Sugar is a big (delicious) problem in modern life.

I’m one to talk: I have a long history of sugar indulgence (and the childhood fillings to prove it). For the past eight years I have dramatically shut out sugar from many parts of my diet—a 180 degree turn from my childhood. But I still have a sweet tooth nonetheless.

When I learned of “raw” sugar (actually turbinado sugar, known commonly by the brand In the Raw) I initially thought it was a better alternative to white sugar. However, recent critiques and studies of sugar have shed some light on the reality of sugar itself. The fact is, we have entered into battle with sugar of all kinds—the rise of obesity in children, type 2 diabetes, and general ailments all can be linked to sugar.

All of the comparisons and examinations of sugars arrive at the same conclusion: nearly all sugars are created equal, and are equally bad for our physical and mental health. White sugar is 99.5% sucrose, a compound comprising one fructose and one glucose molecule. Both fructose and glucose can cause problems in large doses, but it is the fructose, which is processed by the liver alone and gets pumped into the bloodstream quickly as fat, that can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and depression.

But turbinado is between 96-98% sucrose, and light brown sugar is 96% sucrose, so there is little difference between these types and white sugar. This is why the AHA thus recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of any type of sugar a day for women, and 9 teaspoons for men.

Steering clear of sugar altogether seems impossible—especially when you think about how much added sugar is everywhere! Currently today, there are almost countless articles available that could tell you the negative effects of sugar on your own personal health. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s easy to ignore the news coverage altogether. So why not consider sugar as not just a food product, but as an ethical purchase?

When you do buy sugar, which we all invariably do, what can you take into account, if not the “healthiness” factor?

Sugar’s Worldwide Presence

Sugar is a multibillion dollar industry, with both global and domestic relevance:

The global impact of sugar:

The Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that in 2012 about 1.842 billion tons of sugarcane were produced globally, easily the largest amount of any crop. Because water makes up nearly two-thirds of sugarcane’s weight, water depletion and consequent soil erosion are common issues. The Guardian reported that, “Sixty years of sugar in Pakistan in the Indus Basin has resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the amount of freshwater available.”

Sugarcane farming also contributes to high levels of pollution. According to the World Wildlife Fund, effluents and wastewater run into remaining water supplies, damaging ecological areas. WWF propounds the disastrous effects on biodiversity that sugarcane plantations cause, noting that at least a dozen countries devote 25% or more of their agricultural land to this crop and have severely threatened numerous plant and animal species.

Furthermore, field burning has been a centuries-old practice in harvesting sugarcane, contributing to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Only in the past decade have efforts been consciously made to eventually eradicate burning for more sustainable techniques.

The domestic impact of sugar:

Environmental issues abound close to home as well, with the largest impact on Florida’s Everglades, a region historically exploited by Big Sugar companies to plant sugar fields. But some of the biggest sugar suppliers (e.g., U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystal) have systematically evaded or reduced the billions of dollars needed to restore the Everglades.

U.S.sugar policy goes largely unnoticed although it indirectly effects all taxpayers. It’s increasingly difficult to pull apart the sugar conglomerates from the politicians they deal with; much like tobacco or gun lobbyists, Big Sugar is tightly intertwined with legislation despite growing awareness of sugar’s detrimental effects.

Also, with the door opening to relations with Cuba (who was once the world’s greatest sugar exporter), scientists worry that the agroecological steps Cuba has taken to meet sustainable needs of its country will be quashed by Western legislation and high-energy methodology.

Sugar beets, constituting about half of the domestically-produced sugar in the US, are among the most common genetically-modified foods in the US. The crop also faces pesticides at a higher rate than sugarcane because beets suffer from more weeds and pests. Farmers are now looking for more sustainable options, but beet sugar is a contestable product in this lens.

Satisfying Alternatives to Basic Sugar

This glimpse of some of the ethical issues at the heart of the sugar industry can make it difficult to stomach the idea of buying sugar. However, there are still ethical and (somewhat) healthier alternatives to our everyday sugar needs. If you want to make a social impact to counter these issues, consider these options:

1. Fair Trade Products:

Buying a fair trade brand ensures that at least some accountability and equitability has been guaranteed to the farmers and local producers of the sugar, be it from sugarcane or sugar beets. Farmers in impoverished countries still suffer a lot to reach a livable income, but this is one important step.

The UK has done a good job of tabulating their ethical sugar sources, but for Americans, the best source currently is Fair Trade USA, who include a list of confirmed ethical sugar providers. Companies like Frontier Co-op can be found in specialty food stores nationally like Sprouts or Whole Foods, while others can be ordered online. Rapunzel, a German brand, has guaranteed fair trade and organic products since its inception in 1974.

2. Coconut Palm Sugar:

With a lower glycemic index (lower rate of absorption into blood) and a much higher quantity of minerals and vitamins, coconut palm sugar is a valuable alternative to regular sugar. Additionally, it yields much more sugar per acre than sugarcane does and is simply gleaned from evaporated sap of the coconut palm tree.

3. Organic Brown Rice Syrup:

Another staple of specialty food stores and farmers markets, this syrup is more easily certified as organic. It is naturally less sweet than sugarcane, with a nuttier tone.

4. Make your own with sugar beets!

If you can acquire sugar beets from a farmers market or another direct source, try your hand at gleaning sugar from it. The process is straightforward but time-intensive, with a lot of boiling, straining, and boiling again. But you’ll know you have chemical-free, fair-trade sugar.


Alya Hameed recently completed her M.A. from San Diego State University, specializing in Children’s Literature. If she isn’t poring over maps, scavenging for the next epic book series, or getting lost on a hike, you can find her on Twitter (@SimplyAlya) or on her food & literature blog, Coriander Dreams.