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If someone were to ask you where white sugar comes from, your first thought — and a reasonable one — would probably be sugar cane. However, the reality is that most sugar in the U.S. actually comes from sugar beets. Normally that would be fine, because regardless of whether the sugar comes from cane or beets, the final sugar product looks and tastes exactly the same.
The problem is that the vast majority of sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified.
White sugar on the label
Candy and food manufacturers in the U.S. are only required to list “sugar” on the ingredients label. They are not required to tell us which kind of sugar they’ve used or (as of this writing) whether it has been genetically modified.
For example, if the candy maker had used brown sugar, sugar cane, non-GMO beet sugar or an organic sugar of any variety, you can be pretty sure they’d let you know. So when you’re reading an ingredients label and you see just the word “sugar” without any descriptor that explains WHAT KIND of sugar, there is a very good chance that it’s white sugar from genetically modified sugar beets.
How to avoid genetically engineered sugars
For starters, skip packaged sugar, candy, tomato sauces, and other foods that list just “sugar” as the ingredient.
Ditto for corn syrup and any form of dextrose (a corn derivative). Corn is one of the most highly genetically modified foods in the U.S., yet too many candies, foods and drinks are sweetened with corn syrup and/or dextrose.
Opt for products whose labels specifically call out their sugar ingredients as non-GMO. For example, you might see “non-GMO beet sugar” or “non-GMO molasses. And look for the non-GMO project verified seal.
You can also opt for products whose labels specifically call out their sugar or sugar ingredients as organic, as organic foods are not genetically modified. For example, the label would say “organic beet sugar” or “organic molasses”.
It’s worth noting that (as far as my research indicates) GMO sugar cane is not yet sold in markets. However, bioengineers are working on genetically modifying sugar cane and it may be just a matter of time. Until we find GMO cane sugar on store shelves, you can opt for sugar or sugar ingredients listed specifically as cane sugar or evaporated cane juice.
Choosing alternative sweeteners
While no sweetener is considered healthy, the following sweeteners are healthier alternatives to white sugar and are not genetically modified.
- Sustainably harvested honey
- Coconut palm sugar (may be listed as coconut sugar)
- Palm sugar
- Date sugar
- Coconut nectar
- Maple syrup
- Brown rice syrup (organic)
- Barley malt
- Organic stevia (liquid stevia tends to be less processed than powdered)