Sugar marketing is a highly emotive and contentious minefield. Sugar companies have a number of prepared replies to allegations that their products are responsible for rising levels of obesity and illnesses such as diabetes. Is unrefined sugar the way forward, asks Bernice Hurst.

Having set out their defence, sugar companies and their trade associations move on to promote a range of products which are, to varying degrees, labelled "natural" or "unrefined". Without actually saying that they are healthy, the fact that some brown products may require less processing than pure white sugar, and therefore contain a higher level of vitamins and minerals, implies that they are better for us than we have come to believe. Furthermore, there is a campaign to convince us that reducing the amount of processing increases flavour retention. But just because some sugars are golden hued, doesn't necessarily mean that they have been less highly refined.

Product descriptions and labels easily confuse consumers who are only trying to buy what they believe is best (or least harmful) for themselves and their families. Dr Samantha Stears of the Sugar Bureau (funded by British Sugar and Tate and Lyle) says that sugar can be called natural because it comes from a plant rather than being produced synthetically. But she does concede that there is little nutritional difference between brown and white versions.

Confusing terms

Paul Bell of the Canadian Sugar Institute believes that terms such as "sugar in the raw" and "raw sugar" confuse people. Similarly, reference to partially refined or turbinado and demerara style sugars do not enlighten consumers.

The issue of semantics is one where contradictions are rife. In the UK, Billington's is the major supplier of unrefined sugar to supermarkets. In the US and Australia, though, there is officially no such thing as unrefined sugar. Nor does Canada permit either unrefined or raw sugar to be sold for human consumption. 

What Billington's calls unrefined, it turns out, is sugar that has been extracted from the cane as it must be, but then not refined in the way that it would need to be in order to turn it white. Hence "unrefined".

Molasses make the difference

One thing that is universally agreed is that the varying shades of brown and gold are due to the inclusion of molasses. Molasses is also responsible for flavour differences, giving brown sugars a deeper, more intense, flavour than white sugars as well as a stickier, more toffee-like texture.

Whether the molasses naturally found in sugar cane is an impurity that needs to be removed through processing and then mingled with refined white sugar, or whether it should simply not be removed in the first place, is the cause of significant disagreement between processors and refiners.

Two of the major UK suppliers, Billington's and Tate & Lyle, differ in their views on the production of brown sugar. Billington's takes pride in sourcing and processing all its sugar in Mauritius, where they work closely with farmers to ensure that any and all waste products are re-cycled and that the economy of the residents benefits as much as possible from the company's presence.

Tate & Lyle, who source much of their sugar in Mauritius as well as other countries, is the UK's only refiner and ships raw sugar into the country in bulk, having completed the first stage of the processing in the country of origin. Once it reaches London, further stages in the purification take place. At this point, some of the sugar is packaged and sold in its white form while some of it is then mingled with the molasses that has been extracted in order to produce the brown products in the range.

The size of crystals and whether the molasses goes right through them or simply coats the surface is a prime source of dissension. The Canadian Sugar Institute's website contends that the two methods for producing brown sugar "should not result in a difference in taste or affect the texture and consistency of baked goods." Mark Bosworth, Marketing Manager at Billington's, strongly disagrees and maintains that anyone who tries a taste test will understand instantly (as long as they don't compare Billington's products with a supermarket own label which is more than likely from Billington's as well).

How healthy can sugar be?

Similarly, the natural or healthy aspects promoted may not be as significant as manufacturers try to imply. Not surprisingly, contradictory opinions abound. Again, the Canadian Sugar Institute maintains that the presence of trace elements of nutrients is so low as to make virtually no difference to what we are eating. Their website explains that "honey, brown sugar, white sugar and maple syrup all have similar nutritional values…and insignificant amounts of vitamins and minerals."

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James Joyce of Sugar Research International in Queensland endorses this, saying that "the small amount of molasses present in brown sugar can contain trace elements of minerals, other sugars, flavinoids and similar compounds but these are also present in much greater quantities in many other foodstuffs (particularly fruit). Given the small amount of sugar that is consumed relative to other food ingredients, even if the compounds in molasses were beneficial it would be very difficult to identify any significant benefit from the use of raw sugar over white, from a health point of view."

As with others in the industry, he goes on to say that it is a "different story as far as flavour goes". Joyce's colleagues at sugar.org.au, developed by the Australian food and grocery council sugar forum, express their view that "brown sugar is not more natural than white sugar, it simply has a different flavour and colour".

Virtually alone on the other side of the fence, sugarweb, a portal designed to help producers bring their products to market, says of unrefined sugar, "it is making a strong comeback in its own right as a food which has exceptional nutritional qualities…Unrefined sugar retains all the natural elements and vitamins and it is generally accepted that it is much healthier for you."

Mark Bosworth's response to this is a simple, "healthier than what?" and emphasises the company's belief that there are now enough consumers interested in quality and flavour to create a profitable, and growing, niche audience who read labels and understand the differences.

By Bernice Hurst, just-food.com correspondent