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Crystalline sugar moving fast on a mill roller in a sugar processing factory

What is crystalline sugar?

19/10/2023 By Ibrahim Belo in Products Crystallines

Sucrose, the chemical name for sugar, is a carbohydrate and disaccharide composed of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose. Sucrose is found in plants, in particular sugar beet and sugarcane. Crystalline sugars are so-called because they have a crystalline structure comprising sucrose molecules.

How are sugar crystals formed?

The crystalline structure is created following a process of extraction, purification and crystallisation. The sugar beet or sugarcane is cut, cleaned and crushed to extract the juice. The juice is heated and boiled to purify it, until it becomes more concentrated. This thicker, more concentrated juice is then placed in a vacuum pan and further evaporated until saturated.

The syrup is seeded with sugar crystals that encourages the solution to grow into a super-saturated massecuite syrup, which is spun in a centrifuge to separate these crystals from most of the remaining syrup. White table sugar is sucrose without any residual molasses. White sugar can be made from both sugarcane and sugar beet.

Natural cane sugars, such as demerara and muscovado sugars, retain some of the syrup, or molasses. This provides a different flavour and texture profile to white sugars. The sugar crystals are dried, cooled, screened and sieved, ready for packaging after final quality control.

A series of yellow centrifuge machines in a processing plant

The super-saturated massecuite syrup is spun in a centrifuge to separate sugar crystals from the syrup.

A question that is asked is: is sugar crystalline or amorphous? Sugars can be either in a crystalline or amorphous state. In confectionery, sugars may be combined to create the right ratio of crystalline to amorphous. How sugar behaves depends on how it is heated and cooled and the manufacturing process.

Types of crystalline sugar

There are different types of crystalline sugar. Physically, crystallines vary in terms of crystal or grain size, texture, flavour and colour. Grain size can range from coarse, granulated and powdered to superfine, while colour may be white to golden to dark brown.  

The flavour, texture and colour of each crystalline will vary depending on how much molasses it contains. Demerara sugar is a crystalline that undergoes minimal processing, so retains natural molasses. It can also only be made from sugarcane. The same is true of muscovado sugar, another crystalline. However, there is a difference in texture and flavour between the two. Muscovado tends to be wetter in texture, with an intense flavour as it contains more molasses, while demerara is more mellow in flavour and coarse in texture.

Different types of sugar, including demerara sugar and dark muscovado sugar

Demerara sugar with coarse crystals that give a distinctive crunch to mouthfeel on the left. On the right is muscovado sugar, a cane sugar with a higher level of molasses content, providing richer flavour and darker colour.

Different types of sugar, including soft brown light sugar and dark brown soft sugar

Left is soft brown light sugar, which has a fine texture, less intense flavour and colour, ideal for lighter dessert sauces and baking. Shown right, dark soft brown sugar has a higher molasses content, leading to darker colour and richer flavour, still with a finer texture so good for baking, particularly richer and darker cakes and sauces.

By contrast, refined white sugar can be made from sugarcane or sugar beet and refined sugar contains no molasses at all. Soft brown sugars, such as soft light brown sugar and dark soft brown sugar are refined white table sugar with molasses added. At Ragus, we use a unique blend of treacle, which contains molasses, and refiners’ syrup, to create our soft brown sugars.

These different crystallines are processed for use in different applications. For example, dark soft brown sugar is ideal if a damper, smoother texture and stronger flavour are required, while a granulated product like demerara sugar is ideal for adding into coffee as the heat dissolves the crystals quickly and demerara’s mellow flavour counters the more bitter taste of coffee.

At Ragus, we manufacture the following types of crystalline sugars:

Soft brown light sugar

Dark soft brown sugar

Demerara sugar

Light cane muscovado sugar

Dark cane muscovado sugar.

Do crystalline sugars offer any health benefits?

Crystalline sugars that are less processed and naturally contain more molasses are generally considered healthier than those that are more processed, such as regular white table sugar. Demerara sugar, for example, is minimally processed and retains some vitamins and minerals that are important for good health, such as iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B6.

Dark cane muscovado sugar retains an even higher amount of molasses, which increases its nutritional value. In general, the darker the colour, the more molasses and minerals the sugar contains.

As with any ingredient we add to food, it is important to consume them in moderation and always check labels for calorie and nutritional information.

How sustainable is crystalline sugar?

Crystalline sugar is no more or less sustainable than other types of sugars or syrups. Sustainability is tied to how sustainable each crop is and how it is cultivated and processed.

According to the WWF, the environmental impact of growing sugar beet and sugarcane is similar to other agricultural crops, but there are concerns around irrigation, pollution runoff and soil degradation, especially with regards to sugarcane.

