Raising Cane: The Kashrus & Other Halachic Issues of Cane Sugar
It is noteworthy that in both Jewish and secular sources, the first recorded references to cane sugar are attributed to Jewish kings. In Shir HaShirim1, Shlomo Hamelech writes "Yaari Im Divshi," "My forest with my honey." Some commentators2 deem this to be referring to cane sugar and deduce that sugar canes are considered trees. Secular sources indicate that cane sugar was first used by man in Polynesia, and from there it spread to India. Darius of Persia invaded India, where he found "the reed which gives honey without bees". Darius was the son of Achashveirosh and Esther and was, therefore, Jewish. (Hence, cane sugar seems to be a ‘royal Jewish food’!) We will examine this type of "honey", its production, and the kosher as well as other halachic issues surrounding it.
Sugar was not always as plentiful or cheap as it is today. In 1319, sugar was available in London for "two shillings a pound". This equates to about $50 per pound! By 1750, there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain. Their combined output was only 30,000 tons per year. Sugar was still a luxury and some even referred to it as "white gold" because of the vast profits it generated.
In contrast, some sugar refineries nowadays can store more than 100,000 tons of raw sugar at a time. Think of it this way - if all of that sugar was put into 5 lb. bags and lined up lengthwise, the bags would stretch from Baltimore to California and back again!
Sugar can be derived from a sugar cane plant or a type of beet appropriately called sugar beet. The process of deriving sugar differs depending on its source. This article will focus on sugar derived from a cane. It is interesting to point out that in the parlance of the USDA, there is a difference between "sugars" and "sugar". "Sugars" refer to all forms of caloric sweeteners, such as corn sweeteners and honey. "Sugar" refers only to sugar that comes from sugar cane or sugar beets.
Production of Cane Sugar3
Sugar cane is a tropical plant that grows between 10-20 feet high. The cane, where the sucrose is stored, looks like a bamboo stalk. ("Sucrose" is the chemical name for ordinary sugar.) After planting, the cane will reach its full height in 12 months, and when cut regrows in another 12 months provided the roots have not been disturbed. A stalk of the sugar cane plant contains between 12-14% sucrose. The process of producing sugar is accomplished in two steps – one at sugar mills and the other at sugar refineries.
Sugar mills are located near the cane fields. The sugar cane stalks are washed and cut into shreds by rotating knives. Huge rollers then press the juice out of the shredded pulp, which is then clarified, concentrated and crystallized. It is then ready for refining. This raw sugar is approximately 97-99% sucrose. A thin film of syrup covers the nearly pure sugar crystal and contains water, minerals, and other non-sugars.
Briefly outlined, the refining process is as follows: The syrup is removed through a washing process. The sugar crystals (now over 99% pure) are dissolved in hot water. Colorants are then removed using carbon absorbents, and impurities are removed through a filtration process using diatomaceous earth, a type of ground-up rock. The sugar liquor is boiled into crystals and given a final wash with water. The crystals are then dried by hot air, separated into various sizes, and packaged.
Upon a recent visit to a Chinese sugar factory, a rabbi discovered that a certain milk protein was being used as a filtering aid. As previously mentioned, sugar contains impurities which must be removed through the refining process utilizing various methods. Apparently, the sugar had been passed through the protein in order to purify it and the impurities were left behind in the protein. This finding was reported in several Jewish sources with sensationalistic titles such as, “Sugar May Now Require Round the Clock Supervision.”
However, there is “nothing new under the sun.” Over 500 years ago, there was a letter in the responsa of the Radbaz 4 in regard to sugar. At that time, milk was added to sugar during its production. The questioner, who was under the impression that the amount of milk was significant, asked whether this meant that sugar could not be eaten with meat. Due to various considerations, including the fact that the amount of milk was actually minuscule, the Radbaz was lenient5.
The logic of the Radbaz holds true for the Chinese sugar as well since the amount of milk used is very insignificant. Additionally, this has not been found to be a widespread occurrence overseas, and is not being practiced in the U.S. at all. Furthermore, a filtering aid does not end up in the final product. Nonetheless, having been alerted to this possibility, kashrus agencies will be looking out for it.
