Beet sugar: maybe a myth, but not debunked

The latest edition of BirdWire, the monthly electronic newsletter published by Bird Watcher’s Digest, features longtime contributor Kevin Cook busting bird myths. Naturally, I had to click the link to see if Kevin tackled any hummingbird myths. He did, but…

The “myth” he took on is about beet sugar. Some hummingbird aficionados use only cane sugar because they claim the birds can tell the difference. I’m not convinced that this is true, so I was excited about the prospect that someone had conducted field tests to demonstrate that hummingbirds have no preference. Unfortunately, Kevin based his debunking on much flimsier evidence. He wrote:

Kitchen research in which neither cooks nor overseeing researchers knew whether they were using beet or cane sugar repeatedly showed no difference in the outcome of desserts based on the origin of the sucrose.

Taste buds, whether hummingbird or human, cannot tell beet sugar from cane sugar.

Brown Violetear

Gratuitous hummingbird photo (because I know what you crave).

Wait… what? Humans are humans, and hummingbirds are hummingbirds. There’s even a significant difference within our own species in the density of taste buds and the sensitivity to strong flavors (look up supertasters). Unless you’re putting liquified tiramisu in your feeders, how the two sugars perform in desserts has no bearing whatsoever on how hummingbirds perceive them.

What we need (and still don’t have) to debunk this myth (if myth it is) is a double-blind study presenting the birds with solutions of the same concentration in similar feeders in randomized positions, etc.

Sounds like an excellent science fair project.

8 thoughts on “Beet sugar: maybe a myth, but not debunked

  1. I use cane sugar rather than beet sugar, not because the birds can tell the difference, but because as I understand it, sugar beets in this country now come almost entirely from genetically modified, Roundup-ready beet seed. Cane sugar is also being genetically modified, but so far, to a much lesser degree.

    When Roundup-ready seed is used, farmers typically use much more Roundup to control weeds in their crops. I believe we should be very cautious about the production of genetically modified foods, as well as the use of Roundup and all other other herbicides/pesticides, as we do not yet know what the long-term effects of these practices will be.

    • That’s a completely different horse that’s already out of the barn, Mary Jo. GM sugar beets have taken over the market, and GM sugar cane is on its way. Pretty soon we’ll have to either compromise our principles or stop feeding hummingbirds. I don’t like it any more than you do, but there’s little we can do when even products that claim to be GMO-free aren’t, and anti-GMO growers are being squeezed out of business by genetic contamination and fear of legal harassment by Monsanto.

      This is also not relevant to the post, but (all else being equal) beet sugar might be the better choice for feeding in the temperate zone: It displaces less biological diversity than sugar cane, uses less water in growing and processing, and has a smaller total carbon footprint because of being grown closer to its ultimate markets.

  2. Agreed! Comparing the taste preferences between humans and birds whether they are detrimental to either is certainly not science. Unfortunately an article addressing “bird myths” using this kind of logic/science only contributes to furthering the myths.

  3. I accidently purchased “sugar” and wondered why no hummers. Then I realized it wasn’t “cane” which means its 99.9% likely to be from GMO beets. Changed it out and bang! Hummers. Also learned not to purchase seed w/corn as it too is GMO and repels birds & squirrels both

    • sigh… Why do so many people try to make everything about GMOs? The GMO issue has nothing whatsoever to do with palatability of beet vs. cane sugar. This rumor has been around far longer than GMOs. If there’s a difference, the problem is bitter-tasting compounds called saponins that occur naturally in sugar beets but not in sugar cane. It’s quite likely that those saponins could be reduced or eliminated through either selective breeding or genetic modification, but there’s no financial incentive to do that because the process of extracting and purifying sugar from sugar beets virtually eliminates them from the final product.

      Not that palatability issues with some GMO crops aren’t a possibility, depending on whether novel protein(s) produced by the modification are unpalatable and how much of them end up in edible portion(s) of the plant, but the issues will be with crops that are consumed in unprocessed or lightly processed form. Corn would be a good example, but there’s no science yet to back up anecdotes such as yours, which don’t rule out differences in natural palatability between corn varieties (sugar content, for example) or freshness of one product or package over another. Most complaints seem to be a case of seeing what you want to see.

  4. My hummingbirds can’t tell the difference, or they don’t care. I have HUNDREDS of hummingbirds and they come to the feeders whether I buy Costco cane sugar or Smart & Final beet sugar.

  5. I am a cane sugar guy only because the 2 times I used beet sugar the hummers would come but not land on the feeder. Switched back to cane sugar and they ate up the nectar. Superstition? Most likely.

    • As the saying goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” Without a larger sample size and double-blind, side-by-side trials to eliminate bias and reduce the number of variables, hummingbirds’ sugar preferences amount to dueling anecdotes.

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