A Closer Look at Sugar


One of the tell-tale signs of the winter months is the sweet smells of fresh baked goods wafting through the air, be it sufganiyot, hamentashen or even challah. It prompts us to consider a basic food staple – a food so vital, its absence would render many foods almost inedible. It delights the sophisticated palate of the gourmand; it tantalizes the taste buds of the Shabbos-party eating child; it is ubiquitous across all levels of the social strata, from high class restaurants to the corner diner: it is of course, sugar. In liquid or granulated form, it is an indispensable part of life. To the eternal chagrin of dieters and nutritionists and the delight of everyone else – sugar is here to stay. This article will take a closer look at the table-sugar refining process.

Processed sugar, also known as sucrose, is derived from one of two types of sugar: sugar cane or sugar beets. The primary difference between the two is that sugar cane is grown in moist, tropical climates while beet sugar is cultivated in temperate climates. Cane sugar is a bamboo-like grass which reaches heights between 10- 20 feet. Sugar cane is a perennial in the sense that one planting yields 6-7 annual ratoons (subsequent growths). However: each successive growth is a bit weaker and needs further refining to extract the sucrose. Sugar beets, on the other hand, are planted annually – they look like a giant turnip or onion.

Their refining methods are similar, with one difference: beet is done in a single sugar factory, while cane is processed in two facilities: a sugar mill followed by a sugar refinery. Cane sugar milling begins with crushing the cane to extract its juice, which is then boiled, evaporated, crystallized, centrifuged and then shipped. Typically, a cargo ship holds approximately 60 million pounds of raw sugar. The raw sugar is unloaded by clamshell buckets and conveyed to a raw sugar shed. For every 2 million pounds unloaded there are 3 samples taken.

One sample goes to the New York Sugar Trade lab, another to the seller and a third to the buyer. The raw
sugar is a dark brown color, as each sugar crystal is coated with molasses.

What is Sugar?

Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, used in food. Table sugar, granulated sugar, powdered sugar or regular sugar, all refer to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose. Simple sugars, also called monosaccharides, include glucose, fructose, and dextrose, with the sweetest being fructose. On a sweetness scale, glucose and dextrose would be a 0.7; sucrose would clock in as a 1 and fructose as a 2.

The Sugar Refining Process

The following steps comprise the refining process of both beet sugar and cane sugar:

Affination: Molasses syrup is mixed with warm water and then blended with the raw sugar. The sugar crystals rub against each other, loosening the molasses coating. The result of this mix is a dark brown slurry.

Affination Centrifuge: The slurry is pumped to large centrifuges (which look like washing machines) and spun at over 1,000 RPM (rotations per minute) in a drum shaped basket. This spins off the liquid (which is then reused in the affination cycle of the next batch). The washed product is then conveyed from the centrifuge to the melter.

Melter: The sugar crystals are melted and dissolved with hot water and steam. The sugar is now transformed into raw sugar liquor. It must remain hot to prevent crystallization.

Some sugar refineries add enzymes called Dextranase and Alpha Amylase. Dextranase is an enzyme which breaks down the starch found in the green part of the plant, preventing them from forming dextrans (a syrupy-like goo) which would clog the production machines. Alpha Amylase is an enzyme which is used to break down starches and increase the sugar yield.

Carbonization: The liquor is blended with lime (calcium hydroxide) and calcium dioxide. These two chemicals combine to form calcium carbonate which filters out the impurities and removes the dark color. The product is then filtered through presses.

Activated Carbon Filtering: The sugar liquor is filtered through activated carbon. This assists in the removal of more impurities and unwanted color. The resulting liquor is now a clear color.

Vacuum Pans: Product is boiled at low temperatures under vacuum conditions to crystallize the sugar. (High temperatures would burn the sugar). This further removes excess syrup.

Centrifuge: The white sugar is centrifuged (again) to separate the syrup from the reconstituted crystals.

Granulation: is the final step. The sugar has been crystallized, the excess syrup has been spun off, and the sugar is now dried in a tumble dryer, where hot air is blown in.

Sugar on Shabbos

There is a Talmudic discussion whether food which was fully cooked before Shabbos and subsequently cooled may be recooked again on Shabbos. In Shulchan Aruch’s parlance (O”C 318:4), Yesh bishul achar bishul (is there is cooking after cooking), or Ain bishul achar bishul (there is no cooking after cooking)? The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) makes a distinction between recooking a dry food and a liquid. If a dry item was fully cooked, there is no prohibition to cook it again on Shabbos, but it is prohibited to recook a cooled liquid. [This does not mean that one may place a dry cooked food on the fire. Although there is no Biblical prohibition of bishul when reheating a dry food, there are nonetheless Rabbinic injunctions which apply, and which are beyond the scope of this treatise.] However, one is permitted to place a dry and fully cooked food into a boiling pot of water that has been removed from the fire.

