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Inside Our Food

How is Sugar Made?

What is sugar? If you like chemistry, you might say ‘an organic chemical’. If you enjoy baking, you might tell me that it’s ‘a pantry staple’. And if you know about nutrition, you would perhaps say ‘a carbohydrate’. Sugar is such a ubiquitous product that everyone knows something about it. But how is sugar made?

What is sugar made from?

Sugar (specifically, table sugar) is the common name given to the organic compound ‘sucrose’. It can be commercially extracted from various plant sources; two popular ones being the sugar cane (Saccharum officinarumand) and the sugar beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris). Sugar beets were not commonly used until the middle of the 19th century, but sugar cane has been used for sugar for thousands of years.

Sugar in Europe and Russia comes mostly from sugar beets while some African countries, the United States and China produce sugar from both sugar cane and sugar beets.

The first uses of sugar

The sugar cane is native to New Guinea, and the oldest records indicate its presence in the region as early as 8000 B.C.E.1 (Who knew sugar dated so far back?) The oldest written record about the sugar refining process comes from India, dating back to 100 C.E.1 By 650 C.E., the knowledge of sugar production had spread to the Arab world, where sugar was being used for cooking and making edible art, such as marzipan decorations.2

Via the Arab people, Mediterranean Europe was introduced to sugar but did not yet know how to produce it. Until the 1300s, it was available only to the richest people in Europe. In the 15th century, European colonisers started growing and harvesting sugar cane in their tropical colonies. This went on for several hundred years until Andrea Margraff, a chemist from Prussia (now Poland and Russia), discovered in 1747 that sucrose could be derived from sugar beets, too.

Editor's note: The rising demand for sugar was a major driver of the transatlantic slave trade, where millions of people were forcibly taken from Africa to America to work the sugar plantations. The conditions on the plantations as well as the journey to get there were brutal.

How is sugar made from sugar cane?

Sugar cane is a perennial grass that grows up to 3 to 4 meters tall. It grows in tropical and subtropical regions with abundant rainfall (minimum 60 cm annually).3 Some varieties can reproduce through seeds, but it is more efficient to grow the cane by vegetative propagation, where its stalks are cut into small pieces and planted in the soil.

The sugar cane stem is the largest part of the plant, with a mature stem containing 11-16% fibre, 12-16% soluble sugars, and the rest is mostly water. On average, one hectare of land produces 60-70 tonnes of sugar cane.3 

Once the cane is harvested, it is transported to factories where it is crushed to extract its juice. The sugar cane juice is then boiled until the water evaporates, leaving sugar crystals behind. After this, the crystals pass through centrifuge machines that remove impurities. The final product is then dried, packed, and ready to be consumed.

Brazil and India produce the highest amount of cane sugar in the world. Other countries with similar tropical climates also produce sugar from cane in varying quantities.4  

Created by Andrea van den Berg

How is sugar made from sugar beets? 

The sugar beet plant is a perennial herbaceous plant with a conical, white root which grows under the soil. What you can see on the surface is a pretty rosette of bright green leaves. These leaves work hard to produce sugar through photosynthesis and store it in the root.

The beet’s root is made up of 20% soluble sugars, 5% pulp, and the rest of it is water.5 The sugar beet plant grows in temperate climates, needs around 46 cm of rain per year, and likes high amounts of humus5 (not hummus – that’s what I like  in high amounts.)

Once the beets have been harvested, they are transported to a factory, cleaned and cut into small pieces. These pieces are steeped in water, which causes the sugar in them to dissolve, forming a sugar solution. The impurities in this solution are removed, and the remaining process is more or less similar to cane sugar production.

Created by Andrea van den Berg

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