The history of sugar

We have been programmed to like sweet things since the dawn of time. For example, there are no poisonous plants that taste sweet. With its sweetness, a berry therefore says: I am edible. Before sugar was discovered, our only sources of sweetness were fruits and wild honey. However, people were soon looking for ways to produce sugar in its pure form.

According to US research, sugar originated in New Guinea. Sugar cane supposedly was already discovered and used there between 15,000 and 8000 BC. Sugar cane was essentially distributed by the Arabs. At the time of the crusades, the valuable plant finally made it to the Western Mediterranean, from where exploration voyages took it to West India, Central and South America.

Sugar remained a rare asset that was traded at luxury prices even in the 18th century until in 1747 German chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered that the beet contained the same sugar as the tropical sugar cane – and how to extract it from the beet.

Beet sugar production became established in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Around the turn of the century, a little more than half of the global sugar production was supplied from beets. After this peak, the beet sugar share dropped back to about 30 percent, even though beet sugar production has increased six-fold in absolute terms.

This development is mostly due to the increased cultivation areas and better yields per area. Progress in plant cultivation, combined with higher sugar contents (from approx. 14 percent around 1890 to nearly 19 percent today), chemical and biological pest and weed control, as well as mechanisation of field work, played a role in this. In parallel with the progress in cultivation, fabrication developed as well. Uneconomic factories and refineries were shut down and optimised large operations were built, using fabrication procedures that permitted production of white sugar in a single work step.

Sugar is a high-energy food. It is generally recommended not to consume too much energy in food, i.e. not to ingest more calories than one actually needs. Integrated into a diverse diet and enjoyed in good measure, sugar does not affect human health. Only diabetics with their special metabolism must control their sugar intake.

Beets: sweet crops from the field

The beet from the goosefoot family is grown in moderate climate zones. The beet harvest starts about 180 days after it is sown. In our latitudes, this is towards the end of September. The campaign* takes 60 to 90 days.

The most important producers of beet sugar currently are the EU countries, Ukraine, Russia, the USA, Poland and China.

*Technical term for processing sugar beets into granulated sugar

Sugar cane: a special kind of grass

Sugar cane is a grass. The reed-like perennial thrives in the tropical and subtropical zones. Harvest begins shortly after it blossoms, when the sugar content is the highest. Once harvested, the sugar cane is pressed.

Until the middle of the last century, sugar cane was the only sugar source for global trade. The main producers of cane sugar today are: India, Brazil, Cuba, China, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, South Africa, the South of the USA, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines.

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