Other issues do commonly arise in this day and age. For instance, the carbon decolorization at many cane sugar refineries occurs through the use of bone-char particles. These are electrically-charged pieces of burnt cattle bones. While one might assume that this would be a kashrus concern, in truth it poses no problem. This is because the bones are completely burnt, thereby undergoing a chemical change which converts them to pure carbon. In addition, the bone-char is completely unfit for human consumption and, therefore, may be used in processing the sugar. The bone-char is subsequently removed from the sugar and is not chemically evident in the final product.
The anti-foaming agents that control the froth which is created in the refining process may sometimes be of non-kosher animal origin. However, the amount used is insignificant and would be batel, nullified, in the sugar. Therefore, the kosher consumer may purchase any pure cane or beet sugar even without kosher certification.
Of real concern is the use of confectioners’ sugar, also known as powdered sugar, during Passover. Confectioners’ sugar is granulated sugar which has been ground into a smooth powder. A free-flow agent (generally 3%) is added to ensure that the sugar does not clump. Most often, this agent is cornstarch which is considered kitniyos. Since the Ashkenazic custom is to refrain from eating kitniyos on Passover, kosher certifying agencies cannot recommend the use of this sugar during Passover. If it was used in error, one should consult his rav.6 Some companies overseas use wheat starch as the free-flow agent. With wheat starch as an ingredient, the confectioners’ sugar would be considered chometz and could not be used on Passover; it should be sold with the chometz. Kosher for Passover confectioners’ sugar is made without kitniyos or chometz.
Technically, pure sugar should always be kosher for Passover use. While no ingredients in standard granulated sugar are chometz, a problem could arise in a company that uses wheat starch in its confectioners' sugar, as previously noted. The company might then "rework" the confectioners’ sugar into the regular sugar, by taking a product that does not meet the company’s standards and reintroducing it back into the production line to be reprocessed. In that case, some wheat starch might find its way back into the regular sugar. Although the amount of wheat starch in the sugar may be halachically insignificant and is nullified before Passover begins, one should not use such sugar on Passover. This practice is more common overseas. In the U.S., Monitor Sugar Company used wheat starch in their confectioners’ sugar. However, this has since been stopped and the Star-K has not found any company in the U.S. that currently uses wheat starch.7 Therefore, any pure domestic granulated cane or beet sugar can be recommended for use on Passover. However, to be certain that all of the Passover issues have been resolved, it is best to purchase sugar with reliable Passover certification.
Generally, the sugar we eat is tafel, secondary, to some other food such as cereal, and does not require any brocha of its own. However, there is considerable dispute among the poskim regarding the proper brocha for sugar that is eaten alone. Behag cites an opinion that the brocha for cane sugar is borei pri ha’etz.8 It can be inferred from Shir Hashirim that the sugar cane is considered a tree. However, the Rambam writes that the brocha is shehakol based on his assertion that the cane is not a fruit since people do not eat the stalk. Others, such as the Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona and the Geonim, opine that the brocha recited on cane is ha’adama. The Shulchan Aruch9 decides in favor of the Rambam’s opinion, since all agree that if one recites a shehakol on any food he is yotzai, fulfills his obligation. Practically speaking, the brocha for sugar is shehakol.10
Orla, Teruma and Ma'aser
Orla is fruit yielded by a tree during the first three years of growth. This fruit is biblically forbidden to be eaten, regardless of whether the tree grew in Israel or the Diaspora. The question arises that if the cane is considered a tree, would the sugar extracted during the first three years of growth be prohibited?
The Radbaz11 writes that even those authorities who rule that the brocha on cane sugar is borei pri ha’etz considered the cane a tree with regard to the brocha only. However, with regard to orla the Torah specifically states that orla applies to fruits only and, therefore, does not apply to juice squeezed out of the tree.12 The Radbaz similarly concludes that the laws of teruma and ma’aser, the tithing of fruits and vegetables grown in Israel, does not apply to sugar as it is neither a fruit nor a vegetable; it is merely an extract of the cane.13
Some authorities14permitted the use of sugar in place of salt for removal of blood from meat. They maintained that sugar contains properties that are similar to salt, which make it useful for preserving foods. Other authorities15 argued vehemently against this. The consensus is that if one ‘salted’ meat using sugar and subsequently cooked it, the meat is rendered non-kosher and the utensils must be kashered.
