Why Does Brown Sugar form Lumps but Regular Sugar Usually Doesn’t?

When we say the word “sugar”, it’s highly
likely that the first image to pop into your head is that of the ultra-fine, pure white
granulated kind you can buy in most supermarkets. But how does this kind of sugar differ from
the less popular brown kind, and why isn’t it as prone to forming into lumps as its dusky
cousin? To properly answer this question, we’ll
first delve into how sugar (as in common table sugar, rather than other short-chain, sweet,
soluble carbohydrates) is produced in the first place, because it’s key to understanding
how the white variety differs from brown sugar and why the latter often lumps together. Beyond that, it’s also just interesting. As you’re probably aware, the common sugar
you buy in stores is primarily derived from one of two things- sugarcane (from which it’s
estimated 70% of the world’s sugar is produced) and sugar beet. While the refining process for each crop differs
slightly, the end product is identical. We say this because you might hear from people
(and companies that use sugarcane for their sugar) that sugar from sugarcane is superior
to that extracted from sugar beets. Among other reasons sometimes mentioned, one
notable one is because beet sugar can sometimes be derived from beets that have been genetically
modified. For those curious, since table sugar is literally
just sucrose, the source it’s derived from doesn’t affect the final product in any
way, assuming the manufacturer keeps any impurities down to a negligible level, which they do. In any event, sugarcane and sugar beets are
the most common sources of sugar because they contain a high concentration of sucrose that
is relatively easy to extract. Sugarcane, for example, is about 10% sugar
by weight, meaning for every 10 kilos of sugarcane you harvest, you can reasonably expect to
get about 1 kilo of sugar in return, depending on the quality of the cane and the efficiency
of the methods used to extract it. The amount of sugar in a sugar beet, on the
other hand, can vary quite a bit, though beets can sometimes contain as much as 17% of their
weight in pure sugar. This can change depending on how mature the
beets are and where they are grown. From this, you might think that, in the right
regions, beats are the way to go for sugar producers. However, beet farms produce significantly
less sugar than cane farms per hectare (7 tons per hectare compared to 10 tons per hectare
for sugarcane) because the beets take up more space and are generally more difficult to
cultivate as they need to be replanted every single year. In contrast, sugarcane will continue to regrow
for years after being harvested as long as the roots of the plant are left undisturbed. After harvesting, the basic process of extracting
sugar from both cane and beets is fairly similar, with the exception that, because beets are
physically removed from the ground, they need to be washed, cleaned and sliced before any
sugar can be extracted. In contrast, sugarcane is ready to have the
sugar extracted almost immediately after being harvested. After this initial processing is done, both
are soaked in water and then crushed to extract as much “juice” from them as possible. This juice is then boiled to removed much
of the water from it, leaving behind a thick viscous syrup, which itself is then spun in
a centrifuge after some more boiling, separating the pure sugar crystals that form at the bottom
from the mixture. The sugar that forms at the bottom of the
mixture will then be dried and bleached, giving it the pure white texture we’re all familiar
with, before being packaged and shipped for consumption. The syrupy mixture left over after producing
sugar is known as molasses (or treacle in the UK) and it is similarly packaged and sold
off after production. However, sometimes manufactures will mix some
of this back in with the white sugar producing what most of us would recognise as brown sugar. The exact amount of molasses added varies
from manufacturer to manufacturer, but, for the most part, it falls between 3% and 7%
with the latter producing dark brown sugar and the former producing light brown sugar. A third kind of brown sugar, often sold as
“natural brown sugar” exists and is made by simply forgoing the extra step of separating
the molasses from the sugar in the first place. Since all kinds of brown sugar contain molasses,
which itself contains water, it can dry out which is what causes brown sugar to harden
and form into lumps if it is left out in the open or stored improperly. This is a problem that doesn’t occur with
white table sugar because, as we already mentioned, it is thoroughly dried before being packaged
and shipped. That said, white sugar can become lumpy if
it absorbs too much moisture (a common problem in high-humidity environments if the sugar
is improperly stored). In both cases, fixing the problem is as simple
as either drying the sugar out, or putting the moisture back in, depending on which kind
it is. Common methods for this include, for hardened
brown sugar, leaving a slice of bread in a sealed container with the brown sugar overnight. For white table sugar, you can dry it out
by placing it in a warm oven for a few hours.

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