What Is White Sugar?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

White sugar

Getty Images/Fascinadora

White sugar the most popular sweetener used in American kitchens, and has been since it was first introduced it to the colonies in the early 1600s. Today white sugar is found in an array of foods and drinks, from classic sauces, candies, baked goods and many other foods where one may not expect to see it. White sugar is baked into desserts, made into sauces, stirred into coffee and tea, sprinkled on top of fresh fruit and used just about anywhere a dash of sweetness is needed.

Fast Facts

  • Melting Point: 320 F 
  • Most Common Type: Granulated sugar
  • Substitutes: Stevia, maple syrup, molasses and honey
  • Shelf Life: Two years 

What is White Sugar?

White sugar is the crystallized sucrose extracted from sugarcane or, more recently, sugar beets, though the origin of most white sugar is not labeled on the packaging. It's a processed food that involves leeching the natural molasses and sugarcane juice from the food in order to get the pure white sweetener (without this process you get raw sugar and/or brown sugar).

Sugar first became known in the Bengal region of India almost 2,500 years ago, and shortly after was used in China and early Persians and Arabs. By the 13th century white sugar was being eaten and made in Europe, but it was a laborious process and only the well-to-do could afford to eat it. Production increased after Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane stalks to Europe from the Spanish Canary Islands after his second Atlantic Ocean voyage in 1493. North Americans started eating and coveting white sugar by the early 1600s, which led to an era of sugar slavery.

Sugar, which was also known as "white gold" at the time, became one of the biggest money-making imports in British New York. By the early 1700s half the ships arriving in port dealt in imported sugar and enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean. The slave trade grew after French Jesuit priests planted sugarcane stalks in New Orleans in 1751, which launched the sugar industry in the southern states and territories of North America. Slavery was finally abolished in 1863, though sugar production never ceased. Today the United States still makes around nine million tons of sugar each year.

How To Use White Sugar

Sugar not only provides sweetness in baked goods and beverages, but it is part of important chemical responses that may occur during cooking and baking. For example, caramelization and the Maillard reaction can occur when white sugar is heated up.

Sugar is also a hydroscopic, meaning that it attracts moisture. This is one reason the presence of sugar is so important for baked goods, it helps retain moisture and keeps the foods soft and supple. Of course moisture in a container of sugar is not helpful and can actually ruin a perfectly good bowl. 

Interesting fact, white sugar is not vegan. To make white sugar refined and give it its signature pale color, the raw sugar is processed with bone char. So while no animal products are actually in white sugar, by using animal bone to refine it, the ingredient becomes non-vegan. Raw or unrefined sugars are safe for vegans to eat, as are sugars made from sugar beets. 

RELATED: A Guide to Different Types of Sugar

How to Cook With White Sugar

White sugar can be and is used in just about anything. Look at a label in the grocery store and it becomes clear sugar is in so many foods, even where eaters wouldn't expect it to be. At home it's easier to control where white sugar gets used, and baking is the number one method. It's part of most cookie recipes, cakes, pie, muffins, scones and sweet rolls. 

Use white sugar to make jam, create certain Asian sauces like teriyaki, and stir into gelatin for a classic treat. Because white sugar dissolves easily in hot liquids, it can tame the bitterness of coffee or black tea, and make a simple syrup perfect for lemonade and cocktails. Sugar also caramelizes under high heat, so a BBQ rub with white sugar in it is a great ingredient to keep in the spice cabinet.

sugar cube

Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

Coffee with white sugar

Getty Images/Tetra Images

cake

Getty Images/Anastasiia Krivenok

Powdered sugar

Getty Images/Eskay Lim / EyeEm

White sugar

Getty Images/Wachara Kireewong / EyeEm

meringue

Getty Images/Ekaterina Smirnova

What Does It Taste Like? 

Sugar is a sweet substance that hits all the saccharine taste buds on the tongue. Because it's mainly mixed into foods, white sugar adds sweetness that enhances whatever ingredient it's combined with. 

Recipes

White sugar is found in many foods, and not all of them sweet. Some recipes need the sugar to bring out the saccharine notes, like the following desserts. But other dishes use white sugar to balance out the savory side, like in the biscuit recipe below. 

White Sugar Selection

  • Granulated Sugar: This all-purpose sugar is the most common variety of white sugar and is often referred to as table sugar. It is easily measured and dissolves well into beverages and other liquids. Use it in baking, cooking and in that morning cup of coffee. 
  • Coarse Grain: Also called decorating sugar or pearl sugar, this type of large sugar crystals are often sprinkled on top of baked goods and candy for extra sparkle. The chemical composition of this sugar is identical to table sugar, and the only difference between the two is the size of the crystal.​
  • Caster Sugar: This fine sugar has a slightly smaller crystal size than granulated sugar, making it easier to dissolve into liquids and other mixtures. Caster sugar is often used to make meringues, mousses, and custards. Caster sugar can be made at home by quickly pulsing regular table sugar in a food processor.​
  • Confectioners Sugar: Often this type of sugar is called powdered sugar or icing sugar, and it's a type of sugar that has been mechanically crushed into a fine powder. An anti-caking agent, such as calcium phosphate or cornstarch, is commonly added to prevent clumping. Because it dissolves almost instantly in liquids, confectioners' sugar is most useful in icings, syrups, and other desserts. It's also used to dust plenty of cookies, mugs of hot cocoa and cakes.
  • Lump Sugar: Lump sugar is regular white table sugar that has been pressed into cubes for convenient measuring, hence the other name, sugar cube. This type is most often used for beverages such as coffee and tea, and sometime to as a treat for horses.​

White Sugar Storage

Keep white sugar in a sealed container somewhere dry. Sugar will last for at least two years as long as it doesn't get wet. The container doesn't need to be air tight, but should be well sealed so pests don't infest it. Keep it on the counter in a sugar bowl, in the bag it came in or in a bin. In general, white sugar is pretty easy to store.

Nutrition and Benefits

A teaspoon of sugar has around five grams of carbohydrates and about 20 calories. There are no vitamins or minerals in white sugar. Overall, sugar is an empty calorie food, and while it can provide a burst of energy, it's gotten a lot of flack for being over consumed, especially in the United States.

On average, Americans each go through around 77 pounds of sugar and sugar-based sweeteners per year, which is nearly two-times the recommended amount based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Over consumption of white sugar and other sugars have also been linked to type-2 diabetes and obesity.

Myths

As already discussed, white sugar is not bleached; rather, its pale color comes from processing, often with bone char. Sugar does not cause cancer even if cancer cells need glucose to grow. Based on an article delivered by Cancer Research UK, all cells, even healthy ones, need glucose to survive and cancer cells also need a lot of other things to grow such as amino acids and fats. White sugar also isn't an addictive substance, though the dopamine burst one might feel from eating it certainly can become something to crave. 

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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