What’s that smell?

Reader Jimma brought up a good point yesterday: beet sugar can — or once did — have a distinctive smell. Indeed once upon a time beet sugar makers had trouble refining their product to the same degree that cane makers did. This was for a couple of reasons. First, beets grow in soil, so residual soil, molds and bacteria can get into the batch if they’re not thoroughly washed off. Second, beets contain toxic compounds called saponins that they use for defense. As the name implies, these chemicals are related to soaps, which means that they not only have a funky flavor, they can create foam or scum in syrups.

In the last few decades beet sugar makers have figured out how to mitigate all these contaminants. Seldom do they cause off flavors or odors in refined sugar products. However they do make beet molasses unsalable, which is why you never see it on store shelves. It’s usually sold off as animal food.

17 thoughts on “What’s that smell?”

  1. I guess animals are less fussy about smells and tastes. I’d always heard beet sugar was considered the cheaper and poorer product and tended to have inconsistencies that would affect baking. Maybe that was all said to sell more cane sugar. I do admit to using only cane sugar in my baking unless I’m using someone else’s ingredients. I’m a little fussy about flour too. Maybe I only imagine it makes a difference but I feel better using products I feel do a better and more consistent job. Fascinating to read the process on both.

    1. I think in the past beet sugars did have a negative effect on baking. However virtually all the baking I do I do with beet sugar and have never noticed any problems. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. Interesting! Do you choose to bake with beet sugar for any particular reason? I’ve never noticed it here in Canada–all sugar packages are emblazoned with ‘100% pure cane’.
        My favourite nursery/seed supplier does sell sugar beet seeds with accompanying instructions for making sugar from the beets. Every year I think about buying a pack just for the fun of it.

        1. Only because it’s cheap! 😉

          Actually cane sugar is probably a more reliable way to go, as other readers seem to be telling me they have mixed results from beet sugar. In general if the package doesn’t say “Pure Cane Sugar” on it, it’s probably beet sugar. A lot of generic packaged sugar is beet sugar.

          – Joe

  2. How would you describe the smell of beet sugar? I used to buy the store brand sugar at a certain big-box store until I noticed that it had an unpleasant cheesy smell. It didn’t seem to have a negative effect on my baking, but I found it too unappetizing to use. I don’t know if was beet sugar—does it sound like it might have been?

    1. I don’t really know it, since I can’t remember smelling it. However other readers may be able to enlighten us. It is possible you just got some pretty lousy flour, though. Thanks for the note!

      – Joe

  3. I always wondered why all the old candy making books I’ve found are so explicit to only use cane sugar . . . foam on syrups and/or a soapy taste would ruin a batch of caramels, I guess. Thanks!

  4. I’ve always used beet sugar, probably because I grew up in central Michigan not too far from a factory that processed sugar beets. I’ve never noticed a smell or performance issue with the sugar itself. The processing however, let’s just say that during the harvest/processing season you did everything possible to avoid certain parts of town depending on which was the wind was blowing. Although, I wouldn’t call the smell cheesy, more…musty/dirty?

    1. That’s probably those molds I mentioned earlier. That helps very much, Lauren. Thanks!

      – Joe

    2. I grew up in Michigan as well — by any chance was it the Big Chief sugar factory you lived near? I’ve come to think of the odor as “moldy crème brulée,” though I’ve never actually smelled moldy crème brulée….

  5. I remember as a kid, we used to…we’ll…taste different animal foods. One we really liked was the beet pulp that was fed to horses. I am wondering if it is a by-product of this whole sugar thing?

    1. I’m sure it is, Jolee! That’s funny…but I’m sure I’d have done the same as a kid. I remember tasting fish food once — never did that again! 😉

      Thanks for the funny childhood memory!

      – Joe

  6. Here in the Netherlands almost all sugar is beet sugar (probably because sugar beets grow very well around here, so it is much cheaper than importing cane sugar). We do have cane sugar, a light brown sugar with a distinctive taste, which is available in the supermarket as well. And in organic shops you can find sucanat… but that’s it, the rest is beet sugar. I’ve never had any trouble at all with beet sugar, no smell, no foam, no inconsistent results. Maybe in America they process the beets different?

    Oh, and beet molasses is certainly used. We have something called “stroop” (literally syrup) in the Netherlands, a dark brown syrup that is mainly used on pancakes, but also in pastry, on bread, on ice-cream, etc… I could not find much about the production of stroop, but the website of the producer states the following: “The mixture which forms when preparing crystal sugar from sugar beets forms the base for the preparation of stroop”. So I guess it is kind of a refined beet molasses. I believe that British golden syrup and treacle are made from beets too. It’s lovely stuff and has no weird taste or smell at all.

    1. Hey Ena!

      Very interesting. I’d heard that a thickened beet syrup was sometimes used in Germany as a spread for bread (“Zapp” I think is the name), but wasn’t aware of beet molasses as a commercial product in Europe. Here in the States you don’t see it. Golden syrup is a cane syrup, but it may be true that there’s a beet treacle out there. I’ll look into it. Thanks so much for the very informative comment, Ena!

      – Joe

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