An estimated 55–60% of all sugar produced in the US comes from sugar beets (1).
Both beet and cane sugar are found in a variety of foods including sweets, processed foods, baked goods and sodas.
However, several distinctions set apart these two common types of sugar.
This article reviews the differences between beet and cane sugar to determine whether one is healthier.
What Is Beet Sugar?
Beet sugar is derived from the sugar beet plant, a root vegetable closely related to beetroot and chard (2).
Along with sugarcane, sugar beets are among the most common plants used in the production of white sugar (3).
Sugar beets are also used to produce other types of refined sugar, such as molasses and brown sugar (4).
However, since the source of the sugar is not always disclosed on food products and labels, it can be difficult to determine whether they contain beet or cane sugar.
Beet sugar is made from the sugar beet plant. Along with cane sugar, it’s one of the most common types of refined sugar on the market.
Differences in Production
One of the biggest differences between beet and cane sugar is their processing and production method.
Beet sugar is made using a process that involves thinly slicing sugar beets to extract the natural sugar juice.
The juice is purified and heated to create a concentrated syrup, which is crystallized to form granulated sugar.
Cane sugar is produced using a similar method but sometimes processed using bone char, an ingredient made by charring the bones of animals. Bone char helps bleach and filter white sugar (5).
Though bone char is not found in the final product, people looking to reduce their intake of foods made using animal products — such as vegans or vegetarians — may want to take this into consideration.
Keep in mind that other products, such as coal-based activated carbon, are often used in the processing of white sugar as a vegan alternative to bone char (6).
Beet sugar does not involve the use of bone char or coal-based activated carbon, which can be used to bleach and filter cane sugar.
Works Differently in Recipes
Although cane sugar and beet sugar are nearly identical in terms of nutrition, they may work differently in recipes.
This is, at least partially, due to distinct differences in terms of taste, which can affect how the types of sugar alter the flavor of your dishes.
Beet sugar has an earthy, oxidized aroma and burnt sugar aftertaste, whereas cane sugar is characterized by a sweeter aftertaste and a more fruity aroma (7).
Furthermore, some chefs and bakers find that different types of sugar alter the texture and appearance of the final product in some recipes.
Most notably, cane sugar is said to caramelize more easily and result in a more uniform product than beet sugar. Beet sugar, on the other hand, can create a crunchier texture and has a unique taste that works well in certain baked goods.
Beet sugar and cane sugar have slight differences in terms of taste and may work differently in recipes.
Similar Nutritional Composition
There may be several distinctions between cane sugar and beet sugar, but nutritionally, the two are nearly identical.
Regardless of the source, refined sugar is essentially pure sucrose, a compound composed of glucose and fructose molecules (8).
For this reason, consuming high amounts of either beet or cane sugar can contribute to weight gain and the development of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and liver problems (9).
Health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, recommend limiting your intake of added sugar to less than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) per day for women and less than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) per day for men (10).
This refers to all forms of cane and beet sugar, including white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, turbinado and the sugar found in many processed foods like sweets, soft drinks and desserts.
Both cane sugar and beet sugar are essentially sucrose, which can be harmful when consumed in high amounts.
Often Genetically Modified
Many consumers prefer cane sugar over beet sugar due to concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In the US, it’s estimated that about 95% of sugar beets are genetically modified (11).
Conversely, all sugarcane currently produced in the US is considered non-GMO.
Some people are in favor of genetically modified crops as a sustainable source of food that is highly resistant to insects, herbicides and extreme weather (12).
Meanwhile, others prefer to avoid GMOs due to concerns of antibiotic resistance, food allergies and other possible adverse effects on health (13).
Though some animal studies have found that GMO consumption may cause toxic effects on the liver, kidney, pancreas and reproductive system, research on the effects on humans is still limited (14).
However, other studies have observed that humans can safely eat GMO crops and that they contain a nutrient profile that is comparable to conventional crops (15, 16).
If you’re worried about GMO crops, it’s best to select cane sugar or non-GMO beet sugar to help minimize your GMO exposure.
Most sugar beets in the US are genetically modified while sugarcane is generally non-GMO.
The Bottom Line
Beet and cane sugar differ slightly in taste and may work differently in cooking and baking.
Unlike cane sugar, beet sugar is produced without bone char, which may be important for vegans or vegetarians.
Still, some may prefer cane sugar as it’s less likely to contain GMO ingredients.
However, when it comes down to it, both beet sugar and cane sugar are composed of sucrose, which can be harmful to your health when consumed in excess.
Therefore, while there may be differences between these two forms of sugar, your intake of either type should be kept in moderation as part of a healthy diet.