Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert, nor do I possess a degree in food science. This article presents the findings of a baker who researched how modern commercial ingredients are processed.
Today we’re taking a little break from our ovens and stepping back into the classroom for another post in my Bake It Down series. This post is all about how sugar is made and the refinement process.
In case you’re new here, WELCOME! I started this series in January with a post all about the manufacturing of white flour. Bake It Down uncovers exactly how commercial baking ingredients are produced and supplies you with the information you need to make informed decisions about what you’re choosing to put into your body. These posts are not meant to shame – they are meant to educate, advise, and encourage you to make the best choices for yourself and your family.
So let’s dive into the big kahuna and take a closer look at how sugar is made.
Break it Down: Where does sugar come from?
The sugar we use in commercial bakeries is chemically known as sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. These two simple sugars (or monosaccharides) are carbohydrates that naturally form in plants through photosynthesis, which you probably learned about in grade school science (source).
Glucose is the main energy source for our bodies’ cells. We hydrolyze (break down) sucrose into glucose in order to digest it. Fructose in its natural form – think fruit, vegetables, and honey – is not bad for you when consumed in moderation. Our liver metabolizes fructose, but it can be overloaded if large quantities are ingested (source).
Problems arose with the age of industrialization and modern refinement processes. Before the 18th century, sugar was considered a luxury. Only well-to-do folks could afford it because sucrose was difficult to extract from sugar cane and mass produce. With the development of steam and mechanical engineering during the Industrial Revolution, we were able to more effectively extract the sucrose from its natural sources and create a solid form.
Conventional sugar is made from the sugar cane or sugar beet plant. These plants have a high concentration of sucrose, which we can extract and refine into table sugar. Refined sugar can be divided into several categories, but the main three are:
- Mill White. This sugar is also known as Plantation White, and it is normally only acquired and distributed locally. It’s less refined than table sugar, because it doesn’t travel as far; however, this sugar is still exposed to sulfur dioxide to obtain its white colouring (source).
- White Refined (Table Sugar). This is sugar that has undergone a rigorous refinement process. It is available in different grains, such as coarse-grain, granulated, castor, and powdered/icing.
- Brown. This is white refined sugar that has had molasses added to it. Nothing more. Nothing less.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on sugar cane and how white refined sugar is made.
How Sugar is Produced: The Refining Process
Almost all of our refined sugar comes from sugar cane; the rest is extracted from sugar beets (source, 765). Sugar is made using a two-step process of milling and refining.
Milling is simply a means of cleaning and extracting the liquid (juice) from the sugar cane plant. The plants are crushed through a series of rollers that squeeze out the sugar cane juice. This juice is collected, boiled to kill off any dirt and bacteria, and sent to the refinery (source).
The first stage of refinement is known as affination. During this step, the sugar cane juice is melted into a more concentrated, higher purity version of itself (boiled down to thicken). The mixture is then spun in a high-powered centrifuge (think clothes dryer) to separate the juice into two parts: crystals and surrounding liquid.
After this surrounding liquid has been boiled down, it is sold to consumers as grade A molasses. The sugar crystals are given a second spin in the centrifuge, dissolved in water, and filtered to remove any remaining impurities. Once these crystals harden, they are sold as raw cane sugar (source). Raw cane sugar is darker in colour and has a slightly higher moisture content than table sugar.
How we make sugar white
After it’s gone through the affination process, the sugar is put through carbonatation. During this stage, the sugar is combined with carbon dioxide gas and calcium hydroxide (also known as “slaked lime,” which is an FDA approved acidity regulator and firming agent) to form rock hard sugar crystals (source). Carbonatation also removes more of the impurities and some colour.
The next step is decolourization where the sugar crystals are washed of their natural colour. This is done by filtering the sugar through bone char, activated carbon, or ion-exchange resin.
Finally, this liquid is boiled, washed with water, and spun again several times to create the granulated sugar crystals we know as table sugar.
Why you might want to avoid refined white sugar
As you can probably tell from the recipes on this blog, I choose to avoid refined white sugar as often as possible. My issues aren’t with the sugar industry and refinement process as a whole, but with the final two steps of carbonatation and decolorization.
Calcium hydroxide, the substance used in the carbonatation process, is also used as a constituent of mortars, plasters, and cement as well as the manufacture of kraft paper process and as a flocculant in sewage treatment (source).
There are a few companies that now use ion-exchange resins (polymer microbeads that trap and release ions to purify the sugar syrup) to bleach their sugar, but many brands still use bone char. Bone char is created from grinding down cattle bones and roasting them in a kiln until they’re reduced to charcoal. The sugar syrup is then filtered several times through cisterns full of bone char to decolour it (source, 5660-61). If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you might be better off avoiding refined white sugar altogether; however, the Vegetarian Resource Group has pulled together a list of bone char-free sugar companies if you choose to use it.
Aside from the dubious (and unnecessary) use of bone char and calcium hydroxide, excess consumption of refined sugar also causes innumerable health problems, including weight gain, heart disease, acne, diabetes, and possibly cancer (source). The NHS recommends that adults should consume no more than 30 grams of added sugars per day and children no more than 24 grams.
I don’t completely abstain from sugar. Cutting it out completely makes me irritable, unhappy, and leaves me feeling guilty when I inevitably break my diet and binge. So instead of living less of a life, I choose to moderate my sugar consumption and make better choices. Honey, maple syrup, fruit, and vegetables contain far less harmful sugars and also give you vitamins, minerals, and fibre (source). Using these products in my baking and in my everyday life allows me moderate my sugar intake while also feeling satisfied and happy.
However, I will occasionally use molasses and raw cane sugar in my baking, because I feel these products are less refined and safer than white sugar. This is a choice I’ve made for me and my life and won’t necessarily be right for everyone. My goal with this Bake It Down series is to provide you with the information – you decide what you do with it. My hope is that you make a choice that you can maintain and that it makes you feel happier and guilt free.
What are your thoughts?
Do you have any questions, concerns, or quandaries regarding this article? Leave them in the comment section below or get in touch via email and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.