Taking sugar away is not the answer

Aug 30 2019

The government’s recent sugar-centric attempts to tackle the obesity crisis may be providing only half an answer.

Sugar in the spotlight

Sugar’s recent journey to being firmly on the government’s radar has been several years in the making. It began with the discovery of so-called “hidden” sugars in our foods, in turn leading to an examination of the sugar content in soft drinks. Faced by the societal pressure this generated, government decided to act, introducing the UK’s sugar tax on 6 April 2018.

At Ragus, we have seen attitudes towards sugar peak and trough like this for decades. The acceptance of its presence in our food and drinks follows trends. One minute sugar-free is all the rage, the next consumers are told to embrace the natural benefits of sugar.

Estimated to raise £520 million, the sugar tax will be used to fund sport in primary schools in a bid to address the root cause of the country’s obesity crisis. Initial signs show it is fulfilling this money generating objective. As of last November, £154 million has already been generated.

These numbers make for good reading for lawmakers but beg questions. Anecdotal evidence alone shows that consumers are now turning to cheaper sugar-free options. Is the correct approach to drive them towards these, particularly given that the sugar alternatives they use are not always a healthier bet?

White Sugar

Simply removing sugar from our foods and drinks does not provide a long term solution.

Zero sugar is not always better

The government may be targeting sugar in a bid to deal with the obesity crisis, but have they failed to examine what happens when people choose to consume the alternatives? Often, zero calorie, zero sugar foods and drinks are not healthier. This is because the calories in/calories out view of weight loss ignores the fact that our bodies are complex and nuanced machines.

Zero calorie foods and drinks dampen natural fat burners. Highly processed foods, where they are often found, are essentially pre-digested foods. As such, the body’s natural fat burners do not kick in and become supressed and dormant.

Diet soft drinks, many of which were reformulated after the introduction of the sugar tax to contain no sugar, are equally as misleading. Their sweet taste informs the body to expect the arrival of calories. When this subsequently does not happen, our hunger instinct is triggered, meaning we simply reach for more food.

More needs to be done than erasing sugar

Pinning the blame solely on sugar seems unfair and narrow-minded, especially when we look at the alternatives. A more holistic approach is needed, one that also addresses the misconceptions behind calorific content and the role of fat.

Sugar is essential to our foods and drinks. Wantonly stripping it out can cause more problems than it creates. Initiatives like the sugar tax may have won plaudits, but are they just a short-term fix to an issue that requires addressing through wholesale and lasting change?

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What is Fair trade sugar?

Aug 23 2019

Fair trade has risen to become one of the most respected certifications of fair and ethical food production in the world. But what does it mean for sugar?

What is fair trade and how does it work?

Fair trade is an agreement between institutions designed to help producers achieve better prices for what they grow and as a result improved living conditions. Its focus is on products or commodities that have a history of being imported from developing to developed countries, such as a sugar, coffee and chocolate. Several national and international federations are tasked with promoting and co-ordinating the work required to achieve the fair trade goal, the most well-known of which to UK consumer’s is The Fairtrade Foundation.

The Fairtrade Foundation seeks to enact the fair trade mission through several means. As well as lobbying governments and setting workers’ rights standards, the foundation also works directly with farmers, and, most visibly of all, certifies products and ingredients. The end result of this is a fairer world in which growers are paid a respectable wage for their role in producing our food.

These ambitions and measures are impacting growers across the globe. There are currently 1.66 million farmers and workers in 1,411 producer organisations spanning 73 countries, with this number and impact of the scheme growing all the time. Moreover, producers received €158.3 million in Fairtrade premiums in 2016.

Cut Sugar Cane

Why do sugar cane farmers need fair trade?

Around 80% of the world’s sugar comes from sugar cane, with this being grown by millions of small-scale farmers and plantation works in primarily developing countries. In an industry as vast and complex as the global sugar trade, it is little surprise that these farmers have almost no influence on key trade decisions. What’s more, international trade laws have traditionally made it more difficult for these farmers to access the lucrative markets of Europe and North America, forcing them to compete with wealthier, more powerful countries without the resources to match.

As a result, small hold cane farmers often receive a price for their crop that fails to cover growing costs. The knock-on effect of this can be devastating for the entire community in which farmers live and work. Family members are frequently drawn into working on the cane farm, limiting their chances of receiving any form of education and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Causing further disruption to producers in the developing world is the EU’s 2017 decision to remove production quotas on sugar production. Previously, farmers in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP) sold cane to the EU market using production quotas and received payments artificially higher than the world market price for sugar. This preferential treatment has now ended, plunging growers into further uncertainty.

How does Fairtrade improve the lives of sugar farmers?

