Beet or Cane?

Reader Bee writes:

I heard cane sugar is better for baking and candy making. If [the package] says sugar, it is likely beet sugar. If it says cane sugar, it is cane sugar. Most store bands are beet sugar. At my local Wally World, their store brand, 5 pound bag stated “Sugar”, but the Store Brand 10 pound bag stated “Cane Sugar”. So I guess we can’t go by store brand!! Just read what’s on the label. Which do you use??

Bee, I use pretty much whatever comes in the bag. It’s true that beet sugar is now more common in the US than cane sugar. But the truth is you never really know what you’re getting when you buy a bag that isn’t clearly marked “cane sugar.” It might very well be beet sugar, but then it could be cane sugar. Most likely it’s a mixture of both. Why would that be? Prices. Sugar packagers will generally acquire their sucrose wherever they can and the best price wins. Beet sugar isn’t always cheaper.

But you have to remember that either product is almost 100% sucrose down to a few one hundredths of a percentage point (there are minuscule residues of cane or beet plant in each). Some people claim to be able to detect that difference by taste. I don’t believe them. Others claim there’s a performance difference, but I can’t say that I much believe that either. Then again, I’m not necessarily going to dispute a true aficionado like, say, a career sugar puller who claims to be able to see a difference with beet sugar. If you’re obsessed on that level, I won’t rule out some sort of extra-sensory perception.

However claims that beet sugar creates “coarse” baked goods, smells bad, has a lower melt point, “burns” rather than caramelizes…it’s a bunch of hooey. What’s my evidence? Well, if you’re the sort of person who believes — as many do — that Europeans far exceed the rest of us in their ability to produce fine baked goods…those folks use almost nothing but beet sugar, for the simple reason that sugar cane doesn’t grow nearby (in fact one of the nearest sources of supply, Egypt, is producing more beet sugar these days due to the fact that beets use less water).

To my mind, the functional advantages of cane sugar are all in the heads of cane sugar devotees. Which does’t make them insignificant. Unlike three one hundredths of a percent of agricultural residue, psychology has been scientifically proven to affect performance.

6 thoughts on “Beet or Cane?”

  1. hmmm… refined white sugar is refined white sugar… is refined white sugar. But I can see the vast differences when it comes to raw brown sugar from beets vs. sugar cane.

    I’d be interested in Stevia and baking, now the the EC will approve Stevia as food. France got the test balloon and went ahead last year. It all tasted rather good when I ate my way through all things Stevia there. So… what’s up with Stevia and baking?

    1. Indeed, brown sugar is a completely different matter. Brown sugar contain molasses, but the molasses that’s produced by reducing beet syrup tastes horrible. To make beet-based brown sugar, manufacturers simply stir some cane sugar molasses into beet sugar. Some purists complain that stirred-in molasses doesn’t “penetrate” sugar crystals well enough, and that it can be simply rubbed off. Be that as it may, this cosmetic difference has zero impact on the performance of the sugar.

      Regarding Stevia, that’s an interesting subject. Other than providing the sensation of sweetness, Stevia provides none of sugar’s functional attributes. Being a powder, it can’t be used for creaming. Since it has no hygroscopic properties, it doesn’t help retain moisture, and because you need so little of it to create the equivalent sensation of sweetness, it doesn’t “weigh down” batters like sugar does. That means preparations involving Stevia will need to be completely reformulated. I’ve seen several adapted recipes that employ fruit purées…they give you the bulk and the moisture, but of course they end up reintroducing sugars to the mix (glucose, fructose, sucrose and others), which sort of defeats the purpose of Stevia. I’m sure there will be many useful applications for Stevia in the future…but they’re going to take plenty of development! Thanks for the great question, Tom!

      – Joe

  2. I have to admit that I wasn’t really aware of whether I might be getting cane or beet sugar until rather recently, despite the fact that I grew up near a rather large sugar-beet-producing region in Michigan. (Oddly enough, it was moving to another large sugar-beet-producing region in Belgium that bumped up my awareness.) That said, your comment about bad smells reminded me of how I always hated the smell of my mom’s sugar container when I was a kid, and since she buys it from a Michigan beet farming cooperative I now know that it was beet sugar. Not that it made baked goods smell or anything, and maybe refined white cane sugar smells the same (but raw cane sugar, which does not smell the same in my opinion, and some powdered grape sugar are all I have on hand, so I can’t say at the moment).

    Interesting side note about stevia in the comment above. I just saw a bag of it at my local market in Belgium last weekend and was curious about it myself — thanks for the tips!

  3. I have to say that I can notice a difference in smell, but maybe that’s down to how the sugar is processed, as I live in Asia and the local sugar here smells quite different from the beet sugar I’m used to from Europe. I can’t really put my finger on it, but some sugar here smells sort of sickly sweet in a strange way. That said, the taste seems to be the same and I haven’t noticed any difference when using it for baking.

    1. Very interesting…I wonder what the difference is? Maybe some leftover molasses? Thanks LS!

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