I was refilling our sugar bowl the other day, and suddenly wondered about this common household ingredient’s carbon footprint. I’m betting most Americans keep a sugar bowl in our house, and lord knows, we all eat plenty of it out of the house too: on average, Americans eat about 2 to 4 times as much sugar as we should as part of a healthy diet. That adds up to about 135 pounds of sugar per year (compare this, Dr. Oz says, to the 7.5 lbs of sugar per year the average person ate in 1700. Yikes!) Actually, the US is lower than some other countries: Cuba, Australia and Brazil all have per capita consumption rates that are twice ours –though in Brazil quite a bit of that has to do with sugarcane as a source of ethanol for fuel.
Lots of sites, of course, can tell you about the health risks of excess sugar consumption; let’s focus here on sugar’s carbon footprint. Our refined sugar that we put in our coffee and our cookies comes largely from either beets, or sugar cane. In both cases, the basic process is similar: you boil (beets) or squeeze (cane) the juices out of the plant, you cook it to concentrate the sugars, you dry it out, and voila! Sugar. Beets are used to produce refined sugar (sucrose); while cane can produce refined or “raw” sugar- which is not so different from pure sucrose, it just tends to have some impurities in it, which can give it a more interesting flavor profile, but otherwise, pretty much sugar is sugar. In both cases, the refineries that process the plant into the sugar tend to be located pretty close to the source fields; for beets, that’s because they’re darned heavy and therefore expensive to transport; for sugarcane, the product starts to decay quickly after harvesting and needs to be processed quickly. This makes a big difference in terms of what countries produce what kinds of sugar, as sugarbeets are grown in temperate climates, while sugarcane is grown in tropical areas. As you might imagine, the US produces both, beets in our central and northern climes, cane in our southern states (Florida, Louisiana, Texas).
It turns out that sugar’s carbon footprint depends on what kind of sugar we are talking about. Most of the carbon emissions associated with beet sugars have to do with the refining process- the energy it takes to cook out the sugars, and those energy costs are substantial. In addition, most US sugar refiners use coal as their energy source, which of course contributes to this substantial carbon footprint. By comparison, sugarcane is not as energy intensive to refine, and in fact cane refineries can and often do use their own wastage as a source of biogas in the process, which lowers their carbon footprint further. In total, the carbon footprint of beet sugar is about a ton of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases) per metric ton of sugar, while cane sugar produces about 0.6 tons CO2e per metric ton. At the 8 million metric tons of sugar produced (we also import another couple million metric tons to feed a 10 million metric ton demand in this country), about half of which beet sugar and half cane, the US sugar industry produces about 6.8 million tons of GHGs. EPA’s GHG equivalencies calculator tells me that’s equivalent to the annual GHG emissions of more than a million cars. Holy moley!
Of course, we’re just talking here about the carbon footprint of these two sugars; obviously their production also has substantive water and chemical footprints as well, and I haven’t looked into those closely, other than to note a couple studies suggest the total water footprint of cane sugar (the water needed for the full life cycle of growing, processing and refining the product) is a bit higher for sugarcane compared to beets in the US, and this ratio of course varies among countries depending on growing conditions and processing methods.
So what’s a sweet tooth to do? Well, the obvious answer from both a health and environmental standpoint is that we probably should, collectively, be consuming a lot less sugar (the odds don’t exactly seem to be in our favor on that one, given that economists are predicting US sugar consumption to rise about 15% over the next ten years, but Im going to continue to play the optimist). Local organic honey can be a great alternative to refined sugar, and a great way to support your local farmers and pollinators.
But we do love to bake, and that good old sucrose is a great kitchen ingredient. It turns out that there are some companies, including Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, and a handful of tropical companies too (though I like to stay US-based for carbon footprint and other reasons) that are offering products with a lower or, some claim, close to zero carbon footprint through energy efficiency and using their own wastage to fuel their refineries. Yes, yes, lots of people have gotten their panties in a wad about these companies use of the term “carbon free” to describe their product, when that is chemically impossible given the fact that there are 12 carbon atoms per molecule of sucrose (C12H22O11). But I think we all know what we are really talking about here, right? Of course we always need to be careful on reviewing these companies’ labels that their claims are not questionable, such as paying into an unaccredited carbon offset scheme, or some other greenwashing, rather than actually implementing meaningful carbon reductions such as energy efficiencies within their own processing. The lesson of this action: moderate and carefully source your sweet tooth, so you can still have some cake and eat it too!