This is the second installment of Tangle Chocolate’s look at the sugar industry, an effort to educate ourselves and our customers about this ingredient that is critical to chocolate production and so much more.
If you read our last blog post, you’ll know that not all sugar is vegan. Because some forms of cane sugar include the use of bone char during production to get that clean white color, beet sugar can be a more vegan alternative. Unfortunately, beet sugar isn’t perfect––in the United States, almost all sugar beets are genetically modified organisms.
Much the way that the final product of cane sugar doesn’t have any animal products in it––bone char is purely used as a bleaching agent in the production process––beet sugar itself does not have any GMOs in it. It’s the beets themselves that are genetically modified.
Almost all sugar cane, on the other hand, is not genetically modified at all. Some big chocolate companies, like Hershey, have switched to using exclusively cane sugar in their products, in order to avoid the use of GMOs. In 2015, Hershey Company representative Jeff Beckman stated that, “We are currently leading industry conversations with suppliers and building our manufacturing capabilities to pursue non-genetically modified ingredients… In 2015, you can expect products in our snacking portfolio that include non-genetically modified ingredients. We will be transitioning some of our most popular chocolate brands, including Hershey’s Kisses and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, by  year end."
The shift away from beet sugar due to the presence of GMOs is a relatively new one. It was only in 2008 that the majority of sugar beet farmers started using a genetically modified version of their existing crop. This seemed like a largely unremarkable decision until consumers started expressing concern about GMO food. In response, in about 2014, large food companies (such as Hershey, which is one of the largest sugar buyers in the United States) started moving away from GMO products, and switched from beet to cane sugar. When even one company as big as Hershey makes such a decision, it can greatly affect the sugar market. There have been cane sugar shortages, and sugar buyers pay about 10-15% more for cane sugar, as non-GMO products are in such high demand.
Many would argue that the benefits of using GMO beets outweigh the costs. Sugar beet farmer Andrew Beyer says that going back to a non-GMO version of sugar beets would mean spraying far more pesticides on the crops, which might not be desirable to consumers either. And in addition to requiring less pesticide use, sugar production using GMO beets boasts “the use of less toxic pesticides, reductions in greenhouse gases due to less fuel use and reduced tillage, reduced water use, and better soil conservation.” (That’s from the Sugar Association which represents both the cane and beet industries.)
If you want to avoid sugar that has included GMOs in the production process, look for labels that say “Certified Organic,” as organic food requirements do not allow for the use of GMOs.
Here’s an article written by someone who was raised next to a sugar cane farm and now supports the GMO beet industry: https://medium.com/the-method/i-was-raised-next-to-a-sugar-cane-farm-heres-why-i-support-gmo-sugar-beets-bd5db5bace2d