Sugar, Oh So Sweet!


For those who aren’t familiar with of the acronyms that accompany articles and discussions on GMOs here is a quick rundown:

  • GMO – genetically modified organism (most common usage)
  • GM – genetically modified (adjective)
  • GE – genetically engineered (most accurate but not as common)

Let’s talk sugar. I remember in the late 80’s and early 90’s when fat was demonized. Sugar sales skyrocketed. People started consuming many more carbs thanks to the USDA and its ridiculous food pyramid advocating lots and lots of bread consumption. “Fat makes you fat.” I don’t know how many people celebrated cutting fat out of their diet while increasing their sugar intake because fat makes you fat, not sugar. Well, they were wrong. Diabetes skyrocketed. Obesity skyrocketed. And people were addicted to sugar like never before. Let’s look at that sugar now.

When we see “sugar” in the ingredient list of a product we think we are getting cane sugar from the sugar cane plant, right? Not in the US. If it says “sugar” but not “cane sugar” it is most likely GMO beet sugar. Beet sugar has become very common here in the US since it is an easy-to-grow GMO crop with lots of RoundUp sprayed on it. So what’s the difference, we ask? Side by side they will look identical, granulated, sweet, and sold for the nearly same price. For those of us who are avoiding GMOs, beet sugar is not allowed. For those who bake, the differences are obvious. In a San Francisco Chronicle article dated March 31, 1999, beet sugar was exposed and compared to cane sugar by a professional baker:

Carolyn Weil and her crew at The Bake Shop in Berkeley were hard at work one morning, boiling down large pots of sugar syrup to make buttercream for the day’s buns, cakes and confections.

It was a task the staff had done hundreds of times. But this morning the normally silky syrup crystallized into large, chunky granules (Morgan).”

Weil’s supplier had substituted beet sugar for cane sugar without her knowledge, completely sabotaging a day’s baking. It was all thrown away. Professional bakers and chefs snub their noses at beet sugar saying the flavor of cane sugar is far superior. I’m not sure about that, but since any non-organic beet sugar is GMO, it makes a difference to some consumers as well.

That article was written in 1999. It looks like sugarbeet production leveled off before 1999, and even with the advent of GMO sugarbeets it appears that sugarbeets are increasingly used in the production of ethanol (Jacobs). I could not find particular statistics on what percentage of sugar in the US is from sugarbeets.

According to an article in The Organic and Non-GMO Report, non-organic sugar beets have been 90% converted to RoundUp Ready GMO and threaten to contaminate chard and beet crops with their transgenic pollen, at least in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Organic farmers were forced to file a lawsuit. Organic seed producer Frank Morton saw a deliberate attempt by Monsanto to destroy the non-GMO sugarbeet seed supply in the United States:

Three years ago, these processors decided to convert the entire US sugar beet production to Roundup Ready genetically modified varieties, developed by Monsanto Company. The industry said farmers needed the GM beets for better weed control.

Some of us are not in the least surprised by Monsanto’s move to convert the entire sugarbeet crop to their product. Not at all. This is typical of their marketing and growth strategies, and some go so far as to declare their desire to control the world’s food supply. I am leaning that way myself after all of the reading and research I have done. One organic seed producer in the Williamette Valley, Frank Morton saw a serious threat to his business and the organic industry overall. Monsanto’s GM sugarbeet field trials were begun in the area in 2005 without any public notice, public comment or environmental studies.

Seeing no other recourse, Morton joined a lawsuit organized by the Center for Food Safety to sue the US Department of Agriculture for failing to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS). “USDA didn’t consider the impact on all these farms and markets to where we sell seeds. My markets have zero tolerance to GMOs,” he says. “If there is any GMO contamination, my customers won’t buy the seed. Who is going to pay for that?”

Morton and the other plaintiffs hope that a judge’s ruling last year requiring USDA to conduct an EIS for Roundup Ready alfalfa will set a precedent for their case.

They won their lawsuit (Egelko). This past summer Monsanto tried the same thing with GM canola in the Willamette Valley. They have been temporarily blocked from planting but Monsanto usually wins all the way up to the Supreme Court.

I avoid GMOs for two reasons: health and principal. The entire GMO industry is about controlling agriculture not only in this country but all over the world. Monsanto threatened to sue the EU for banning some GM crops in Europe. They do that a lot: threaten to sue. A lot. And then they sue.

If you want to avoid GMO beet sugar you must look for the words “cane sugar” on the package. If those words are missing then that sugar is most likely beet sugar.


Morgan, Miriam. “Sugar, Sugar: Cane and beet share the same chemistry but act differently in the kitchen.” San Francisco Chronicle. 31 Mar 1999.

Jacobs, James. “Ethanol from Sugar.” Rural Cooperatives. 73:5. Sep 2006.

Sugar beet industry converts to 100% GMO, disallows non-GMO option.” The Organic and Non-GMO Report Jun 2008.

Egelko, Bob. “Court rejects genetically modified sugar beets.” San Francisco Chronicle. 23 Sep 2009.

Additional information:

USDA US Sugar Outlook.” Agricultural Outlook Forum, 24 Feb 1998. PDF.

GMO Sugar Beets Account for Large Percentage of Sugar.” Genetically Engineered Food News. ND.

Main, Emily. “USDA: Farmers Need to Feed Americans More Sugar.” 2011.


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