the sugars to form into sugar granules. Like brown sugar, it may have some traces of minerals, but not enough to be significant.
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spoonsAs you can see there are many types of sugar available out there on the market. While some may sound healthier than others, they are all still sugar and their nutritional value doesn’t actually differ much. Whichever sugar you choose, stay within the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for sugar consumption for optimal health: Less than 6 teaspoons (25g) per day. For children this comes to no more than 3 teaspoons per day. View sugar as a treat!


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