Shopping My Values: Sugar

This is kind of a funny followup to my lamentation about my car (which turned out, once they replaced some other things as well as the o2 sensor, to be over $700, sigh) but the other thing going on in my financial life right now is that I’m spending more money on food.

Food shopping is kind of a weird topic in the PF world because people have really different takes. Some are clearly spending as little as possible; they buy pasta and dried beans in bulk from Costco, and fruit at Walmart, and so on. Some don’t cook, so their food budgets are large because they go out to eat and/or buy convenience foods a lot. Some eat meat every meal; others don’t. Some are focused more on quality than on price. Etc.

In my experience, it’s really hard to be both budget-conscious and also ethical when it comes to food shopping. The cheapest foods (unless you grow them yourself) are typically not great for the environment, not great for your body, and probably made using some kind of exploited labor too. But actually, strike my first sentence: it’s really hard to be ethical, period, when it comes to food shopping, because most food is probably produced using some kind of exploited labor at some point along the line, and I’m always reading exposes about how the supposedly organic or fair trade or local whatever is actually, well, not. Plus, even at farmer’s markets, farmers often can’t charge enough to actually make a decent living, because the price it really costs to produce food ethically and have a fair profit is so high that people get sticker shock because we’re so used to paying way less than it should cost based on good environmental and labor standards.

In a world where the food supply is so ethically fraught, there’s pretty much no way to be sure you’re not eating chocolate produced by child slaves in the Ivory Coast or basically enslaved tomato and strawberry pickers in Florida or poultry plant workers in Maryland who aren’t allowed to take bathroom breaks. Or if you do find out that you are, via one of these articles, and start avoiding it, you’re probably eating something else that you have no idea about.

So…that’s depressing.

I’m not presenting this as a solution or something everyone should do or anything. But I recently decided that I wanted to choose some ingredients that I use often and start paying more for them. I started with sugar, for a few reasons. The first is that it’s always one of the things on a short list (chocolate, coffee, shrimp) that we know has a lot of ethics problems in the supply chain. We also know that it’s often grown in an environmentally destructive way. I also wanted to look at the way I used sugar for historic reasons. Since the 16th century, sugar was one of the major cash crops made by slave labor. Before then, it’s not like Europeans didn’t eat things that were sweet, but slave labor in the Caribbean and South America made sugar a commodity available to the masses, and everyone knew it. Abolitionists refused to put it in their tea, and everyone else massively expanded their sugar consumption in a way that had big consequences for politics, human welfare (of the slaves) and human welfare (regarding the effect of so much extra sugar on our bodies). So I was reading up on sugar production and consumption in the 17th-19th centuries and it made me want to rethink the way I use sugar — I wanted to start thinking about it as something precious and rare, not something as cheap as dirt. And finally, I wanted my baked goods, when I did bake them, to taste better — less industrial, fuller and richer and with more varied and complex flavor. I knew that changing from super-cheap Domino’s to a much less refined product would help with that a lot (ditto for flour, but that’s another post.)

So I went shopping! I had some extra cash this month because I was traveling for the first part of the month and not buying groceries. I decided to go to the health food store and to Whole Foods and to my regular grocery store and look to see what kinds of options I had.

Turns out there are quite a few, although I’m never sure exactly how much to trust what I read on packages.

Based on stories like this, I decided not to buy Domino’s, C&H, or Florida Crystals.

Whole Foods has several kinds of sugar that it sells under the 365 brand. The Vegan sugar also said it was fair trade. However, since it was white, and I was specifically on the hunt for natural sugars that hadn’t been stripped of all their molasses, I skipped it.

I sometimes buy Bob’s Red Mill brown sugar (along with a lot of their other products.) I like doing that because it tastes good, but also because BRM is an employee-owned company. However, the sugar doesn’t say fair trade on it. I know that certification doesn’t guarantee it, but I’m curious about their supply chain, so I just wrote them an email to ask about it.

Wholesome Sweeteners makes a widely available (by which I mean it was at my normal grocery store) full line of organic/fair trade sugars (dark and light brown, white, powdered, and sucanat, which I’ll get back to in a sec.) They’re expensive, at $4-5 for a 1.5 lb bag, but like I said I feel like that’s just what the deal is: sugar that costs what Domino’s does, does it for a reason.

