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.