The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 13, 2010

How Fair Is Your Sugar? And How ‘Bout All That Plastic?

maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, datesI want to talk about the plastic packaging in the sweeteners we choose, what trade offs we have to make to create less plastic packaging waste and still keep it organic and Fair Trade, and why reducing our intake of cane sugar is probably the best choice in the first place.

Cane Sugar

Here’s my situation. I go to Whole Foods with my own containers to buy sugar from the bulk bin. Zero packaging waste, right? But what I find is…

Organic sugar that is not Fair Trade…

organic bulk sugar from Whole Foods

Conventional sugar that is not organic OR Fair Trade…

conventional bulk sugar from Whole Foods

I do find organic Fair Trade sugar packaged in plastic.

plastic-packaged organic Fair Trade sugar

I’ve written about how ironic it is to put organic food in plastic packaging.

Why Fair Trade?

Here’s what Fair Trade USA, the organization that certifies products as Fair Trade, has to say about cane sugar production:

Dignity for sugar farmers

The US is an important sugar grower, growing over 80% of our domestic consumption. But the small amount of sugar that we do import is grown by impoverished sugar cane farmers in the developing world, subject to a declining world market price, environmental degradation, and hazardous working conditions.

Fair Trade certification ensures that sugar cane farmers receive a fair price for their harvest, creates direct trade links between farmer-owned cooperatives and buyers, and provides access to affordable credit. Through Fair Trade, farmers and their families are earning a better income for their hard work-allowing them to hold on to their land, keep their kids in school, and invest in the quality of their harvest.

Protecting the environment

Large amounts of herbicides and pesticides are commonly sprayed on to sugar cane crops. Burning and processing of sugar crops can also cause serious pollution of the ground, waterways and the air.
On Fair Trade farms, producers must adhere to strict standards regarding the use and handling of pesticides, the protection of natural waters, virgin forest and other ecosystems of high ecological value, and the management of erosion and waste.

Selling at Fair Trade prices enables small sugar farmers to pay for organic certification and training in sustainable agriculture techniques. Paraguay and Costa Rica grow organic Fair Trade Certified sugar cane.

So what are we to do when the only organic Fair Trade sweeteners come packaged in plastic? I for one have decided that once our store of cane sugars is gone, I will not be buying any more and instead opting for other kinds of sweeteners that are more nutritious and come without plastic packaging.

Maple Syrup

Oh man, do I love pure maple syrup. At our Whole Foods, we can get maple syrup from a stainless steel container. We bring our own bottle to refill over and over again.

maple syrup

What’s more, recent research has shown the maple syrup contains phytochemicals that may be beneficial to human health.  In an interview two weeks ago with Ira Flatow of NPR’s Science Friday, Navindra Seeram, an assistant professor of pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island and head of its Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory explained the health benefits of real maple syrup:

Plants live for hundreds of years, and, obviously, plants are planted. They’re rooted. They cannot get up and run away from harmful UV radiations or from pathogens such as bacteria or fungi, et cetera. So plants evolve the mechanisms – these secondary metabolites which are known as phytochemicals – to protect themselves. So let’s, you know, switch – turn the switch on, and let’s look at the sugar maple tree.

Here they are growing in New England, living for three to 400 years. And their sap, if you really think about it, can be considered as their “life blood,” quote, unquote, because it’s taking nutrients from the roots all the way up to the leaves. Now, during the spring months, what happens is that a tapping happens here in New England and Northeastern North America, predominantly in Quebec. Sap is collected from the tree and then it’s boiled down 40 times to give on liter of syrup. Forty liters of sap gives one liter of syrup.

I think – you know, we speculated that the tree, obviously, is producing these phytochemicals, and it’s getting into sap and then ending up in syrup, because you’re really concentrating it down.

So we got pure Canadian maple syrup from some folks up in Quebec, where we’re collaborating on this research project. And we look beyond sugars, what’s in maple syrup, and lo and behold, we found about – and this is only the tip of the iceberg – about 20 plant compounds which are well-known antioxidants in maple syrup, a number of them which have never been reported before from maple syrup. And we’re very intrigued by what’s happening here in these plants.

