Sugar Talk Sugar Talk Sugar talk logo

Aerial view of a table of food and hands serving food, including a plate of tacos and a bowl of limes.

Mexico and sugar

29/02/2024 By Theresa Pereira in Recipes

As we continue our tour of sugar around the world, we now land in Mexico. Known as the birthplace of chocolate, for Aztec pyramids, Mayan landmarks, carnivals and festivals, and spicy cuisine, Mexico is also a sugar producer. Most of this sugar is for domestic consumption, which underlines its importance in the country’s dishes and drinks.

A brief history of sugar in Mexico

Sugar was first introduced to Mexico by the Spanish following Spain’s conquest of Mexico and the Aztec Empire in the 1500s. Spanish settlers also introduced rice, olive oil and domesticated livestock for meat, cheese and milk. Through Spanish colonialisation, Mexican culture and cuisine also draws on West African, Caribbean, French and Portuguese influences.

We can’t talk about sugar in Mexican cuisine without talking about piloncillo. Largely produced in Mexico, piloncillo is pure, unrefined sugarcane. Brown in colour, it is sometimes referred to outside Mexico as ‘Mexican brown sugar’. However, it is raw sugarcane and is not processed at all. It is made by crushing sugarcane stalks to extract the juice before the juice is boiled to a thick syrup. This syrup is then poured into cone-shaped moulds to cool and harden. This type of unrefined sugar has many names. It is called jaggary across south and east Asia, and gur in Pakistan.

Blocks or cones of sugarcane in a factory setting

Piloncillo is pure unrefined sugarcane shaped into blocks or cones.

The name piloncillo derives from the Spanish word ‘pilón’, which means a loaf or block of sugar. Known as ‘panela’ in other parts of central and Latin America, in Mexico, piloncillo is a common ingredient in many of the country’s favourite dishes and drinks. It is especially prevalent as a sweetener in Mexican baking, but it is also used as a spice or flavour enhancer in savoury sauces and marinades, as we highlight in more detail later in this blog.

In 2021/22, Mexico produced 6.6 million tonnes of cane sugar, of which 726,000 tonnes was exported to the USA. For 2023/24, sugar production volumes are expected to rise by 3% due to lower fertiliser prices and improved weather conditions on the previous year. Drought, among other factors, has negatively impacted the industry. Sugar beet production in Mexico is on a tiny scale, rising to just below 900 tonnes in 2022. Today, Mexico’s sugar industry is focused on improving productivity and growing practices to help drive change and increase yields.

Sugar in Mexican savoury foods

Mexican cooking uses piloncillo to bring balance to otherwise savoury dishes. For example, it is used to make the traditional Mexican mole sauce or marinade. Here, the molasses-like taste of the piloncillo perfectly counteracts the heat of the chilli peppers and the bitterness of the chocolate that are also present to give a richer flavour and darker colour. Some recipes for Mexican mole rojo (red mole, as it contains red chilhuacle chillies) contain muscovado sugar to add depth to the flavour and strength to the colour.

Flatbread on a plate piled with meat and vegetables. Red chillies in a small orange bowl

Mexican food like the tortilla and chipotle sauce (left) is celebrated globally and is known for its spiciness, often from chillies (right).

Another beloved sauce, chipotle, uses black treacle for a darker colour and more complex flavour, while golden syrup intensifies the sweetness and brings balance to other ingredients like vinegar, spices and tomatoes that bring smokiness and acidity.

In Mexico, barbacoa, meaning ‘barbecue’, draws on Caribbean influences. This is a method of slow-cooking meat and using a rub or marinade to give added flavour. In this rub or marinade, muscovado sugar may be used, but more likely, piloncillo. Here, the sugar also helps to tenderise the meat and bring a caramelised quality to the marinade.

Three tacos on a square, brown plate

Traditional Mexican tacos or barbacoa is one of the country’s most beloved dishes, and sugar is often used to sweeten sauces and marinades.

How sugar is used in Mexican baking and desserts

The molasses quality of piloncillo enhances many Mexican desserts, including the flan. This creamy-custard dessert has a caramel topping that is made using piloncillo. ‘Mexican brown sugar’ is also a star ingredient in Capirotada, a bread pudding traditionally served during Lent and at Easter. This dessert comprises layers of bread, cheese, dried fruit, spices and nuts saturated in a piloncillo-sweetened syrup.

Traditional mexican flan Capirotada dessert with almonds, cinnamon and raisins Puerquitos de Piloncillo. Also called Cochinitos, Cerditos or Chichimbres. Traditional Mexican sweet bread with pig shape, usually eaten with pot coffee or hot chocolate.

Many Mexican desserts use molasses or piloncillo, including flan (left), the bread pudding Capirotada (middle) and Marranitos (right) or gingerbread pigs.

Marranitos, or Mexican gingerbread pigs, are a sweet bread flavoured with molasses and piloncillo or a dark brown sugar like dark cane muscovado sugar. They are often sold in Mexican bakeries but are also made and enjoyed at home and eaten with coffee.

Sugar in Mexican drinks

The Mexican mule cocktail is a heady blend of tequila, lime juice, ginger beer and, of course, sugar. Liquid sugar is an ideal sweetening agent in this recipe, but other types of sugar are and can be used.

Native to Mexico, tepache is a fermented drink. It is made from pineapple peels, water and chopped or ground piloncillo, which is often substituted with demerara or muscovado sugar. The piloncillo is necessary to add sweetness but also to fuel the fermentation process.

Mexican ponche is a punch that is traditionally served at Christmas. Made from heating water, spices, fruits, tamarind, hibiscus flowers and chopped sugarcane, or with a cane sugar like muscovado, until hot and fragrant.

Mexican Mule Cocktail in Copper Mug Fermented pineapple beverage tepache in glasses with ice and glass pitcher ponche navidad mexico, mexican fruits hot punch traditional for christmas

Mexican drinks are tangy and refreshing, like the Mexican mule (left), the sugar-fermented tepache (middle), and Mexican ponche (right) or punch, typically made with cane sugar.

Sugar is also an essential ingredient in the centuries-old drink charanda, a Mexican rum from the state of Michoacán. Usually, it is distilled from 100% fermented sugarcane juice, but sometimes it is made from a combination of piloncillo, molasses and pure sugarcane juice. It is usually made in honour of the sugar harvest in Mexico.

As with most cuisines around the world, sugar enhances many of Mexico’s most popular dishes, desserts and drinks.

Ragus manufactures functional pure sugar ingredients for industrial food and beverage applications in all the world’s cuisines, enhancing flavour, texture and appearance. To learn more about our pure sugars, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn. 

Theresa Pereira

Theresa ensures that our customers’ orders are managed efficiently and works closely with our Sales Office Manager to deliver all orders on time in full.

View more