I had the most fun at the health food store, where I bought three different kinds of more or less unrefined sugars. Sucanat/rapadura are both terms used for these sugars that look kind of like dark sand. They’re uneven because they’re unrefined. They taste really interesting because, not having been through industrial processes to make them look/feel/taste all alike, they have some variation and a lot of caramel-molasses flavor. In short, I really like the three kinds I bought and I’m excited to start baking/experimenting with them.

Alter Eco makes a slightly lighter and more refined version they call “muscobado” — it’s not as sandy as sucanat/rapadura. I bet it will be really good for baking, though so far I’ve just taste-tested these on yogurt and in tea. It’s $4.39/lb and you can buy it online if you can’t find it near you.

Rapunzel sells a 24-oz bag of unrefined, unbleached, fair trade, organic, non-GMO (whew!) sugar under the name Rapadura. That link is to amazon which has it for over $9, but I paid $7 at the health food store. It’s from Brazil, and on the back it has a cool graphic that shows how it’s produced, vs. “normal” sugar:


The third kind I got is from Heavenly Organics. It was $6 for 20 oz. Its marketing material is a little goofy (“rare and exclusive…produced by a small cooperative of family farmers from the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains…ancient method of removing impurities from organic whole cane juice by using wild-crafted herbs and then sun-drying” — what the heck is a “wild-crafted herb”???) but at the end of the day, it’s fair-trade, sustainably produced, and organic. Texture-wise, it’s somewhere between the Rapunzel and the Alter Eco; in the bag it looks sandy, but it’s moister than the Rapunzel, a little closer in texture to a molasses-y brown sugar. I’m not sure it “enlightens my spirit through health, harmony, and deliciousness” but it’s definitely very good sugar with an interesting flavor.

At the end of the day, all of the fair-trade sugars I found seemed to come in around $.25-30/oz, though the sizes of the packaging varied. It definitely felt weird paying that much when you can get Domino’s for as little as $.03/oz. On the other hand, let’s say I use a cup of sugar in a cake recipe. That’s about 7 ounces. It doesn’t seem that unreasonable to put $2ish of sugar into a cake. I guess it comes down to, should sugar be a mass commodity that costs essentially nothing? Or should it be a specialty product to be used lightly, and should it cost enough to make a person think before using it?

By the way: do I know any Canadians that would be interested in helping me import some sugar from Camino Foods? They don’t sell in the US but I’d happily pay for the cost of product plus shipping in order to do some more taste-testing in my quest for the ultimate fair-trade natural sugar 🙂


15 thoughts on “Shopping My Values: Sugar

  1. Hannah says:

    I don’t shop fair trade, mainly because I’ve resigned myself to the fact that markets are good at being efficient and bad at everything else, but also because I’ve never felt particularly guilty about the problems that you mention (I am guilty, I just don’t feel it).

    It’s tough for me to consider raising the amount I spend on groceries, but I would raise the amount if I felt inwardly guilty about it. As you titled this piece, it’s a great example of shopping your values.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I think you’re totally right that markets are terrible at anything but efficiency. I don’t at all feel that buying expensive sugar is going to absolve me of all my investments, either 🙂 It’s a pretty small thing. I just felt like it was one little area where I wanted to change my behavior for a whole variety of reasons, so I’m going to try it out for a while. Regarding groceries, I haven’t actually raised the amount I spend. But I’ve been buying only vegetarian for months now (though I’m not totally vegetarian at all) and I’m also pretty stocked up in the pantry right now, so I’ve spent less on day to day shopping and had some money available in my normal budget to play around with.

  2. Amanda says:

    I think about these same issues a lot. Everyone definitely has a different approach, different values, and different resources. I spend much more on food than many people because I buy a lot of fresh and organic food, but that’s something I feel okay about. But another area in which I struggle in terms of my values is where to draw the financial line to buy things locally versus big box stores or Amazon. I like to support my local community, but the price differential is sometimes staggering and not always something I can justify.

    Thanks for sharing all of your research on sugar! It must have been time consuming. It’s so easy for me to be lazy and just grab whatever is marked “organic” without really comparing products.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Well, I was having fun. It was kind of neat to set out to buy stuff I normally don’t buy! I’m enjoying trying them out.

      Like you, though, sometimes I just can’t justify the price difference. I wish I made more money so that I could just not worry about it, but I totally do. I don’t think I have a great answer. I just choose some things to buy locally and the rest I buy wherever. I wish there was an easy way to tell what the right call was!

