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Pauline McKee

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Organic Sugar Expert

In this profile, Wholesome Sweeteners' Pauline McKee provides a brief history of sugar cane production and explains both the process by which organic sugar is produced and the unique benefits organic sugar provides people and the planet.

Pauline McKeeQ: Where does organic sugar come from?

A: Organic Sugar is produced only from organically cultivated sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum). Sugar cane is a type of grass that typically thrives is warm climates close to the equator.  Conventional sugar, the “white stuff,” can be produced either from sugar cane or sugar beets. Beets grow in the cooler temperate region in the northern USA. Many beets in the U.S. are now, unfortunately, GMO (genetically modified organisms). This makes it is impossible to produce organic sugar from sugar beets--now or any time in the future--as GMOs are prohibited for use in organic production and processing.

Q: What are some of the key benefits of organic sugar cane?

A: Farmers grow organic sugar cane without the use of herbicides or pesticides, which means that neither they nor the land are subjected to these toxins. Weeding is done completely by hand, which creates local employment and enables farmers to secure a premium price for their certified organic cane.  The community as a whole benefits. For example, in Paraguay, the community has invested in orange and grapefruit trees and in land for the orchard. The citrus trees are intercropped with other trees to promote biodiversity, and community members now have fresh fruit to eat at home and sell at the market. 

Q: Why are Wholesome Sweeteners’ sugars both organic and Fair Trade certified?

A: Today, cane sugar is often produced in third world countries were labour is inexpensive and unfortunately, all too often, the workers do not benefit from the profits made. Organic sugar Boys at the Well in Malawiproduction marries the importance of environmentally responsibility growing and production with the equally important responsibility of ensuring it is also ethically produced. 

Organic Sugars are produced to the ridgid standards established by the USDA NOP (United States department of Agriculture National Organic Program). Producers are third-party certified annually by USDA-approved certifiers.

Some producers also operate under third-party-certified fair trade guidelines,whereby the labour force is paid fairly for its work to directly alleviate poverty and improve the quality of community life.

Ensuring products are organic and fairly traded really can make a significant difference in the everyday lives–and futures–of cane farmers and their communities. The model enables additional funds to flow back directly into the community.

Consumer support of organic sugars that are also fairly traded has been incredible. In fact, Wholesome Sweeteners, which sells fairly traded Organic Sweeteners, has paid more than $5,000,000 to Fair Trade Organic co-op partners and farmers in Costa Rica, Mexico and Paraguay. This is a direct result of consumers choosing organic and fairly traded products and wishing to give back and make and a positive impact on farmers’ lives.

Q: How long has  sugar cane been harvested?

A: Sugar Cane has been harvested for thousands of years, and whole books have been written on its history . It is native to Papua New Guinea, where it was first discovered and called “the reed that gives honey without bees” by Emperior Darius of Persia.  From there is was taken to India and, after the Arabs invaded Persia, they brought it to Africa in 600AD. Sugar cane production gradually became established all over Africa and in southern Spain.  

On his trips to the New World in early 1400’s, Christopher Columbus took sugar cane. It grew well and became an abundant crop still grown today on the warm Caribbean Islands. 

During most of sugar’s history, it was considered a great luxury that was only accessible to the very wealthy.  In the 1450s, is it recorded in London that it cost $45.00 per lb, and that it was more expensive thaOrganic sugar canet gold.

Move forward 200 years and in 1690 the first U.S. sugar refinery was opened in New York, increasing sugar’s supply and availability.  It took another 200 years for sugar to become widely available and at a price accessible to the general public. 

Q: How does cane produce sugar?

A: Like many grasses, the organic sugar cane is one of nature's best photosynthesizers, converting up to 2% of the sunlight it receives into carbohydrates, or sugars. The cane looks like bamboo, and every year farmers reserve ten percent of each harvest for replanting. The cane is cut into foot-long battons, and the sugar cane stalks are planted in a shallow trench.  The cane is sprinkled with chicken manure and other organic fertilisers and covered in topsoil.

