Sugar is the Same

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Sugar Is The Same, No Matter Its Background

I recently got back from a 14 hour out-of-state road trip with my husband and kids. Since it was close quarters and Roy and I were a captive audience, it was a golden opportunity for the kids to ask some of life’s most difficult questions. They wanted to know if all the fish would die if lightning struck the lake and if their cat dreams when he goes to sleep. Also, how many people could a Tyrannosaurus Rex egg feed?

We also got occasional questions from fellow travelers about where we are from and what we do for a living. Most people we met and chatted with didn’t know what sugar beets are and were unaware that roughly 55 percent of sugar (sucrose) grown in the United States comes from sugar beets. Sucrose is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural crops, but it occurs at greater levels in sugar beets and sugarcane. The sucrose (sugar) from sugar beets and sugarcane is identical, and is the same as the sucrose found in any other agricultural crop.

Here in the fertile Red River Valley region of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, sugar beet fields are a familiar sight. In addition to the stewardship role that sugar beets play in agricultural crop rotation, most people in the Valley understand the contributions that sugar beets add to our local and state economies. Seeing locally grown sugar in our grocery stores gives a sense of pride.

Consumers in other parts of the country, however, often express some confusion over what they see on the shelves when they shop for sugar in their area grocery stores. I have been asked if there is a difference between cane sugar and beet sugar. What does it mean if a package of sugar is labeled as organic? Is sugar GMO?

While I have no answers as to what the family cat dreams about, I do know that there is a very simple answer to all of these questions about sugar: Sugar is sugar, and sugar is the same no matter its source.

There are not very many people nationally or internationally who are classically trained in biochemistry and chemistry, and who specialize in carbohydrates. One of the few experts in this area is Charles Baker, who holds a PhD in biochemistry from Purdue University.

Following a career of 40-plus years, Dr. Baker has founded a consultancy–Food Systems, LLC–in suburban Washington DC. Dr. Baker has spent the last 25 years of his career in sugar research and education. Prior to that, he directed research and technical development in the malting and brewing industry. He began his career in agricultural crop development and collaborative research at North Dakota State University.

Dr. Baker says that years of analysis have shown that the fundamental, molecular structure of white sugar is the same regardless of whether it comes from sugar beets or sugarcane. The same molecular structure is also present regardless of what growing practice was used to produce the plant from which the sucrose was isolated. Dr. Baker explains that a molecule of sucrose from sugar beets or a molecule of sucrose from sugarcane is no different than a molecule of water from North Dakota or a molecule of water from North Carolina.

So if a package of sugar is labeled as organic, that means that the plant the sugar came from was grown according to organic agriculture standards. However, once the sugar is separated from this plant, the molecular form of the resulting white sugar is completely identical to the molecular structure of the white sugar extracted from any other sugarcane or sugar beet plants, whether the original plant was developed by non-biotech strategies–oftentimes referred to as “traditional” or “conventional” techniques–or by biotech methods. The final white sugar is the same.

Dr. Baker says there is no protein or genetic material present in any of the white sugar on your grocery store’s shelves. Whether from a conventional or biotech plant, white sugar has the same nutritional value, composition and wholesomeness, and is a natural plant product.

Regulatory agencies all over the world have concurred that the white sugar extracted from biotech sugar beets is no different than the white sugar extracted from conventional sugar beets. These agencies included Health Canada, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF), and Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Sugar is the same, and that’s the Sweet Truth. It’s also only 15 calories per teaspoon. Next time you’re at the grocery store, shop for sugar with confidence. The hardest question is whether to make an apple or peach pie.