Although sugar is a vital crop to the economies of many developing countries, the benefits are rarely passed down the chain to small scale farmers. Focussing on these smallholder farmers, Fairtrade certification currently covers 54,000 people in 19 countries. Its main means of support is economic, offering a Fairtrade Premium of $60 per tonne of sugar on top of the negotiated price.

Such is the impact of the premium, it has resulted in farmers in Malawi having enough money to invest in equipment and means of operation that has increased productivity by 21%. Moreover, the premiums have also allowed local communities to build vital infrastructure like boreholes and primary schools, as well as contributing to the electrification of entire villages.

Initiatives like the Fairtrade premium also allow growers to stake a bigger claim in the sugar supply chain. For example, cane farmers in Maduvira co-operative in Paraguay were able to generate enough revenue to purchase their own sugar mill. In removing another step from the supply chain, they were able to access even more value than before.

At Ragus, we are proud to offer Fairtrade and organic options on many of our sugar products. Visit our product finder to discover yours.

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The questions to ask when selecting the best sugar for your product

Aug 14 2019

In this week’s blog, we discuss what to think about and ask when looking for the right sugar for your application.

At Ragus, we help at every stage of the sugar buying process, from choosing the best sugar product for your application right through to consistently delivering on-time. The customer service team and I are always on hand to offer advice when looking to order the right sugar. To make that process easier, we have pooled together the below questions to help steer first-time sugar buyers in the right direction.

Sugar is a diverse product with a broad range of applications across sectors. It is used in pharmaceutical, confectionery or cough syrups, the brewing and soft drink industries as well as a range of food industries including; cereal, baking, marinades, preserves and desserts. For such a broad range of sectors and markets, it is no wonder there is a variety of sugar products to choose from.

Ragus offer a range of sugar products within our three specialities which are; crystalline, syrup and custom formulations. Within each, there are a number of products which vary in texture, taste and application. That is why considering the sugar specification, along with answering questions around what it is going to be applied to, is vital to understanding what sugar is required for your application.

What role does the sugar play in the end product?

This is a fundamental question when looking at the different sugar product options. Sugar can serve an enormous variety of functions, ranging from things like acting as a bulking or sweetening agent to expediting the fermentation process of beer. On top of this, sugar products can even be used for bee food and to add nutrients to animal feeds.

 

Sugar having such a diverse range of roles that extend far beyond taste makes knowing which sugar product best serves your application even more crucial. For example, if sugar is being used to enhance flavour, we need to think about the sweetness percentage it needs to have, or not have. From there what type of taste? For example, golden syrup and invert sugar syrup will have very different flavour profiles.

Understanding what you want you want the sugar to do, from flavour enhancing to nutrients, is a key step to narrowing down the broad range of sugar products, to ensure the right one is selected.

Are you going to apply heat to the sugar?

The next thing to understand is how the sugar is going to be applied to the product. Is the sugar going to be mixed within or used as a coating for the product? In both instances, will heat be applied? and if so, how much and for how long?

The application of heat to sugar, depending on which is chosen, can turn the crystalline into a liquid and then solidify, or can solidify a syrup. The application of heat can affect the overall flavour profile of the sugar such as giving it a more bitter taste. The heat will also evaporate moisture levels, therefore understanding how the sugar will be applied is an important question when looking for the right sugar.

What are the likely quantities required and how will you store the sugar?

Understanding the tonnage impacts how it will be packaged and stored, it could be as small as 25kg pails, or as large as several bulk tankers. How it will be stored is also important, firstly understand the available physical space, but also different sugars have different temperature requirements which impact shelf life. All of these factors are worth considering when thinking of what sugar to select and the frequency of orders.

Asking these questions and knowing the answers, will help us to advise you on the best sugar for your application. Contact us to benefit from almost a century of sugar manufacturing experience and expertise.

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Striking a fair balance: insecticides and sugar beet growing

Aug 08 2019

With increasing pressure from the EU on growers, a solution needs to be found that controls insects but promotes high yields.

Why do sugar beet growers need insecticides?

An insecticide is a substance designed to kill insects, in either adult, larvae or egg form. It is vital to modern day agriculture and is seen as being one of the key drivers behind the enormous boost in agricultural production in the 20th century. This does not mean their use doesn’t present issues, with many having the potential to significantly alter ecosystems and disrupt food chains.

As sugar beet is susceptible to the highly damaging Virus Yellows that are transmitted by aphids, insecticides are essential to ensuring yields remain as high as possible. There are three main yellowing viruses: beet yellowing virus (BYV), beet mild yellowing virus (BMYV) and beet chlorosis (BChV). These can be only be distinguished from one and other through laboratory testing, although each results in varying amount of damage to sugar beet yields.

