Is Brown or White Sugar More Sustainable for Coffee Drinkers?


With there being more than 100 types of sugar being used daily around the world, we’ve been curious to learn more about them, to explore the relationship between sugar and coffee, and establish a somewhat definitive answer to the question of sustainability when it comes to sweetening your hot cup of Joe.

In this article, we aim to provide you with some important background information about white and brown sugar, as well as presenting you with some alternatives, in the hope that you will be able to make actionable decisions about reducing the carbon footprint of your caffeine consumption.

But first…

Why do we even add sugar to our coffee in the first place?

Actually, there are many reasons, but it’s a mixture of the following pieces of culture and history:

  • Once upon a time, sugar was a status symbol of the rich, who used it at any opportunity, rather a staple commodity as it has become nowadays.
  • The more people used sugar, the more production grew, and the more production grew, the cheaper it became, so people found more and more uses for it.
  • Once sugar became accessible to the working class it evolved into a good provider of calories in a time where food production was not ample enough to provide for everyone.
  • Coffee is bitter, sugar is sweet, when you add sugar to coffee, you can drink it more quickly because of its sweetness.
  • Factory owners gave sweetened tea and coffee to workers to give them a short break, energy from the caffeine, and calories from the sugar - this helped both drinks to become a key part of the British cultural identity. 
  • During the industrial revolution, 25% of the British calorie intake was from sugar, mainly from hot drinks.

White sugar - important facts

The bigger picture of what sugar production is doing to your body and the planet (we are neither for nor against sugar in your coffee, by the way), is quite hard to gain a full grasp of. However, we’ve put some key points below to think about:

  • There are many different types of refined granulated sugar, with the two most common ones deriving from sugar cane (approx 70%) or sugar beets (approx 30%). Both of these provide sucrose and come in varying crystal sizes.
  • White sugar is highly processed using multiple fossil fuel and chemical-intensive processes.
  • More than 145 million tonnes of sugar are produced every year globally, with this figure growing by about 2 million tonnes per year.
  • Sucrose provides empty calories with no nutritional value.
  • 65% of commercial sugar is made from GMO sugar beets.
  • Most white sugar is bleached for its colour by introducing sulphur dioxide to cane juice before the evaporation process. If sulphur dioxide sounds familiar, it’s because it’s that bad smell you sometimes get from old eggs, burnt matches, or sewage.
  • Phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide are added to the sugar production process to absorb or trap impurities.
  • The sugar is filtered through carbon to remove excess molasses and crystallised in a vacuum, before being dried, all of which is very energy-intensive.


Brown sugar - important facts

Before we jump into some facts, you have to know the ultimate fact about brown sugar, and that is that the vast majority of brown sugar is actually highly-refined white sugar in which surface molasses syrup has been added back in to affect the flavour and colour.

  • It’s common to find both light brown and dark brown sugar, the reason for this is that some people prefer a stronger molasses flavour, so brown sugar producers add more of the aforementioned surface molasses surface - this means that the darker the sugar the more unhealthy it is. 
  • Light brown sugar is most commonly used in baking recipes, for things like butterscotch, glazes, or dipping sauces.
  • Dark brown sugar is a popular choice for gingerbread, mincemeat, baked beaks and other strong and sweet food.
  • You may have noticed that dark brown sugar is more prone to clumping, that’s because there is more syrup, and thus more moisture than white sugar.
  • The truth is that whilst brown sugar has been marketed as a more healthy alternative to white sugar, this pseudo-marketing has confused customers, who would generally be better off using a natural sugar alternative (which we will explore later). 

Environmental considerations

Each of the eight following environmental considerations of white and brown sugar results in a great deal of resource consumption or wastage, local environmental and habitat damage, and air pollution.

  1. Transport used moving sugar
  2. Energy used in production and refining
  3. Waste products and by-products from the production
  4. Chemical usage in production
  5. Effluent from sugar mills
  6. Pesticides and herbicides during cultivation of sugar cane and sugar beets
  7. Burning of excess cane
  8. Deforestation and habitat loss because of the need for crop space

The key things to remember are that the more a product is refined and processed, the more energy and resources are required. The more sugar that we collectively consume, the more byproducts, the more burning, the more habitat that is lost, the more chemicals that are used in cultivating and processing, the more effluent that goes rivers, and the more fossil fuels that are used for transport and delivery. It’s a large and vicious cycle, but a cycle that exists and is generic for many agricultural products - the difference for sugar production is the severity and scale of the damage being done (especially from effluent).

Let’s take a look at the popular alternatives


Stevia has no calories and is a totally natural sweetener from the stevia plant. In many countries, pre-sweetened instant coffee mixes use stevia rather than sugar.

Coconut sugar/nectar

Cultivators extract the dried nectar of the coconut palm to create sugar. This alternative provides more amino acids and less fructose.


Perfect for vegans, this honey alternative comes from the same plant that tequila is made from! Beware, it is 85% fructose, which is worse for cholesterol and body fat.

Raw honey

Raw honey has been used for millennia to sweeten hot drinks and food, but it has great nutrient density and complex carbohydrates too.

Coconut sugar, the sustainable option you haven’t tried yet

If the mention of coconut sugar above was the first time you’ve heard of it, then we’d like to give you some more information, and this is (we believe) the best white and brown sugar alternative for your coffee.

  • It’s low on the glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels.
  • Coconut trees are not commonly used for coconuts and coconut sugar at the same time, so old coconut trees (over 50 years old) are being retired to produce sap once their coconut yield drops off.
  • However, information from the Davao Research Centre in the Philippines has found that it is possible to tap the trees for sap whilst also producing coconuts, something that wasn’t thought to be possible previously. This presents a huge opportunity.
  • In countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, retiring old coconut trees for sap production has been done for centuries and is the most sustainable way of keeping the trees useful and profitable.
  • The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the World Bank has recognised coconut sugar as the most sustainable sweetener in the world.
  • As a tree crop, coconut trees are amazing helping to restore damaged soil, consume little water, produce 50-75% more sugar per acre than sugar cane, and use less than 20% of the soil nutrients and water for the same sugar yield.
  • Coconut sugar doesn’t taste of coconuts, so it will work great in coffee and it also dissolves perfectly!

One final point

The greatest and final fact of all is that most of the world’s coconut trees are not being used for coconut or sap production, they’re just sitting and enjoying the sunshine! As a sustainable option, this is about as good as it gets! If we had to make a prediction about the future of sugar, we’d suggest that sugar producers begin looking towards coconut sugar and start making the transition now to help tea and coffee drinkers reduce the carbon footprint of their drinks. The days of white and brown sugar could well be coming to an end...

Halo’s commitment to sustainability

We’ve sourced some of the world’s finest and most delicious coffee so that the need for sugar is reduced. When made right, coffee can be sweet and smooth. Our coffee is packaged in home-compostable capsules so that wastefulness is minimised. We want you to enjoy luxury coffee, guilt-free.