Sugarcane cultivation requires more water and land, which can lead to the destruction of habitats and a decline in biodiversity. But in some regions, many sugarcane farms have been growing commercial crops for centuries, and no new farmland is created.

Sugar beet cultivation is associated with higher herbicide use compared to other crops but is an otherwise hardy plant once established. Sugarcane can produce four harvests per year, whereas sugar beet only produces one harvest, so cane can be considered less intensive farming.

A tractor and combine harvester in operation in a crop field

Harvesting sugarcane (left) and sugar beet (right).

What is also important, is how the sugarcane and sugar beet is sourced and whether social, ethical and environmental considerations are a factor in the process of selecting suppliers. This is true for Ragus, and you can learn more about how we source our pure sugars and syrups

There is another measure of sustainability, which is the commercial viability of sugarcane and sugar beet farming. If we look at the global sugar market, prices have increased by around 40% in the year to June 2023. Poor weather and climate conditions have led to lower crop yields at a time when demand for sugar is growing. In some regions, the low local prices paid to farmers, often because of local price controls, has forced some farmers to choose alternative, more profitable crops.  

Crystalline sugars and sweeteners: what are consumers saying?

The health benefits of sugar, the potential health risks associated with overconsumption and sustainable sugar sourcing are all key considerations for consumers. This highlights the importance of supply chain transparency, and suppliers are supporting and promoting sustainable practices to meet these concerns.

However, consumer preferences are always changing, and there is a growing demand for natural and ethically sourced clean label ingredients, and this extends to sugar. More consumers prefer to buy organic or fairtrade sugar products or buy from sugar brands that are known to adhere to strict ethical, environmental and sustainable standards, such as Bonsucro.

But this rise in demand for natural and ethically sourced ingredients may partly be driven by fears about the possible health impact of consuming natural and artificial low calorie and non-nutritive sweeteners. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization warned that aspartame, a chemical sweetener commonly found in diet drinks, yoghurts and medications like cough drops, is ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.

Though it is not clear how the future of sugar consumption may change, consumers should not consider sugar in a negative light, as more natural, less processed crystalline sugars can form part of a balanced diet. It remains important to read labels to understand the nutritional value of a sugar product, and to learn what added sugar or sweeteners are in the foods you buy, and how much sugar or sweetener each product contains.

While food and beverage manufacturers are starting to reformulate a small percentage of their products towards natural low-calorie sweeteners, there is value in continuing to educate consumers about the potential health risks of artificial sweeteners and other synthetic additives.

Using crystalline sugar in cooking

Crystallines like soft brown light sugar and dark soft brown sugar are moist in texture and bring flavour and colour to food and beverage applications due to their molasses content. Both are predominantly used in baking. The lighter variety is more mellow in flavour but still provides moisture, so it is ideal in cookies, cakes, flapjacks and biscuits to help prevent them from drying out. It is also used in sweet dessert sauces, such as toffee and caramel sauces. 

Flapjack squares on a cooling rack Slices of fruit cake on a wooden board

Flapjacks (left) baked with soft brown light sugar. Fruit cake (right) uses dark soft brown sugar, with its higher molasses content that gives a lighter flavour and darker colour.

The dark brown variety is often used in fruit cakes or other dense baked goods to help keep them moist for longer and to intensify the colour and flavour. It is also added to barbecue sauces as the higher molasses content enhances the stickiness of the sauce.

Demerara sugar has a coarse texture and provides crunch, which makes it ideal as a finishing sugar on porridge and cereal or sprinkled on top of desserts like crumble. As this sugar tends to dissolve easily, it is often added to tea or coffee, or to sweeten a mojito cocktail.

Fruit crumble in a bowl with a spoon

Crumbles gain their delightful crunchy topping with demerara sugar and its coarser crystals. Muscovado sugar is less coarse with higher molasses content, more readily dissolved to make dessert sauces such as caramel and toffee sauce.

Crystallines such as dark muscovado sugar have a higher molasses content but also an easily dissolved fine grain, which means it can colour and intensify both sweet and savoury and hot and cold sauces, as well as chutneys and pickles. Light muscovado is also a favourite in baking and may be used in gingerbread or in the making of caramel or toffee sauces to add colour, volume and a smoother, more moist texture.  

This information can go some way into helping you decide what type of crystalline sugar is preferable to use in cooking and baking. However, as we highlight in our article on the differences between demerara and brown sugar, the crystalline sugar you choose may need to be determined by the nature of the application and the desired outcome.

At Ragus, our portfolio of high quality crystalline pure sugar products performs production functions in food and beverage products and medicines that align with consumer and market needs.

Ragus supplies high-quality crystallines to industrial food and beverage producers to enhance product tastes, textures and appearance. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact a member of our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep 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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