Sugarcane, famously known as the crop that provides us with sugar, has also sparked the age-old question about its classification. So in this article, I’m answering the question of whether sugarcane is a fruit or a vegetable. But a quick spoiler, it’s neither! Read on to find out.
Sugarcane is neither a fruit nor a vegetable; sugarcane is a perennial grass that belongs to the Poaceae family. The Poaceae plant family is made up of thousands of plants, including lemongrass, bamboo, wheat, rice, and oats.
Let’s break this down further to understand the classification.
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The botanical classification of sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a tall perennial grass in the Poaceae family. The botanical criteria for categorizing sugarcane as a grass include its growth habit and reproductive structure.
So sugarcane does not belong to the fruit or vegetable category.
To get a clearer picture of why this is, we define a fruit as the mature ovaries of flowering plants which develop from fertilized flowers and usually contain seeds. While vegetables are the non-reproductive parts of the plant, including the leaves, stems, flower buds (think broccoli and cauliflower), and roots.
Following this definition, it’s quite easy to see why sugarcane doesn’t fall into the fruit category because it doesn’t develop from a flower ovary. But it’s somewhat harder to determine that it doesn’t belong in the vegetable category; after all, we extract the sugar from the stem – and didn’t we just say that vegetables include plant stems?
This is where we see the culinary definition of foods versus the botanical definition. Keep in mind that when determining classification, we defer to the botanical definition over the culinary definition.
Although sugarcane is neither a fruit nor a vegetable, it is highly valued as a sweetener. As we have seen above, sugarcane is not botanically a fruit or a vegetable. So too, in the culinary definition, sugarcane is not considered a fruit or a vegetable. And this is because, culinarily speaking, fruits, and vegetables are most often defined by their flavor profile.
In culinary terms, fruits are often defined by their sweet flavors, including those we add to desserts, and they can be eaten raw. While vegetables are often savory and cooked.
Of course, this is just a broad definition, and we do eat many vegetables raw, like lettuce, radishes, and celery. Not all vegetables are savory; we enjoy bitter-flavored vegetables, too, like leafy greens. And not all fruits are sweet – think lemons, limes, and cranberries with their sour flavor profiles.
So we can see that although sugarcane is indeed sweet, it is not eaten in its raw state (though the canes can be chewed on to release the delicious sugary juices). Instead, the sugar content requires extraction from the sugarcane stems. Once extracted, sugar is used as a sweetener or a source of sweetness.
What Class of Food is Sugarcane?
Sugarcane is classed as a carbohydrate. The carbohydrate group of foods also includes fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. As such, sugarcane provides energy, though, of course, the recommendation for consuming refined sugar is to do so in moderation.
Is Sugarcane Just Sugar?
No, sugarcane is not just sugar, though sugar is the primary product of sugarcane. To extract sugar from sugarcane, the stems must be crushed to squeeze out the juice. Sucrose (naturally occurring sugar) is separated from the juice and further processed to produce refined sugar.
Beets also naturally produce high levels of sucrose and are used for sugar production, though nearly 80% is still produced from sugarcane.
There are also many byproducts and derivatives of sugarcane which are sought out. Find out more below.
Sugarcane Uses Beyond Sugar
We are all familiar with sugarcane being turned into sweet sugar, but this versatile crop has many other uses.
Before sugarcane is turned into sugar, it can be juiced and enjoyed as a refreshing drink. This is a popular drink in Asian countries and many other parts of the world. I’ve been to many markets and observed popular sugarcane drink stands selling delicious drinks. Now you can also easily purchase sugarcane juice online or in many grocery stores.
Molasses is a byproduct of extracted sugar from sugarcane and is used in many baking recipes as well as the production of rum. While cane syrup is somewhat similar and also used in cooking and making drinks.
After extracting the sugarcane juice, a fibrous residue is left, known as bagasse. This can be turned into biofuel and used as a renewable energy source. This is better for the environment and an alternative to fossil fuels. It can be fed to animals and turned into paper. You can find biodegradable picnic ware made from sugarcane, including straws, bowls, and plates.
In some cultures, sugarcane can be turned into handicrafts such as baskets, while the canes can be used to construct fences and roof thatching.
Medicinally, sugarcane is believed to have diuretic properties, assist with energy levels, be cooling to the body, be good for digestive health and assist wound healing.
Sugarcane can be grown purely for its ornamental appeal to create a lush and tropical landscape in your garden.
And one of my favorite things sugarcane can be used for is sugarcane mulch! Your vegetable garden will love the additional soil protection sugarcane offers, not to mention the nutrients it provides as it gently breaks down over time.