Awesome. And happily for me, maple syrup is sourced in the U.S. and Canada.


My Whole Foods also sells Oregon honey in bulk. But I like to keep it local, sticking to raw local honey from the Queen of Sheeba Farms in Berkeley. It’s sold at our local farmers market. We also enjoy the raw honey from our friends the Drapers in San Anselmo, who invited us to come and be a part of their honey harvest a while back. Honey also contains antioxidants and is great for coughs and sore throat, as most of us know.

local honey


I’ve seen quite a few recipes lately that call for dates to be used as a sweetener rather than other types of sugars. Michael buys medjool dates on a regular basis from the Whole Foods bulk bin and loves to eat them plain like candy. Dates contain fiber as well as a host of vitamins and minerals.

What About Agave?

Berkeley Whole Foods also sells bulk organic blue agave nectar. But I’m not sure how nutritious it is. According Dr. Andrew Weil, agave nectar is highly processed and possibly as bad or worse than high fructose corn syrup.

I’ve stopped using agave myself and no longer recommend it as a healthy sweetener. The reason agave ranks relatively low on the glycemic index is because it has a high content of fructose…. New research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity. The less fructose you consume, the better.

As it turns out, agave has a higher fructose content than any other common sweetener, more even than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of its reputation as a “natural” sweetener, it is now widely used in products claiming to be good for health — from teas to nutrition bars and energy drinks.

Other Sweeteners

Brown Rice Syrup: I’ve heard great things about it. But since I have not found in packaging-free, I’ll stick to honey and maple syrup. Have you found brown rice syrup in bulk?

Stevia: Stevia is an herb that tastes sweet like sugar. Unfortunately, I haven’t found it near me without a lot of packaging. However, I have seen bulk jars of it at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, so I know it’s possible to buy in your own container.

Fresh Fruit

This is probably the best alternative of all! How many of us eat plain fruit for dessert instead of baked goodies and other sweet treats? I’ll admit, I am a chocoholic, and to me, dessert without chocolate is not actually dessert. But I’m trying. Because whole fruits are probably the best way to satisfy our sweet tooth and nourish us at the same time. Plus, they are packaging free. For me, it’s going to take a little practice.


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5 years ago

I am currently struggling with this dilemma in Northern Ireland. If I buy meat, I want to buy organic. Do I buy the organic meat in packaging or buy regular/non-organic meat from the counter and put it in my own container? I feel stuck.

james Johnson
13 years ago

Fructose can increase appetite, did you ever notice you are never really “full” from a glass of soda or sweet juice, you tend to want to snack on something or follow it up with a glass of water?

Wallace J. Nichols
13 years ago

Is Organic Food in PLASTIC still organic? (hint: NO)

(you know you want a sticker)

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Hi, Cephus. I do hear you about people needing to make a living for their families. Believe it or not, those of us on the coasts do, too! But my hope is that clean and green jobs can be created to fill the void when jobs in polluting industries are no longer available.

Please check out the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of this blog to read about the problems with plastic.

I am sure that in addition to providing food and shelter for your children, you also want to leave them a healthy world in which to raise their kids, right?

13 years ago

I dont get it. Why do you hate plastic so much? I work at a refinery and am in charge of weighing trucks that come in and go out to make sure that the driver is paid correctly. If everyone stopped using plastics then i would be out of a job. The 1400 other people that work at my plant would be out of a job, as well as the 150 or so drivers that i weigh everyday. In addition both the local small time oil outfit and the large nationals would go out of business. This would cause lots of people to loose their jobs. Im sure that our troubles here in “flyover” country doesnt matter to a bunch of hippies like yourself. But before you go trying to get everyone to stop using plastic, remember that there are those of us who depend on jobs provided by this industry to feed our children.

13 years ago

Here in Kentucky, it is relatively easy to get local sorghum in glass (often mason jars that the producer will take back). I’m starting to substitute sorghum for sugar in many recipes.

Great subject.

Pure Mothers
13 years ago

I am so happy to hear that maple syrup is essentially “good for you”. We consume it by the bucket load at our house. We also have a difficult time finding fair trade, organic sugar not in plastic packaging in London. When I do, I buy a bunch. (And make my own brown sugar from sugar and molasses.

