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  • .75/3 = 75 cents off three items
  • EXP = Expiration Date

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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.

Last week, when we were talking about the Pumpkin Spice Latte (and its excessive 49g of sugar!) we came up with some more natural alternatives. We looked at a few options for sweetening the drink, and touched a bit on why organic sugar might be a better option. This week, we’re going to take a closer look at organic sugar. How is it different from white sugar? Is it really any better for you? Is it worth the price difference? Let’s see what the deal is with organic sugar.

What is sugar?
The white sugar we buy at the store is technically 99.99% sucrose. Sucrose is a combination of glucose and fructose, all in one handy little molecule (C12H22O11). There are two sources of sucrose: the sugar cane and the sugar beet. We’re going to focus on sugar from the sugar cane, since it’s the most popular here.

How is sugar made?
Well it depends. Like other foods, the USDA “organic” label means the sugar cane was grown without synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. However, unlike other organic foods, organic sugar is processed differently from conventional sugar, guaranteeing an entire process free from synthetic chemicals or man-made compounds. The organically-grown sugar cane is washed, chopped, and crushed to extract the cane juice. The juice is then boiled, spun in a centrifuge, and dried into sugar crystals. To remove extra molasses (the dark brown liquid part of sugar cane juice), the crystals are then steam cleaned. The resulting sugar is a pale brown color and retains the trace nutrients (iron, calcium, vitamin B6, chromium, magnesium, selenium, and potassium) found in the cane juice.

I was surprised to learn how unbelievably different the conventional sugar refining process is from the organic process. BIG differences.

Conventional Sugar Refining Method: The sugar cane fields are first burned to remove extra leaves and debris. Then the sugar cane is harvested, washed, chopped, and juiced. The juice is clarified by phosphatation, sulfitation, or carbonation.

-Phosphatation: phosphoric acid, lime (the calcium oxide, not the fruit), and polyacrylamide are used to create a calcium phosphate floc (kind of like a scum layer at the top of a pond) to pull out impurities in the juice.
-Sulphitation: lime and sulphur dioxide are used to pull out impurities, sometimes leaving trace amounts of sulphur behind
-Carbonation: lime and carbon dioxide are used to pull out impurities and form a calcium carbonate precipitate.

All three clarification methods involve lime. Now, the sugar heads to decolorization to make it more white. The light brown sugar liquid is decolorized with the help of activated carbon and/or bone char. (It’s exactly what it sounds like: burned cow bones.) After being clarified, the sugar is sent to crystallization with the assistance of isopropyl alcohol and a low-grade sugar crystal seed (previously refined sugar). The newly-crystallized sugar is spun in a centrifuge to remove the molasses. The molasses liquid is then washed and recrystallized two more times to extract all the sugar physically possible. The third extraction of molasses is sold as blackstrap molasses and used in animal feed. (You can read all about the conventional sugar refining process on the EPA’s site.)

I was intrigued by the clarification process in conventional sugar refining. What “impurities” are they removing from the conventional sugar, and why isn’t organic sugar clarified? Conventional sugar is clarified for two reasons: 1. to produce a higher yield of refined sugar, and 2. to create a more pure product. Refined white sugar is 99.99% pure sucrose, a chemical marvel of cleanliness. Organic sugar is not. The “impurities” that are left behind in organic sugar are minerals…you know, the good stuff you pay money for in supplements.

To me, the whole clarification and refining process borders on ridiculous. It’s as if some chemists just kept betting each other to see who could out-refine the other. Just when you think the sugar is pure enough, they add in another step to extract even more sugar from the juice or make it even whiter.

How Does Organic Sugar Compare to Conventional Sugar?
After the sugar has been refined and packaged, the organic sugar and the conventional sugars are actually pretty similar. They have similar crystals and sweetness. The organic sugar is a little bit more brown and has a slightly richer flavor, courtesy of the remaining trace minerals. When you’re using organic sugar in a recipe, it will substitute 1:1 for conventional white sugar. One invisible difference hides in the glycemic index (GI): white refined sugar has a GI of about 80, and organic sugar has a GI of 47. On the glycemic index scale, that’s a pretty significant difference!

The Cost
There are several different brands of organic sugar you can find in the store. They average about $3-4 for 1 pound or $10 for a 4-pound bag. Conventional sugar will run around $1.50-2 for 1 pound or $5-6 for a 4-pound bag. So, the question is…where does organic sugar fall on your priority list? This is one instance where the organic product costs twice as much as the conventional product. However, organic sugar offers the superb benefit of a lower glycemic index. If you’re watching your sugar intake or trying to maintain stable blood sugar levels, organic sugar will be a better choice than conventional sugar.

Sucanat
The conventional method above is just one example of the many different ways you can make “sugar”. Several years ago, I heard about a different type of sugar: sucanat. This alternative form of cane sugar is one of the most natural sugars you can buy. Sucanat is made by crushing the cane, extracting the juice, heating the juice, and then drying it with hand paddles. Nothing is added to the cane juice at anytime, and only water is removed.

Unlike refined sugar, sucanat retains all those healthy nutrients that occur naturally in sugar cane. Thanks to its higher molasses content, sucanat also has a lower calorie count. Here are a few comparisons for you to enjoy:

Sucanat

(1 cup)

Refined White Sugar

(1 cup)

Calories

570

770

Potassium

1125 mg

4 mg

Vitamin A

1600 IU

0

Calcium

165 mg

2 mg

Iron

6.5 mg

0.1 mg

Magnesium

127 mg

0.08 mg

Glycemic Index

55

80

If you haven’t tried sucanat, give it a go! I use it in my baking and cooking. The sweetness is similar to refined sugar, but the texture is a little different, more coarse. It will still swap out 1:1 with conventional sugar. Sucanat will take a little longer to dissolve in a mixture, but otherwise, it’s a beautiful substitute. Price-wise, it’s comparable to organic sugar. I’ve started seeing sucanat in the grocery stores. Have you seen it locally? If not, you can always order in bulk from Amazon or other suppliers. My local supplier has a great price and also sells it online, $14.55 for a 5 lb bucket.

Perspective
Sugar, in any form (organic, sucanat, conventional), should be limited…but if you’re going to enjoy it, choosing a more natural option may help you stay closer to your health goals. Organic sugar is not a “health” food by any definition, but it is a better option than refined white sugar. If reducing environmental impact is a priority for you, the organic process is significantly more eco-friendly, using healthy agricultural processes and a cleaner refining process. Where does sugar fall on your priority list?

Next week…
We’re going to begin taking a look at alternative sweeteners…the kind with reduced calories and lower glycemic indexes: artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners, and everything in between!