If someone were to ask you where white sugar comes from, your first thought — and a reasonable one — would probably be sugar cane. But these days, most sugar in the U.S. is extracted from sugar beets – not sugar cane.
That alone isn’t really an issue because, regardless of whether the sugar comes from cane or beets, the final sugar product looks and tastes the same. However, there are two main concerns:
- The vast majority of sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified.
- Whether it comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, white sugar is so highly processed that it’s stripped of the minerals, enzymes, fibers and other nutrients that were present in the original raw sugar cane or raw sugar beet.
Let’s quickly chat about how to read the label in order to identify white, genetically modified sugar. And then we’ll list several natural (less processed) sugar alternatives.
In this article
- Identifying white sugar on the label
- Avoiding genetically engineered sugars
- Natural alternatives to white sugar
- How is sugar made? (video)
Identifying white sugar on the label
So here’s the thing. 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.
Healthier and more natural brands know this. So if they do NOT use white sugar in their products, you can bet your bippy they’ll make that clear on the label. For example, a natural candy maker would specifically list “raw brown sugar”, “molasses”, or “organic sugar cane” on the label, if that’s what they used — they would never just list “sugar”, lest their customers think they’ve used “white sugar”. (Gasp!)
All that to say, 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 good chance that it is white sugar from genetically modified sugar beets.
Avoiding genetically engineered sugars
If you’re concerned with eating GMO sugars, you’ll want to skip packaged white sugar, as mentioned above. And, of course, this also goes for any candies, baked goods, tomato sauces, and other foods that list just “sugar” as an ingredient.
But white sugar isn’t the only sweetener that is highly processed and genetically modified. Corn is one of the most highly genetically modified foods in the US, yet countless candies, foods, and drinks are sweetened with it.
Corn isn’t always obvious to spot on an ingredients list, because it comes in many forms and goes by many names. For example:
- corn syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- corn sweetener
- isolated fructose
- maize syrup
- glucose syrup (usually from cornstarch, but not always)
- fructose syrup
Not all foods sweetened with sugar or corn are genetically modified. Here are a few things to look for:
- Some brands will specifically call out their sugar ingredients as non-GMO. For example, you might see “non-GMO beet sugar” or “non-GMO molasses on the label.
- Better yet, look for the non-GMO project verified seal.
- To be certified organic, the food cannot contain any GMO ingredients, so look for products that are certified organic and/or list “organic” sugar on the label.
A note on cane sugar
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 feel safe that sugars listed specifically as cane sugar or evaporated cane juice have not been genetically modified.
Natural alternatives to white sugar
While no sweetener is considered healthy, the following sweeteners are healthier alternatives to white sugar and are not genetically modified.
- Sustainably harvested honey
- Maple syrup
- Brown rice syrup (organic)
- Barley malt
- Yacon syrup
- Coconut palm sugar (may be listed simply as coconut sugar)
- Palm sugar
- Date sugar
- Coconut nectar
- Monkfruit (“lakanto”)
- Organic stevia (liquid stevia tends to be less processed than powdered)
Curious to see how sugar is made? Check this out.