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Close-up image of chopped sugar cane plant next to pile of white sugar

Cane sugar: everything you need to know

05/11/2021 By Ibrahim Belo in Products Demerara sugar, Sourcing

Some consumers see cane sugar listed as an ingredient on the back of a product’s label and question what it is. The answer, however, may be more straightforward than they realise. Here, we explain why.

What is cane sugar?

Cane sugar is any sugar made from the sugar cane plant, but typically the term refers to white granulated cane sugar. The sugar cane plant is grown in hot tropical climates around the world such as South America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Once processed into cane sugar, it is imported into the UK from these tropical locations via bulk shipping.

Why is it sometimes recognised by this name?

1. The term sugar also refers to sugar made from the sugar beet plant, which is grown in temperate climates around the world such as Europe, North America, and even here in the UK. This is called beet sugar.
2. Today, product labelling demands greater accuracy so that consumers are more aware of a product’s ingredients.
3. Traditionally, cane sugar had a reputation for being better quality than beet sugar. As a result, some food and beverage manufacturers preferred using cane sugar and this contributed to the labelling terminology.

However, please note that refined cane sugar is chemically identical to refined beet sugar. So today, the reason why companies in the UK import so much cane sugar is that some specialist sugars can only be made from cane sugar, added to the fact there is not enough beet sugar produced domestically to supply the whole of the UK market.

Image of combine harvesters harvesting sugar cane

Harvesting sugar cane. 

How is cane sugar made?

The process starts with the planting of mature harvested sugar cane cuttings into the ground that, over 12 months, grow into sugar cane plants that are typically between four and five metres tall.

Once grown, the sugar cane is harvested and transported to mills for processing. There, the cane stalks are washed, sliced, shredded and crushed to extract the raw juice, with this juice then heated, purified, and evaporated. By boiling the juice under vacuum, the natural water is evaporated, and the juice turns a thick sweet amber colour. Next, the now thick juice is seeded with sugar crystals to grow into a super-saturated massecuite syrup and is then spun in a centrifugal machine to separate the crystals from the liquid. This produces raw sugar, ready to be transported from the mill to a sugar refinery.

Close up of sugar being spun in a centrifugal machine

Separating the sugar crystals from liquid via centrifusion. 

At the refinery, the raw sugar is melted into a sugar syrup before undergoing clarification, filtration, decolourisation, and crystallisation processes. Again, the liquid is spun in a centrifuge to separate the crystallised sugar from the liquid. After which, the crystals are dried in horizontal drum rotating driers before they must go through final stage processes of sieving, metal detecting and packaging.

Once these final checks have been completed, the sugar cane has been fully refined into white granulated cane sugar and is ready for use, either for direct consumption or commercial manufacture.

Is all cane sugar refined?

No, cane sugar does not need refining to be palatable. As such, raw cane sugar – or unrefined cane sugar – is another type of sugar that is widely available on the market. This marks a key difference between cane sugar and beet sugar. Unrefined beet sugar is not palatable, so beet sugar is always refined, whereas cane sugar can be unrefined, partially refined, or refined.

Essentially, raw cane sugar is transported straight from the mill to the sugar supplier’s site, skipping out the refinery process. This impacts its colour, taste and sucrose content. As a result, raw cane sugar has an amber colour and subtle taste that cannot be achieved using white granulated cane sugar, which has a white colour and neutral taste.

What other types of cane sugar are there?

Generally, the term cane sugar refers to white granulated sugar (straight sucrose) that is produced from sugar cane, but as highlighted above, raw cane sugar can also be described in this way.

Similarly, various other sugars can only be produced from sugar cane and might also be described as cane sugars. These include:

• Demerara sugar – learn more about this product here.
• Light cane muscovado sugar – learn more about this product here.
• Dark cane muscovado sugar – learn more about this product here.
• Liquid cane sugar 

Side-by-side image of demerara sugar on left, light cane muscovado sugar in the middle, and dark cane muscovado sugar on the right

What applications does white granulated cane sugar have?

White granulated cane sugar can be used in just about any white sugar application on the planet, just like granulated beet sugar. Typically, these are applications that require sweetness, but as it is a versatile and multifunctional ingredient, it performs several other key functions such as bulking, preserving and fermenting.

While it is used in commercial food and beverage production far and wide, there are some particularly popular markets. These include:

• Beverages – such as cola, lemonade, fruit blends and sports drinks.
• Bakery – such as biscuits and pastries.
• Confectionery – such as sweets and chocolates.

However, it is worth noting that white granulated cane sugar often plays a supporting role in many of its applications. Though it is a multifunctional ingredient, it usually needs to be paired with specialist industrial sugars such as golden syrup or black treacle to deliver more added value benefits such as flavour or colour development.

And of course, for consumers, the most obvious use of white granulated cane sugar is as everyday table sugar – the type that is packaged in one-kilogram bags and added to tea and coffees for sweetening purposes.

Cane sugar integral to food and beverage production

So while references to cane sugar may be misleading to some, it is typically white granulated cane sugar – a staple ingredient in food and beverage products the world over.

Overhead image of bowl of cane sugar sitting next to sugar cane stalks

The pure sugarmark is a global symbol that shows a sweetener product has been grown naturally, from either sugar cane or sugar beet. 

It also plays a vital role in Ragus’ operations. In addition to beet sugar, pure cane sugar is an integral primary production material that enables us to manufacture our range of pure sugar products. By sourcing the highest quality cane sugar, we can manufacture the highest quality and most consistent crystalline brown sugars, syrups and treacles – and this means they perform most effectively in our customers’ applications.

Ragus manufactures bulk pure sugars and syrups for industry. To learn more about our products, please contact our Customer Services Team. To see more sugar news and updates, continue browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Ibrahim Belo

With a primary responsibility for manufactured product quality control, Ibrahim works within our supplier chain, factory and production laboratory. He has a focus on continuous improvement, implementing and maintaining our technical and quality monitoring processes, ensuring standards and product specifications are met.

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