In Costa Rica, organic macadamia shells and sugar cane bagasse are used (spent or de-juiced crushed sugar cane).  The weeding for organic sugar cane is all done by hand, which is very labour-intensive but an important part of the production process. 

Sugar cane’s growing cycle varies from place to place, but it generally takes from nine to 12 months for cane to mature. It grows to over 8 feet tall and then it is hand-harvested with machetes. The leaves are sliced off in the field and left where they fall. They protect the top soil, and provide a natural weed surpressant and an important source of nutrients that slowly leach back into the soil

The sugar cane crop is often rotated every three years with nitrogen-fixing vegetables, such as beans.  Crop rotation allows the soil “to rest,” helps replace the nitrogen that is lost from the soil, and  provides a field in which  farmers can grow a variety of vegetables for their family and community.

Q: What happens after organic sugar cane is cut?

A: When the sugar cane is harvested, farmers have to get it to the mill within 24 hours or the sugars in the cane will start to spoil. Many co-ops have invested their organic and fair trade premiums in new trucks to ensure the valuable crop gets to the mill in prime condition. Mills are often several hours away from the field, so it is important to have reliable transport or an entire daily harvest could be lost.

At the mill, cane is crushed to extract its sweet, nutrient-rich juice. The juice is collected and organic sugarwater, distilled from a nearby river, is added to make a sweet syrup. The syrup is clarified with slaked lime to remove any impurities, then concentrated through heat, and crystallized to produce organic evaporated cane juice (granulated sugar). Organic evaporated cane juice is a first crystalization sugar. This means that it is very mininally processed, has a warm golden color, and contains small amounts of the cane’s molasses in and around the sugar crystal.

Sugar cane juice contains approximately 14% molasses and 86% sucrose. The objective is to separate the molasses in the cane juice from the sucrose.  Organic molasses, rich in nutritious vitamins and minerals, is the by-product of organic sugar production.

Q: Are fossil fuels used in organic sugar cane production?

A: Organic Sugar Cane production is completely Green in the true sense of the word! Absolutely no fossil fuels are used to produce organic sugars. The sugar cane arrives at the mill, where it is crushed and the juice is squeezed out. The spent cane is called bagasse. Bagasse is the fibrous material that is left after all the juice has been squeezed out of the cane. It is used as the fuel for furnaces that generates all the electricity required to run the mills. In fact, at many locations, the mill generates enough electricity for the surrounding villages as well. 

Q: What is Organic Sucanat?

A: SuCaNat stands for Sugar Cane Natural. It is dehydrated whole cane juice, and it contains all the molasses naturally found in sugar cane. (14% molasses and 86% sucrose). It is a porous granual, not a crystal, which readily dissolves. It has a strong molasses flavor and can be used in recipes as a replacement for brown sugar. It makes amazing chocolate brownies!

About Pauline McKee
Pauline McKee is the Co-Founder and Vice-President Marketing for Wholesome Sweeteners, the US’s leading supplier of organic and fairly traded sweeteners. During the last 10 years the Company has grown to become the leading brand with national and international distribution, and a recognised leader in socially and environmentally responsible business practices and products. Pauline has developed and launched over 60 new products during this time.

Wholesome Sweeteners was the first Company to introduce Fair Trade sugars and honeys to the US in 2005. Pauline claims her most rewarding experience is personally witnessing the positive, dramatic, impacts on the farmers, their families and community. All as a direct result of consumers choosing organic sweeteners in the USA.  “Seeing a water-well sprouting fresh clean water for the first time at the village of Kasinthula, Malawi, meaning that the women do not now have to carry the water daily, is something that will stay with me forever”

Pauline joins the OTA annually in Washington DC to promote the organic cause to lawmakers. She is a regular guest, or a speaker, at events including Food & Wine Festivals, media interviews, panel discussions and conferences. 2011 was her seventh consecutive year as guest speaker at the Disney’s EPCOT Wine & Food Festival.