Some suggest coconut sugar is the ‘most sustainable sugar in the world’. Let’s look at the alternatives, we’ve given each of them an ‘eco rating’ out of 10.
Agave syrup – plant is completely destroyed to produce the nectar, it is slow growing and crop renewal is poorly managed, often leading to shortages and rocketing prices. Is a liquid sugar, so cannot be used in chocolate production or as a complete replacement for crystalline sugar. Agave syrup is often ‘cut’ with high fructose corn syrup.
Eco rating: 4/10
Beet Sugar – grown in rotation, so better than sugar cane. Also grows in Europe, so less transport emissions. Pesticide use very high. Herbicide use twice that of other crops. Biodiversity in fields is very low. Sugar beet production is a monopoly in UK.
Eco rating: 2/10
Cane Sugar – Monocrop. Highly intensive use of water, and significant pollution as a result. Significant land clearance for sugar cane plantations. Masses of plant matter by product is wasted and then pollutes waterways further. 83% of the world’s sugar is from sugar cane.
Eco rating: 1/10
Coconut sugar – involves minimal processing and low inputs. Generally sustainable practices with most farmers operating mixed harvest strategies. Nature of the products almost requires small-scale production away from heavy mechanisation. Not to be confused with Palm Sugar, which can be environmentally degrading, depending on the country and type of palm used.
Eco rating: 8/10
Date sugar – can come in crystalline or syrup form. Relatively low amount of processing. Large amounts of water are used to increase yields, but natural fertilisers, cover crops and intercropping are usually used. Date palms are also useful at preventing desertification. Has the potential to become damaging if the industry is scaled up to meet increasing demand.
Eco rating: 7/10
Honey – like any factory farming, honey can involve suffering or overcrowding and stressful living conditions for the bees. Best go for local, small scale honey. Like agave, a lot of honey, particularly in USA is not 100% honey and is cut with other products. Can be very eco, but can also be fairly bad.
Eco rating: 5/10
Maple syrup – can be very sustainable, its very nature requires care for the trees and environment. Trees can produce for up to 100 years. Organic certification ensures that the maple syrup is free from pesticides and chemicals and sourced from sustainably managed forests.
Eco rating: 8/10
Stevia – the sweetener du jour, but with murky production methods. Not much is needed to sweeten, but vast quantities of water are required to produce it. Stevia industry funded research reports a smaller carbon footprint than cane and beet sugar production, but ignored the amount of water required to process the sweetener. Hmmmm. Stevia production is leading to deforestation already, in turn leading to soil erosion, waste generation and water pollution.
Eco rating: 3/10
Xylitol – not a sugar as such, but a ‘sugar-alchohol’ it is crystalline and so lends itself to replacing regular sugar in many applications. Can be made from Birch trees, but commonly made from corn or other plant material, including sugar cane waste material. A lot of energy is required in the production process. Very hard to find independent information on Xylitol, most of the research is industry funded.
Eco rating: 3/10
So, in conclusion? I think as long as sugar is needed, and if it is crystalline, I’d go for coconut sugar or date sugar, organic in both cases. There does need to be better clarity of actual facts across the sugar industry, and it would be refreshing to see some independent research done on both coconut sugar and Xylitol.
What do you use? Has any of the information above affected your choices?