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Season 1, Episode 5

What's with GMO Sugar?

Sugar is a crystal, it doesn't have genes -- so why are GMO opponents attacking it?

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We've all seen how popular it is for food producers to cater to marketing fads: anti-GMO, gluten free, hormone free -- but there's one in particular that seems to make no sense at all: GMO-free sugar. Sugar is a crystal, it doesn't have genes, so how can it be genetically modified? Only plants and animals have genes, and sugar is neither of those. So are marketers who advertise their sugar as being GMO-free just pulling our legs?

Short answer: Yes! And no.

No, because they're right, all sugar is GMO-free, because sugar doesn't have genes and there can be no such thing as GMO sugar. So yes, they are basically being dishonest by implying that some sugar had its genes modified. Not true.

However, we do get our sugar from plants: basically either sugarcane or sugar beets. The plants are crushed, water is added, and it's boiled, evaporated, and filtered until we have just pure sugar crystals left. Refined white sugar has gone through the most filtering and centrifuging to separate out all the impurities, so it consists of nothing but pure white sugar crystals. Products like raw sugar are not filtered as much, so they get their brown color from molasses and leftover plant material which may contain plant cells and their genes.

Sugarcane is NOT genetically modified, and most sugar beets in the United States and Canada ARE genetically modified, which lets farmers grow a lot more at less expense. When sugar producers slap a non-GMO label on their product, that label says nothing at all about the sugar inside; what it does tell you (generally) is whether the sugar was sourced from sugarcane or sugar beets. It's a little like buying software and the label telling you what server it was downloaded from. Molecule for molecule, the product itself is identical, regardless of its source.

Even though the lack of genes in sugar is an obvious science fact, consumer pressure has prompted repeated testing which has shown there is no nutritional or chemical difference.

The bottom line is that no refined white sugar is genetically modified, because sugar has no genes. If, for some reason, you still feel you need to avoid having any genes in your sugar, then all you need to do is avoid raw sugar with its plant cell contaminants, and stick with refined white sugar for the purest, sweetest experience.

Update: Testing generally does not find any DNA material at all in any commercial sugars, not even dark turbinado or muscovado ("raw") sugars. - BD


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