A note about the beet sugar – I believe 95% of US beet sugar is GMO. Not sustainable in my opinion (and not a fan of lab-made food).

13 years ago

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a Whole Foods nearby, let alone a store that offers customers an option to fill their own containers ….(Big sigh!!!)

I live on Cape Cod and shop at the veggie and health food stores in Orleans, 20 minutes away by car, so I go when I have other errands or doctors’ appointments. The owner of the veggie store told me the Health Board will not allow her to take back plastic containers/bags and recycle. The health food store does have bins with dried goods and you can put them in paper bags, which are provided ….

I love the way you are raising consciousness on this important issue, Terry!

13 years ago

Melaine I agree with you gardening is the best option. I have been growing the stevia plant for the past three four years and use it in my teas. Using two or three leaves for my teas is all it takes. I some time add it to my salads.

Natural Health Goodies
13 years ago

Beth, you could always dip that fresh fruit in chocolate – best of both worlds! :) (Fair Trade, organic, bulk, fructose free, unprocessed, natural, local, plastic free chocolate of course)

13 years ago

Being Diabetic I use a lot of Agave in cooking, The thing with agave is one should use it sparingly, as while it doesn’t spike your bloodsugar levels, it is rather high in calories. I grew stevia last year, but wasn’t impressed with it,

13 years ago

The bulk versus Fair Trade problem infuriates me!

BTW my cert org. liquid stevia is in a glass dropper bottle from NOW, which I know is available in the US.

13 years ago

Patty, I don’t know about shrimp (we’re about as far from the coasts as it’s possible to be) but the dry goods bulk bins at my are generally filled from paper or burlap bags; liquids come in plastic drums (or sometimes large plastic jugs) but those are sent back to the producer and re-used.

Amy K
13 years ago

Another person on the beet sugar bandwagon. Not that we should be eating lots and lots of sugar, but it’s probably the most local option (after honey) for your readers. 71% of America’s sugar production comes from beets, the rest from cane. Finding organic beet sugar is, unfortunately, harder.

13 years ago

Everyone says to avoid containers and waste by buying in bulk…just out of curriosity has anyone seen the bulk bins (and stainless steel liquid containers) get FILLED. What packaging does the food get transported in to fill the bins and is it actually what the label says? Its worth some research. I know I’ve seen a grocery’s seafood counter open plastic bags of frozen shrimp and dump it out onto the pile of ‘fresh’ ‘bulk’ shirmp. I’m sure at most places bulk is better than individual but I doubt its really package/plastic free. CRADLE to grave.

Sense of Home
13 years ago

We buy local sugar beet sugar that is packaged in recyclable paper, but it is not organic. Our honey is also locally gathered and sold in glass quart jars. These are the two sweeteners we use most.

13 years ago

Beth, I just love your website! Thank you for the information on sweeteners. Very good stuff and helpful! I love reading all the comments. I learn so much here!

I recently wrote to Wholesome Sweeteners whom I purchase my organic fair-trade sugar from- all in plastic bags. I wrote them easily from the web, please send them a note as well, requesting they switch from plastic to recycled paper-
Perhaps we can get them to change if we bombard them with emails! :) In their response letter, they did say “they would forward the request to someone else, but please note they are labeled for recycling.” At least there is that, although hopefully our bags are not being shipped to China-sigh.

I use all of the other great stuff you mentioned in this post, Beth. I also just found some stevia plants for my garden from Home Depot of all places!

Unfortunately, they do have a little plastic ring around the top of the “compostable” container. Why!?

Beets are being Genetically Modified this year, oh joy! So, I would personally steer clear of them if possible. Sugar that is white is processed so badly, I will never purchase it no matter what container it came in. Part of that process is filtering it through animal bones. Ok, that is just gross. MHO. You can google it if you want more info.