Cooking on Shabbos
By and large, dry foods which have been cooked are permitted to be placed in a kli rishon which is not located over a fire. (A utensil containing hot food or liquid that was used for cooking, baking or roasting food is called a kli rishon.) This is due to the rule of ein bishul achar bishul, once foods have been cooked there is no prohibition to re-cook them. Cane sugar is cooked during its processing and, therefore, may be transferred to a kli rishon.16 Nonetheless, it is preferable not to dissolve foods such as sugar in hot liquids that are in a kli rishon, even if the foods have been previously cooked. The reason for this is that according to some authorities, soluble foods dissolved in liquids are themselves considered liquids and subject to the prohibition of re-cooking cold liquids. Although most disagree with this view, the Mishna Berura17 writes that it is best to be mindful of this. However, even according to the more stringent opinion, one may dissolve sugar in a kli sheni, the utensil into which hot food or liquid is transferred. Therefore, one may add sugar to a cup of tea or coffee without hesitation as it is considered a kli sheni.
The fact that sugar has been heated in the processing raises another interesting question regarding bishul akum. Should sugar be prohibited because it has been cooked by a nochri? Authorities who discuss this issue conclude that bishul akum is not an issue at all and cite different reasons in support of this conclusion.18 Some assert that since cane sugar can be eaten raw by sucking on the cane, it falls under the rule of davar hane’echal k’mo shehu chai, a food that is edible in its raw state, to which the laws of bishul akum do not apply.19 Other authorities state that since sugar is not generally eaten, except when absorbed into other foods, it is not subject to the laws of bishul akum.20 The halacha is clear that one may partake of sugar without concern of bishul akum.
According to one opinion cited in the Shulchan Aruch,21 if sugar (or other sweetener) is added to wine it may not be used for kiddush since the use of sweetened wine for libations on the altar in the Beis Hamikdash was prohibited. Wine used for kiddush, which is also a holy purpose, should meet those same requirements. However, common custom is to follow the lenient opinions which do permit sweetened wine for kiddush.22
It is quite interesting to note that examination of the halachic issues regarding sugar has given a newfound appreciation for this basic food.
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2. Tosafos Brachos 36b.
3. Technical information was supplied by C&H Sugar Company. Essentially, the process has not changed much over time – see Sugar Growing and Refining (by Lock and Harland, 1882).
5. This is distinct from lactose, a sugar derived from milk, which is milchig (dairy).
6. Kitniyos is batel b’rov (M.B. 453:9).
7. Wheat is an allergen and, therefore, companies are hesitant to use it.
8. Tosafos, Rosh, Tur, Taz and Gra similarly hold that the brocha is ha’etz.
9. O.C. 202:15.
10. Beet sugar’s brocha, according to some opinions, is ha’adama. The final halacha is that the brocha is shehakol. Beiur Halacha 202:15 (Al Hatzukar).
11. Responsa 1:563, cited in Birchei Yosef Y.D. 331:22.
12. Also, it is halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai that sofek orla in chutz la’aretz is permitted.
13. Star-K research indicates that sugar is not currently produced in Israel and, therefore, this is a theoretical question.
14. Ikrei Hadat O.C. 14:36.
15. Divrei Chaim Y.D. 1:25; Yad Yehuda Y.D. 69:97; Salmas Chaim Y.D. 3; Har Zvi Y.D. 66; Rav Pealim Y.D. 2:4. In Y.D. 69:21, the Shulchan Aruch rules that when one does not have salt, he must roast the meat to remove the blood. Rav Pealim contends that if sugar is effective, it would have been mentioned.
16. Beet sugar is also cooked during its processing.
18. Shoel U’maishiv 3:230 argues that since the boiling of sugar takes place at multiple stages of production, bishul akum does not apply. This is because the first time the sugar is boiled (during extraction), the result is an edible product, but it is not oleh al shulchan melachim (fit for a king’s table), and therefore bishul akum does not apply to it. The second time it is boiled, a prestigious food is produced, but the sugar was already edible prior to the boiling. See, however, Sdei Chemed maareches bishulei akum siman 2.
19.Chelkas Binyamin 113:7.
20.Tuv Ta’am Va’daas 2:225. This reasoning would also apply to beet sugar.
21.O.C. 272:8, see M.B. 21.
22. On Shabbos morning, there is additional rationale to be lenient, as one could even recite kiddush over chamar medina. Minchas Yitzchok 9:26.