  3. Can I just say, I love your blog. It’s not every day that I get a history/current events lesson, research report, and thoughtful analysis, all in a blog post. 🙂

    I struggle with this sort of thing a lot. I literally never buy sugar (because I can’t be trusted to keep anything sweet in my house), but when buying coffee, vegetables, chocolate, etc., I swing back and forth constantly between a) buying the most ethical-seeming product, regardless of price, and b) saying, screw it, probably every company is cutting ethical corners no matter what their package says, so I may as well buy the cheap stuff. It’s so tough because we really have no idea what happens to any of our food before it gets to us (unless it’s from a farmers market I guess). But mindset b might also just be an excuse for saving money.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      You’re very sweet, since I feel like I mostly write short “argh why is X so expensive” posts while yours are always beautifully crafted meditations 🙂 I also totally swing back and forth along that same axis. I don’t actually believe that individual market behavior changes much in a significant way; that’s why I fight for better regulations and inspections. But it turned out I kind of had an emotional thing about sugar so I think it’s worthwhile for me to change the way I shop on that particular front.

  4. em-dash27 says:

    Love this—thanks! I look forward (I hope) to a follow-up where you’ll tell us which one(s) you like most and keep buying.

    I struggle with a lot of this (or try to…), balancing the direction I send my dollars with my values. Sometimes there’s a pretty good answer: I try to buy clothes from local thrift shops when possible, to save money, support local folks, and cut waste in the world. And much of the time there isn’t. I’ve often heard that everyone should buy the most expensive eggs they can afford, and I am a true believer there. Investment choices are also tricky…. Thanks again for the thoughts and research!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I think basically anything I can do with my shopping is totally contradicted by my investment in index funds. It’s really hard to be moral with your money operating on an individual level, partly because the whole economy is so non-transparent. Overall, I think it’s better to put energy into strengthening regulation and inspection, especially on an international level, but in the meantime I very inadequately try to mediate the complex situations around me.

  5. Sophia says:


  6. Alicia says:

    This is something I try to do too for certain items as well. I’m to a point where my frugality has waned a bit with my debt gone, so I’m buying higher quality ingredients for certain items for a variety of reasons. Not all things, but some of your examples (like always buying fair trade coffee – thankfully when I forget to make my own the coffee shop downstairs is local, fair trade…).

    I’m actually on my way to the grocery store, and I checked the Camino link – it happens to be sold there. Do you have a preference on which one you want? We can arrange a shipment 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I think it’s never a perfect solution, but it’s nice to be in a financial position where we can ease up on the frugality a little…. Yay! I’ll totally email you re: Camino 🙂

  7. Mariana says:

    Cocoa, sugar and cotton are the most ‘abusive’ industries out there.
    I work in an International non profit org focusing on poverty And slave labor is a huge issue. It keeps the hard working farmers poor without the possibility to break the poverty cycle. Unless people like us STOP buying the cheapest products. They are 99 cents for a reason. Just imagine that only 2 cents out of that goes to the farmers.
    The cookies and cakes do taste better knowing you are doing the right thing.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh, wow, it’s so great that that’s your job. Do you have advice on specific companies that are really doing a good job with fair trade?

  8. You just made me oddly thankful that our local farmers market is so freaking expensive. 🙂 I’m hoping that means that their workers are actually getting paid something!

    I totally fall in the try-to-shop-ethically group, and I know our grocery bills would shock many a PF blogger and reader, especially considering that we buy almost no meat (I don’t eat it, Mr. ONL buys it like once a month). And it’s a ton to balance — in addition to everything you mentioned, I also care a lot about packaging and how much waste something generates. So I have a bias toward shopping from the bulk bins, but as you said, there’s no guarantee that what’s in those bins is any more ethical than some cheap-as-dirt Domino sugar. I also made the choice to treat sugar as a precious commodity for special occasions, which then makes me feel less bad about whatever product I’m buying. So I guess I’m choosing to weight my ethics, and focus on being most ethical with the things we consume the most of, and more flexible on things we consume in small amounts. Not sure if that’s good logic, but it prevents me from making myself crazy trying to find the most ethical and healthy source for every single product, which I would totally otherwise do. Long way of saying: Please report back and let us know which sugar you like best! 🙂

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I think everyone has long comments on this because there is actually no good, easy, clearly logical answer. We are all just trying the best we can in really imperfect and opaque (=not enough solid information) systems. Which is a short way of saying I’ll totally report back on the great sugar trials of 2016. 🙂

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