Local honey also helps with allergies!! Yay! 1 tbs per day. My kids love that! :) When they have a sore throat we make “lemon honey” which is actually apple cider vinegar, honey, and warm water. It helps the coughing too! Most of you probably already know this one! ;)

Don’t know if the Weston Price Foundation is good or bad, but I do know Canola oil has GMO’s and those are just not natural. Believe it or not Coconut Oil is very good for you, as is any nut oil. It’s a food your body is designed to eat. Food that is highly processed, or chemically treated is no longer natural. I question what we have been taught. SAD- Standard American Diet is just not good for us.

P.S. I know, I know, sugar is NOT good for me! Hehehe.

Juliana Crespo
13 years ago

Thank you for this excellent article. We are fortunate in that we can buy our honey from a local producer, though unfortunately this comes in plastic containers. We also have folks who sell maple syrup at the local Farmers Market in glass containers, which they will re-use and give you $2 for when you bring it back. This is such an awesome idea, and I wish we could support them, but, unfortunately, the maple syrup costs $20 and is out of our price range.

13 years ago

Stevia plants can be grown in your garden! The leaves are excellent in tea or just eaten plain for a sweet taste. Just saying, if you wanna go packaging free and cheaper, gardening is a great option.

13 years ago

I was going to comment about non-cane (sugarbeet) sugar, but Rebecca beat me to it.

In most of the US, the cheapest sugar is the most local – what we buy is actually grown and bagged within 200 miles. Alas, it’s not organic.

And in the midwest we can sometimes get bulk or glass-packaged sorghum syrup – it tastes like molasses, but it’s grown in Indiana and Missouri.

13 years ago

Just a note on availability of stevia in the SF Bay Area: Monterey Market in Berkeley often has it in bulk as whole leaves. I’m assuming that avoids the processing issue mentioned earlier?

13 years ago

Have you considered sugar beet sugar? I’ve eaten it most of my life (without hardly noticing) and, per the US Beet Sugar Association’s website, there are Grower-Owner Cooperative sugar producers accross the upper US (Idaho, Minnesota, Michigan, the Dakotas, Wyoming).

I certainly can’t speak to the overall environmental impact – sugar beets may be be chemically intensive, and the processing is certainly energy intensive – but there are other considerations that may balance that out –

Much of the organic ‘waste’ from the processing is used as animal feed and fertilizer, most of the water used in processing comes from the beet itself, and the processing plants are located in the same regions as the farms.

I’ve also had no issues finding granulated beet sugar in plastic free packaging (paper 2 lb bags, most often).

Simple in France
13 years ago

Interesting. While I’m careful to buy coffee fair trade and in recyclable foil packaging, I never considered sugar. I’ll have to check it out though. One place in town sells 25kg in a hefty paper sack (like a charcoal bag) and I know it’s organic, but is it fair trade . . .very complicated.

13 years ago

Is it wrong to assume that sugar produced in this country is “fair trade,” in that there is less risk of exploitation of growers? (Do US companies even get certified as fair trade, or is that process only for international growers?) Sugar produced in Madagascar might be certified as Fair Trade, but think of the carbon miles compared to sugar produced in Florida.

AZ Jan
13 years ago

Wanted to say I just found your blog and THANK YOU SO MUCH!

13 years ago

I have quit using stevia when I researched the processing method that removes its bitterness. It’s a very, very processed product.

13 years ago

I can’t believe you skipped molasses. I don’t find it in bulk, but almost always in glass, and very good for you. I also try to find maple syrup and honey locally, here in WI that is easy to do.

Rice syrup is good, too. I have had it spoil on me, so I keep it in the fridge, same as barley syrup.

You can also take dates, just barely cover them with boiling water and let them sitt for a while, then process in a food processor for a date syrup to use as a liquid sweetener.

shona~LALA dex press
13 years ago

I’m going to have to look around the WF in my area for the bulk syrup dispenser. For 3 years I have been processed sugar free (all white devils out!) + use apple juice or maple syrup, sometimes local honey, all in glass. I freeze the apple juice in ice cube trays, 1 cube= approx 1 tbsp sugar. then I reuse the bottle as a travel bottle. I drink a lot of tea, live in the south (I’m from CA, so it’s not sweet tea) + often get comments about the contents in my jar being brown lightning. I offer people a nip, and they back off. I don’t think barley tea would be to their liking anyway.

