To start off with a stalk of sugarcane: Florida, the leading cane sugar-producing state in the U.S., refining over 70 percent of the total grown in America, prides itself on the black earth and nutrient-rich soil that lends itself so naturally to growing an abundant sugar cane crop. From the fields of cane that extend beyond the horizon to the bags of sugar in your supermarket, sugar is transformed into many variations along the way. But it all starts with the bamboo-like stalk of the sugarcane plant.

Tip

Refined sugar, found in the bags on your market shelves, is the same whether you pay a high-end price or a bargain basement cost. As one representative from Clewiston, Florida's U.S. Sugar put it: "Sugar is sugar."

Raising Cane

The sign welcoming you into Belle Glade, Florida, reads: "Her soil is her fortune." Originally a swampland, the towns surrounding Lake Okeechobee found that their organic earth, known as "muck," was extremely fertile and rich in nutrients. They referred to it as "black gold," and the rest is agricultural history.

Sugar cane is among the most environmentally friendly crops, needing little TLC during its growth period between September and January. Its nutrients come from the soil, and its stalks provide shelter for wildlife, especially during the scorching summer months.

Once the cane stems are cut from the field and loaded for transport, the plants start the process all over again, regrowing from the roots that are left. They are good for several years, with no need for replanting.

Each stalk is about 70 percent water, and the rest sugar and fiber. Suck on a stalk of cane and a slight sweet taste will pass over your tongue. That's the sugar. The rest is water. Then take that stalk and plant it in your yard. At every joint is an "eye," and it's that eye that'll develop into a stalk of its own. Soon, you'll be harvesting your own crop and giving the big producers a run for their money!

Notes on Sugar

Man has been chewing on the sweet stalk of sugar for more than 8,000 years, but it took 2,000 years for it to make its way from what is now New Guinea to the Philippines and India. Slowly, very slowly, its sweet properties enchanted travelers across Asia, and it came to be celebrated for its sweetness and the fact that it was created without the help of bees.

As more civilizations discovered sugar, it became a commodity to be fought over — and its cost escalated. Slavery flourished because of it, as plantation owners needed field help. Even Chinese immigrants were imported into Cuba to work the harvests. If you've ever wondered why there are so many Chinese-Spanish restaurants in Manhattan, now you know.

Stalking Sweetness

The process of taking sugar cane from the fields and turning it into the white or beige granules that we know today makes you appreciate the ingenuity of humans. Once the trains and trucks loaded with cane sugar stalks arrive at the plant, often called the "sugar house," they're unloaded and run through a wringer resembling your great-grandmother's washing machine mangle.

The extracted juice is quite dirty at this point, carrying with it muck, fibers and greenery from the plant itself. The juice is cleaned by soaking it and then squeezed again, producing sucrose. Those juices are dark in color because of the molasses in the sucrose. The stalk has completed its work at this point, and is sent in a different direction to be used in other applications.

Tip

More ingenuity comes into play as companies are now taking the rubbish from the stalks and fibers and turning them into paper plates and utensils. Not a speck goes unused — and they're biodegradable.

The sugar juice is boiled until it crystallizes, then moves into a centrifuge where the water from the crystals is removed. But the impurities still remain and what you have is raw, unrefined sugar that is golden in color. The natural molasses in the sugar gives it the color. The next step takes it from being simply cane sugar to refined sugar.

Becoming Refined

Once the processing is complete, the crystals are then transferred to a refinery, where plant fibers and molasses adhering to the sugar crystals are separated.The crystals are melted and impurities and color are removed, creating sugar syrup. The sugar crystals then become the snow white color we come to associate sugar with.

Another round of crystallization gives us refined sugar, and then it's dried and packaged for distribution. Most refineries take the harvest from the field and turn it into bagged sugar within one day. Light brown, dark brown, turbinado, Demerara, and Muscavado sugars all have additional steps in their refining, all using the addition of molasses.

Raw and Refined Defined

Those little packets of raw sugar that are served in cafes and restaurants reveal sugar crystals that have only been centrifuged once, leaving some of the molasses still sticking to the crystals. It's only a small percentage of the sucrose crystals, but the molasses gives the crystals the hint of color. The more molasses, the darker the color. The darker the color, the healthier it is!

  • Raw sugar is still a processed sugar, just a little bit less so than its white cousin.
  • Contrary to popular beliefs, raw sugar is not healthier than refined sugar. It just looks like it is. 
  • The popularity of raw sugar is its taste —

    that hint of molasses. Evaporated cane juice is another name for raw sugar, but the FDA advises against using the term because it is not a juice.  Fine, ultra-fine, granulated, powdered —

    all are terms defining refined sugar. 

Sugar Substitutes

Sugar affects your body's hormones, making you more hungry and less energetic as it decreases your metabolism. The more you eat, the more you gain weight. The more weight you gain, the more likely you are to develop diabetes because of the increased insulin your body is producing. What's a person to do?

Natural sweeteners are the best substitute for the flavor of sugar. Most have little or no calories, which means no weight gain. It has a bit of a different taste than raw or refined sugar, but for the health-conscious, a packet of sugar substitute in your coffee is a safe way to control your sugar intake, and lower your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Because it's many times sweeter than sugar, you'll use less of the substitute than you would of sugar. Tooth decay and increased blood sugar levels are avoided when you use substitutes. And look for the FDA approval note on the package — but not all sugar substitutes need FDA approval, such as stevia and monk fruit extracts, because research has shown that these sweeteners are naturally safe in food and drinks.

Getting Creative

Becoming proactive when it comes to your diet means finding substitutes. Start with your breakfast. Instead of dumping teaspoons of sugar into your morning coffee and following it with more on your cereal, think about alternatives.

  • Honey —

    local and raw. A side benefit is that local honey contains local pollen, creating a natural immunization for allergies.  * Stevia —

    both the brand and the products made from the leaf of the stevia plant. Be sure it's organic and that no additional additives are in the sweetener. * Dates —

    not sugar but a food with sugar in its makeup. Potassium, antioxidants and fiber all add to your healthy diet.  * Coconut sugar —

    it's unrefined, non-GMO and vegan. Ideal for baking and for your breakfast, it's also easy to digest and is a one-for-one replacement for sugar.

About the Author

Jann Seal

My seventh grade English teacher didn't realize what she was unleashing when she called me her "writer," but the word crept into my brain. I DID become a writer. Of advertising copy, dialogue and long-term story for several network soap operas, magazine articles and high-calorie contents for the cookbook: Cooking: It AIn't Rocket Science, a bestseller on Amazon! When I'm not writing, I'm cooking!