What is the status of granulated sugar? As described, dry granulated sugar is extracted via a cooking process. As such, one would assume that it should be permitted to add sugar to a pot of boiling water that is off the fire. However, the Mishnah Berurah (318:71) cites the Sharei Teshuva (318:5) that since sugar dissolves when placed in hot water, lichatchila we view sugar as a liquid. Therefore, sugar should not be added to a kli rishon (a pot that was on the fire), nor may one pour hot water onto sugar. Instead, one should first pour the hot water into a cup and then it is permissible to add the sugar.

Sugar on Pesach

The enzymes which are used in processing the sugar, although minute in volume, are not batel (nullified). This is because they play an integral role in the sugar processing, breaking down the starches and increasing the sugar yield (see Shulchan Aruch 442: 5 with Mishnah Berurah s.k. 26). The concern is that these enzymes may be considered a ma’amid (a catalyst) which is not batel. As a result of this uncertainty, OU policy requires any Kosher L’Pesach sugar to utilize special Kosher for Passover enzymes. Consequently, sugar processed using non-kosher for Pesach enzymes are not eligible to bear the OU-P symbol.

One last note: Sucrose can be fermented into ethanol, which is used to make rum and vodka. Indeed, rum bearing the OU-P is typically derived from sugar. However, industrial alcohol in the United States is primarily derived from corn and not sugar. With all this mind, let us relish the sweetness of Torah learning and enjoy those sweet-tasting delicacies!

A History of Sugar

Traditionally all sugar was extracted from Southeastern Asian sugar cane and eventually West Indian cane.
In the mid 1700’s beet sugar was discovered, but difficulties with the extraction process prevented it from developing into a viable consumer product. During the Napoleonic Wars, French sugar supplies were cut off by the English blockade. To
counter, Napoleon encouraged new research into sugar beets. The result: over 79,000 acres of sugar cultivated and refined in some 300 factories dotting the French countryside.

The Ingredient Panel: Types of Commercial Sugars

Liquid Sucrose is sugar which has not been crystallized.

Brown Sugar refers to granulated sugar painted with molasses. Interestingly, it is essentially reversing the
refining process. In white sugar refining the molasses is separated from the raw sugar, while brown sugar the
molasses is mixed back in.

Powdered or Confectioner’s Sugar comes from ground cane sugar mixed with starch to prevent the
sugar from caking. Typically, the starch is derived from corn, and therefore kitniyos. Some powdered sugars use
potato starch – those are potentially kosher for Pesach.

Invert Sugar is typically granulated sugar mixed with water, resulting in a mixture of glucose and fructose.
It is typically sweeter than standard granulated sugar, retains moisture better and crystalizes less. It is often
referred to as Invert Syrup.

Consumer Conundrums

I heard that sugar can be processed with animal bones. Is this a Kashrus concern?

Incinerated animal bones (known as bone char) are used as a filtering aid for sugar to remove unwanted color. Since the bones are completely burned, they are not edible even for a dog (aino ro’ui liachilas kelev), and no longer have a non-kosher status. In truth, non-kosher animal bones can be used for filtering even if they have not been burnt. Although the Rambam (Hilchos Maachalos Assuros 4:18) writes that one may not eat bones from a non-kosher animal, Shulchan Aruch (YD 99:1) writes that if kosher food was cooked together with non-kosher bones (that have no marrow), the food remains kosher. This is because bones have no taste which would be imparted to the food. Although one might assume that this is only permitted bidieved (after the fact) but would not be allowed lichatchila, that is not correct. Sefer Panim Me’iros (3:33) writes that one may make utensils (e.g. spoons, ladles) from the bones of non-kosher animals and there is no concern, since bones do not impart taste. In our situation, the bones are filters and do not become part of the sugar, and there is no kashrus concern for the two reasons cited above.


Rabbi Mordechai Starshefsky
Rabbi Mordechai Stareshefsky resides in Lakewood, NJ with his family. He is a musmach of BMG, having previously learned in Yeshivas Rav Chaim Berlin, The Mir and Brisk. Prior to joining the OU he worked at ArtScroll as part of the team of writers elucidating Talmud Yerushalmi. His focus at OU Kosher is on Baby Formulas, Spices, Vinegars and the Beverage industry. He was one of the editors of the Halachah Yomis book published by the OU.