13 years ago

Beth, the same problem in Belgium. All the organic sugar isn’t without plastic. The same with fairtrade. So I buy convential sugar.
I send letters to the factories in hope that they will change there mind and will use paper instead.

The most recipes that I use are without sugar. Only when i bake some cookies or a cake I use sugar. I follow also a blog that explains the danger of it. Ofcourse with recipes You can translate it with Googlereader.

13 years ago

Just thought I’d let you know, even though its over here in SF, Rainbow has brown rice syrup in bulk. Little bit of a trek for you, but maybe you can just bring a really BIG jar.

Donielle @ Naturally Knocked Up
13 years ago

Great thorough post! Stumbled.

13 years ago

Interesting reading about maple sugar. We have three acres here in Dunedin, NZ, and I’ll be putting in some sugar maples, not just for their beauty! I hope our temperatures will get low enough for the sugar to run, so here’s hoping!

In the meanwhile, all we can get is maple syrup from Canada. Yes, it is in glass bottles, but with a HUGE carbon mileage attached. I’d much prefer to grow and make my own.

13 years ago

loved this..thanks for sharing the info…th enext batch of cane sugar is coming from whole foods and in my own container!

13 years ago

I have to agree with Chris on the Weston A. Price foundation. They really twist science and they are not peer reviewed. I think it is great to have a voice outside the agricultural industry about nutrition, but I find it troubling that they blatantly ignore scientific evidence about the danger of diets high in saturated fat. They make unsubstantiated claims that canola oil will “cause cancer, heart disease, immune system dysfunction, sterility, learning disabilities, growth problems and osteoporosis:” While on the other hand, they proclaim coconut oil will cure you from everything under the sun, contrary to any peer reviewed scientific article I have ever read. It makes me wonder where they get their money from.

susanna eve
13 years ago

I buy just organic sugar because I can get it relatively cheap in a carton from the grocery store. I have been told in the past that the places that are the worst around the world for bad agricultural and labour practices do not have organic agriculture so buying organic is next best to fair trade and organic. We also use very little sugar, except during certain holiday seasons, a carton of sugar lasts us many, many months. I buy maple syrup in plastic jugs but just found out that I can buy it in bulk from my food coop. I do buy brown rice syrup, not in bulk but in a glass jar at least. I buy local honey in a glass jar as well (plastic lid though). Except for the maple syrup, the rest of the sweeteners also last for a long time.

Condo Blues
13 years ago

I had a very interesting experience on a vacation to the Dominican Republic. I went to a sugar cane plantation and saw them using old school ox carts to help them cut sugarcane! I also learned that at least in the DR,almost everyone grows their crops (coffee and sugar are the only two) what we would call organically because they can’t afford chemical pesticides.

Mindful Momma
13 years ago

I finally figured out how your CommentLuv thing works – you have to click it even though it looks like it is already checked!

13 years ago

Anything from the Weston A. Price foundation is crap is my mind. They practice really bad science. Same with PCRM (and I’m vegan, mind you). They distort the literature to make things seem a certain way they are not.

Mindful Momma
13 years ago

Hey Beth! I buy that bulk organic sugar sometimes and now I’m wondering if it states whether or not it is US grown. I’ll be checking at my co-op and WF next time I go. It sure would be nice to find bulk sugar that is both organic & Fair Trade. I don’t think I’ll be giving up sugar anytime soon…everything in mindful moderation! :)

13 years ago

I just wanted to comment on the concern about burning sugar fields…one reason crops are burned…is to reduce the pest pressure. Therefore, less pesticides (herbicides are pesticides by the way) are needed. Just a soap box of mine. Thanks.

13 years ago

I hear you on the organic food in plastic. What irritates me even more is that it almost always comes in much smaller packages. Plastic is bad enough on its own, but when you can buy conventionally produced food in quantities many times greater than the organic / fair trade counterparts, I wonder whether the extra packaging is negating the benefit of choosing organic. Going plastic-free is best of course, but knowing that most people aren’t so aware it’s particularly aggravating that ‘green’ food comes in such small sizes.