Most sugar comes either from sugar beets or from sugar cane. Even though sugar cane is a grass plant and therefore a distant relative to the gluten grains wheat, barley and rye, it does not contain the harmful gluten protein. Therefore, pure sugar made from sugar cane won't cause you to react if you're following the gluten-free diet.
Who Really Makes Our Sugar?
You'll likely see a variety of different sugar brands in the baking aisle. Nonetheless, the vast majority of sugar sold in the U.S. is produced by one of just two companies: the United States Sugar Corp. and ASR Group, formerly American Sugar Refining, Inc. ASR Group manufacturers Domino's Sugar and Florida Crystals (an organic and natural sugar brand), while U.S. Sugar makes sugar for dozens of store brands, including IGA and Food Lion, and supplies sugar products to major food product manufacturers, such as Kraft Foods and General Mills.
Both ASR Group and U.S. Sugar Corp. run "sugar-only" mills and refineries, drastically reducing the chances of any gluten cross-contamination at the factory level. In addition, Domino's and Florida Crystals specifically label some products (usually specialty organic products) gluten-free.
There are a couple of smaller companies selling organic and natural sugar, as well:
- Wholesome Sweeteners states that its sugar products are "processed and packaged in a gluten-free environment," and I've had decent luck with the company's products.
- Trader Joe's gluten-free list includes all packaged pure sugar.
- Sugar in the Raw states on its FAQs page that its sugar "contains no gluten, nor does it come into contact with glutinous products such as wheat during its manufacture."
Meanwhile, steer clear of Hain Pure Foods' sugars: a Hain customer service representative said the company could not guarantee that the products were gluten-free.
There are other forms of sugar: it's possible to find palm sugar (made from palm trees) and coconut sugar (made specifically from coconut palm trees), although these are far less common and are considered specialty items. I've seen certain Paleo recipes call for coconut sugar specifically, and I've tried palm sugar, too it's somewhat similar to raw sugar or brown sugar.
So When Should I Worry About Sugar?
Frankly, most of the problems with sugar on the gluten-free diet stem from cross-contamination, either at the grocery store or at home in a shared kitchen.
Most larger grocery stores stock the sugar in a different part of the baking aisle than the flour, which makes sense because otherwise the similar-looking packages would be easy to mix up. But some smaller shops store sugar and flour side-by-side ... and stray airborne flour easily can land on your sugar package, potentially glutening you when you handle the package or pour the sugar.
Yes, this may seem paranoid (so much of the gluten-free diet seems that way when you're especially sensitive to trace gluten), but I've actually been glutened that way, so be warned! To avoid the problem, only buy sugar in a large store where it's kept far from the flour, or make sure to wipe down the package carefully before handling it or opening it (plastic sugar packages are superior to paper in this regard).
It's also quite possible to get glutened from plain sugar if it's been used for baking gluten-containing items it happens after someone sticks a flour-coated spoon in the sugar bag. You'll never see this type of cross-contamination, but it will make you sick every time! To guard against it in a shared kitchen, get your own unopened bag of safe sugar, and prominently label it "gluten-free."
But I'm Still Having Issues With Sugar!
Some people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity report problems consuming sugar even when they've taken the above precautions. In these cases, it's not clear whether they're reacting to minute gluten cross-contamination in the sugar (levels well below the less than 20 parts per million of gluten that's considered "safe"), or to the sugar itself.
I've also heard from some readers who blame what they believe is an intolerance to sugar cane, or to genetically modified sugar beets (more than 90% of the sugar beets grown for table sugar are Monsanto GMO Roundup-Ready sugar beets).
Still, regardless of the potential reasons, if you feel as if you're reacting to plain sugar, you might try switching to one of the gluten-free organic brands I've listed above you may find you tolerate that better.