Sugar Cane vs. Sugar Beets: Examining Their Differences

Sugar cubes in stack beside glass sugar jar

Sugar in the US comes from only two sources: sugar cane and sugar beets. Both sugar beets and sugar cane share chemical compounds and are nearly 100% pure sucrose when processed. Nonetheless, there are still some notable differences between the two. In this post the team at Rocky Mountain Soda Co. takes a look at these two foundational sweeteners, what they’re used for, and why the differences between the two matter.

Sugar Cane Vs Sugar Beets: Key Differences

Let's take a close look at the fundamental differences between sugar cane and sugar beets, the two sources from which all sugar springs.

Difference #1: Classification

While both beet sugar and cane sugar share chemical compounds they come from two entirely different plant families.

Believe it or not, sugar cane is a species of perennial grass from the family Poaceae. These grass plants typically grow from 6 to 20 feet high and have robust, fibrous stalks. Those stalks are rich in sucrose which, when processed, becomes refined table sugar, bagasse, molasses, and filter cake.

80% of all the sugar produced in the world comes from sugar cane. Sugar cane is also the largest cash crop by production quantity in the world, with nearly two billion tons of sugar cane stalks harvested every year. And for the record, Brazil is the world leader in sugar cane production accounting for nearly 40% of the global total.

The sugar beet on the other hand is a variety of the common beet belonging to a subspecies known as beta vulgaris. Whereas sugar cane accounts for 80% of the world's sugar production, sugar beets account for the remaining 20%. In the US alone more than 1,000,000 acres of land are dedicated to sugar beet production.

Difference #2: Where they are grown

This is one of the main differences between the two sugar sources. Due to its long growing season sugar cane is typically grown in tropical climates. Sugar beets, on the other hand, have a shorter growing season and are usually grown in places that are too cold to support the cultivation of sugar cane. The world’s top five producers of sugar beets are the US, Russia, Germany, France and Turkey.

Difference #3: Environmental considerations

Both sugar cane and sugar beets need direct sunlight and similar amounts of water. However, sugar cane is not particularly finicky when it comes to what type of soil it will grow in, as long as that soil is fairly moist. Sugar beets also need moist soil (though not as moist as sugar cane) but they will not grow well in rocky soil.

Difference #4: Uses

Both sugar cane and sugar beets are used to make table sugar. Because both types of sugar are nearly 100% sucrose it is very difficult for anyone but professional, experienced chefs to tell the difference between the two from a taste perspective.

Sugar from sugar beets is also used to make molasses, alcohol, syrups, and brown sugar. By contrast, sugar from sugar cane is used to sweeten beverages (though not so much soda anymore), jams, and preserves, as a foundational ingredient in cake frosting and pastries, and as an all-around general-purpose ingredient in the food industry.

Difference #5: One is vegan, one is not

When you purchase table sugar at the store it can be nearly impossible to tell if it came from sugar cane or sugar beets. Most sugar refineries do not indicate on their package which source they used. Given that 80% of all sugar produced worldwide comes from sugar cane, however, odds are the sugar you just bought did as well. Nonetheless, there is no way to be positive.

Why does it matter? Well, it doesn’t to a lot of people, but it very much matters to vegans. That’s because cane sugar refineries often use bone char as a way to make the end product look as white as possible.

On the other hand, bone char is not involved in the processing of sugar from sugar beets. Therefore, this type of sugar can be legally and accurately called "vegan".

Difference #6: One is a GMO the other uses no GMOs

It’s not all sweetness and light when it comes to sugar beets because virtually all sugar beets grown in the US today have been genetically modified in order to make them larger and more resilient to environmental stresses. That is, modern sugar beets are Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.

Although some growers are beginning to experiment with genetically modified cane, most of the world’s sugar cane plants have not had their genome deliberately modified, yet. So if you wish to avoid GMOs in your diet, sugar from sugar cane is actually a safer bet than sugar from sugar beets.

Sugar in Soda Pop

While there are a few soft drinks that still use refined sugar the overwhelming majority use high fructose corn syrup to sweeten their drinks. High fructose corn syrup first arrived on the scene in the early 1970s. It is derived from corn starch which, when broken down by enzymes, becomes glucose. Some of the resulting glucose is then converted into fructose.

High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of glucose and fructose and is preferred by the soft drink industry because it is easier to handle and considerably cheaper than using standard sugar. There are, however, some questions about the potential long-term health effects of consuming too much high fructose corn syrup.

Sweeteners in Rocky Mountain Soda Co. Drinks

At Rocky Mountain Soda Co., we are well aware of the various issues associated with standard cane sugar as well as sugar derived from sugar beets. The former is most often processed using bone char, while the latter is derived from GMOs.

To avoid both of those issues we use a type of organic cane sugar that bypasses the bone char in the refinement process enabling it to retain both its non-GMO and vegan status. We think you will appreciate both the effort we take to ensure we stay true to our roots and the outstanding taste of our kosher natural sodas.

That includes our latest Golden Ginger Beer. Produced as a homage to our hometown of Golden, Colorado this delightful traditional beverage has a wonderful earthiness about it that will shine through whether drunk alone out of the can or used as part of your Moscow Mule recipe.