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The dark side of sugar: an eco-guide to the sweet stuff

The dark side of sugar: an eco-guide to the sweet stuff

Sugary foods provide a quick energy hit to get you through tiring days or a tasty treat to reward yourself with for surviving them. Sweet fruity preserves are also a traditional way to bring some of summer’s bounty into the depths of winter. And it’s amazing how sour fruit or potentially wasteful cooking disasters can be saved by a sprinkling of sweetness.

That’s the light and happy side of sugar’s story. Less sunny is the potentially addictive nature of sugar and its negative impact on our health when we regularly overindulge. Refined white sugars are pure carbohydrate and have virtually no nutritional value. By comparison, unrefined sugars hold on to the original minerals present in sugar cane, including phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. They are more nutritionally balanced than refined sugars and less concentrated, and so generally better for our health.

An even darker aspect of sugar relates to its production – including widespread accusations concerning the abuse of sugar workers and the wild spaces cleared for sugar plantations, causing soil erosion and contributing to the destruction of biodiversity. Environmentalists are particularly concerned about the impact of agricultural run off in Belize on the Meso-American reef, in Queensland on the Great Barrier Reef and the impact of Fiji’s production on the Great Reef.

Herbicides and pesticides play a contributing role, which can be avoided if you buy organic. But even organic sugar production does not completely get around erosion problems and the attendant leaching of toxic nitrogen into local water supplies.

For most people, the sugar we buy in bags is only a small part of the sugar we consume each day, but it is the part we have the most control over. So what are our sugary options?

What to look out for:

FAIRTRADE

Fairtrade certification is based on the principles of democracy, participation, transparency and respect of the environment. It prohibits child labour and discrimination based on gender, race, political conviction or religion.

As well as a commercial price, the Fairtrade premium of $60 per metric tonne is paid to producers to facilitate investment and development projects of their own choosing. Fairtrade certified sugar is also delivered ‘free on board’, which means that the seller is responsible for delivering the goods to the named port of shipment, but from that point forward, the buyer has to bear all costs and risks of loss or damage to the goods.

ORGANIC

The Biogro New Zealand organic certification on sugar products prohibits genetically engineered organisms or the use of chemical or synthetic herbicides and strictly controls the use of fertilisers. The regulations also state that: “Water used for irrigation and stock watering must be of appropriate quality. Optimum application rates should be used for irrigation, and all equipment, such as pipes, troughs, etc, should be maintained to avoid problems such as wastage, leaching of soil nutrients, soil structural damage and soil erosion.”

FAIRTRADE AND ORGANIC

For certified Fairtrade sugar that is also certified organic, a premium of $80 per metric tonne is paid to producers to facilitate investment and development projects of their own choosing. Some sugars are certified Fairtrade and organic by Biogro, and some are certified organic by Quality Assurance International, to a similar standard.

This story first appeared in Good magazine.