By name alone, “evaporated cane juice” (ECJ) indicates juice extracted from sugarcane is evaporated (water/liquid removed), leaving sugar crystals and the sugar cane plant nutrients behind.
That is what companies selling bags of “evaporated cane crystals” or “evaporated cane sugar” (or companies marketing products containing this ingredient) want us, the health-conscious consumer, to believe.
Food manufacturers want us to think ECJ, as a sweetener, is better than granulated sugar.
Sad truth: That is not likely the case.
Harsh reality: Those marketing geniuses want to sell their otherwise unhealthy products to make a buck.
Many manufacturers will say anything to get us to buy. That is certainly the case with ECJ. Consumers are demanding healthier options (i.e., less sugar added) in the supermarket, thus, food producers are distancing themselves from the term “sugar”. Unfortunately, the term is the only thing from which some of them are distancing themselves and will use misleading labeling to encourage us to choose their goods.
In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the term “evaporated cane juice” when used to mean sugar or sweetener on packaged foods. (More on the FDA and its stance on ECJ in a bit.)
To understand the “sad truth” and “harsh reality” I share above, we need to examine:
- How sugar is made (you know, the granulated white stuff).
- How ECJ is made. (the stuff marketing geniuses are trying to convince us is better than “regular” sugar so we’ll buy their products)
- What ECJ should be versus what ECJ used in packaged foods really is. (There is a difference and it’s worth noting!)
Let’s dive in!
How Sugar is Made
To make sugar, sugar cane stalks are shredded and pressed to extract the cane juice. That juice is boiled (evaporated) until it becomes thick and crystals begin to form. The crystals, which contain molasses, are then spun in a centrifuge.This removes the dark molasses, leaving behind pure white sugar crystals. The crystals are then dried.
No chemicals, bleaches or whiteners are used to achieve granulated sugar’s white color. Removing the molasses is what makes granulated sugar appear white.
You may want to know:
- In the US and Canada, growers have the opportunity to use genetically modified sugar cane plants (GMOs) for enhanced weed control.
- Certified organic products cannot intentionally include any GMO ingredients. Organic sugar is available in most supermarkets.
Now that we understand sugar-making basics, let’s look at how evaporated cane juice is made.
How Evaporated Cane Juice is Made
The process is similar to that for making granulated white sugar with these differences:
- White sugar is stripped of all molasses (in the spinning step described above). This is why ECJ appears a caramel color, because it contains some molasses.
- The molasses portion that is retained in ECJ contains trace vitamins and minerals; however, keep in mind – sweeteners of any kind are not the place we should look for nutrition. Not to mention, nutrient values are extremely low and large quantities of ECJ would need to be consumed to come close of affecting our nutrient intake. That would be counterproductive due to the high caloric content and impact of blood sugar levels.
Check out the nutrition comparison for white granulated sugar versus ECJ:
Per 1-ounce serving (that’s 2 Tablespoons)
- 111 calories
- Trace amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, copper and manganese, with 0.001 milligrams riboflavin.
Evaporated Cane Juice contains:
- 111 calories
- 0.2 grams protein
- 0.7 grams insoluble fiber
- 0.16 milligrams riboflavin
- 0.2 milligrams niacin
- 32.57 milligrams calcium
- 0.6 milligrams iron
- 2.5 milligrams magnesium
- 162.8 milligrams potassium
In addition, true ECJ has a natural balance of sucrose, glucose and fructose instead of being straight sucrose like white sugar. However, the ECJ used in products consumers are getting (more in a moment) is about 99% sucrose, making it virtually no different from white granulated sugar. Empty calories.
(By the way, if you’re planning to use calcium and potassium content of ECJ as your reasoning that it’s “healthier” than regular sugar, you can get those nutrients from many all-natural foods with an even better nutrient profile, like dark leafy greens, potatoes, and bananas without all the extra calories!)
Now, here’s the kicker… ECJ in most packaged foods is NOT what the consumer is led to believe it is. The name alone is a problem for the FDA, and you know, those folks will feed the American public darn near anything (sorry, FDA, but you’re letting us down!).
Problems with this Ingredient – What the FDA Says
The FDA warns companies not to use the term “evaporated cane juice” because:
1. It is false and misleading. The term falsely suggests that the sweeteners are juice.
2. It violates labeling regulations in place to insure manufacturers use common names for ingredients. The term “evaporated cane juice” is not the common or usual name of any type of sweetener.
3. Evaporated cane juice is in fact, not added to foods in “juice” form.
So, what should ECJ be if it is on a product label?
A Subtle, Yet Misleading Difference
Evaporated Cane Juice noted on a product label implies sugarcane juice has been evaporated, leaving only sugar crystals behind, with their nutrients intact. Unfortunately, in the food industry, that is not at all what is happening.
What is being called ECJ (not true ECJ) in most products on grocery shelves today is not much different from pure white granulated sugar. In fact, white granulated sugar goes through one processing step more than evaporated cane juice. That’s the only difference.
This is such a serious issue that law suits are cropping up all over to end this misleading labeling and consumer-duping.
Even Trader Joe’s was served a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of intentionally mislabeling several of its branded packaged foods to make them seem healthier than they are.
So What about “Healthy” Sugar like Turbinado and Rapadura?
First, I’m certainly not calling sugar “healthy”. It is not. My recommendation is don’t eat it often and eat it in moderation when you do indulge.
BUT, some folks swear by those so-called “healthy” sugars. Here’s the skinny…
Turbinado Sugar consists of fine crystals of light brown sugar prepared from unrefined, minimally processed juice of sugar cane.
Rapadura sugar is made by first extracting the juice from the sugar cane (using a press), and then stirring the juice while the water evaporates out of the juice using very low heat. It has not been boiled at high heats (like all other sugars), nor spun to change it into crystals, and the molasses has not been separated from the sugar. Traditionally, the dried juice is formed into a brick for transport. Nowadays, it is ground into a dark brown grainy sugar. Rapadura is produced organically, and does not contain chemicals or anti-caking agents.
Better? Perhaps; however, sugar is still sugar, and is certainly no place to look for getting our necessary nutrients.
The best approach is still to stick with moderation and balance and leave the sweet stuff for special occasions and periodic indulgences.
That doesn’t mean we must suffer through without enjoying foods we eat. In fact, we can meet our nutritional needs while consuming delicious gluten-free (sugar-free, or low-sugar) foods.