Such is the potency of all yellowing viruses, the outbreaks of the early 1970s caused many growers to have to give up on beet altogether. Entire fields can quickly be engulfed by the disease, resulting in yield losses of up to 50%. What’s more, there are currently no resistant varieties of sugar beet available to growers across the globe.

Carried by aphids, Virus Yellows have the potential to quickly devastate livelihoods.

What insecticides protect sugar beet crops?

Sugar beet is protected from Virus Yellows by using neonicotinoids as a seed treatment control measure. Developed to mimic the chemical properties of nicotine, the members of this insecticide family used to treat sugar beet seeds include thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid. These are favoured by farmers due to the speed and ease with which they prevent the development of several potentially devastating diseases.

But, as is the case with any insecticide, neonicotinoids do not come without their ecological challenges. When first introduced, they were initially believed to have relatively low toxicity to any insects other than the ones they are designed to kill. This assumption was proved to be wrong after a dramatic loss of beehive numbers in 2006 proved that neonicotinoids were in fact lethal to bumble bees.

As well as killing bees, these crucial pesticides can also attribute to colony collapse disorder (CCD), whereby the majority of worker bees vacate a hive and leave just a handful of nurse bees and a queen behind. In turn, the hive can no longer effectively function, and, as the name suggests, collapses and eventually ceases to exist. Although long anecdotally believed to be caused by neonicotinoids, the link was made concrete in an essay published in the peer-review journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. Due to evidence of this nature and in a bid to protect bee populations, the European Union (EU) restricted the uses of neonicotinoids in 2013 before completely banning their use on any outdoor crop in 2018.

What has been the impact of the EU’s decision to ban neonicotinoids?

As with anything that pits environmental and ecological considerations against the productivity and profits of farmers, the ban has been highly divisive. Environmentalists labelled the initial ban as a “significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations” that was backed up by “crystal clear” public support. Conversely, the UK government, who along with 8 other EU member states voted against the ban, claimed “we did not support the proposal for a ban because our scientific evidence doesn’t support it.”

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from sugar beet growers to the wholesale ban has been overwhelmingly negative, with some even going as far as to suggest it could disrupt yields for the next decade. Although planting fell in Germany for the current season, the UK yield is expected to be at least as high as last year, with this being all the more pleasing giving that the 2019 season is the first to bear the brunt of a total neonicotinoids ban.

The fact that only one season has passed post-ban also shows that more time is needed to draw useful conclusions from its impact. With virus-resistant sugar beet crops at least several years way from being commercially viable, the only interim solution seems to be on that satisfies growers without leading to destruction of bee populations. It remains to be seen what this is, with many farmers still seeing the EU’s decision as short-sighted and not based on concrete scientific evidence.

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Why should sugar be sourced ethically?

Aug 01 2019

Sugar production begins with sourcing. At Ragus our 90-year history as an independent importer of sugar underpins our approach to product traceability and ethical sourcing of beet and cane sugar.

Where does Ragus source its sugar?

Although both can be used to produce a whole range of sugar products, sugar cane and sugar beet require much different growing conditions. Sugar cane is a tropical plant, meaning it thrives in hot sunny places like India, Cuba and the West Indies. Sugar beet, on the other hand, prefers more temperate climates, and as such is grown in areas such as Europe, China and Canada.

For Ragus Sugars, this means keeping track of a range of suppliers situated across the globe to ensure all our raw materials maintain an ethical and exploitation-free provenance. In order to achieve this, we first assess all available suppliers in sugar-growing territories, selecting the most suitable for our requirements both now and in the future. After this, we then visit the chosen plantation, mill or refinery.

Ragus audits current and potential raw ingredient suppliers

Once onsite we assess the potential supplier to ensure they meet the high standards and responsibility values that define operations at Ragus. As well as visiting suppliers, we also use technology to follow our sugar from plantation or field through the entire delivery chain into every syrup, crystalline or special sugar formulation produced at our factory.

Why does Ragus audit its sugar suppliers?

Where our food and its constituent ingredients originate from is more important to suppliers and consumers now than it ever has been before. At Ragus Sugars, part of our knowledge transfer strategy involves carrying out audits of potential and current suppliers to guarantee that not only is the sugar of a high standard but that all players in the supply chain are paid and treated fairly. The aim of these visits and partnerships is to promote and safeguard human rights and environmentally and socially sustainable supplier business.

Onsite filming for the new Ragus sourcing video

Recently, we spent time visiting and auditing a particular raw material supplier, producing a new Ragus Sugars sourcing video in the process. This will be available on our website and YouTube channel, with photos shared on social media in the lead up to its release.

To learn more about our commitment to ethical sourcing and the standards and accreditations we hold visit our responsibility section of the website.

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