What You Need to Know about the History of Sugar

What You Need to Know about the History of Sugar

Known as the “breadbasket” of the Caribbean, Guyana is one of the world’s top producers of rice and sugar. GBTI supports local Guyanese farmers through its agricultural loans, and it has emerged as one of the largest agricultural lenders in Guyana. Sugar is one of the most in-demand crops around the world with an incredible array of applications. Sucrose, the white sugar that you can buy from a grocery store, is the most widely used sweetener in the world, which is remarkable considering that it has only been broadly harvested for about 400 years. Prior to that time, honey, dates, and other fruits were the primary forms of sweetener.

Key Points about the History of Sugar Cultivation

As a crop, sugar likely originated from a perennial grass that grows wildly in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Sugar has been a domesticated crop in New Guinea for as long as 12,000 years, and records from India show people using sugar as early as 800 BCE. However, sugar was not popular elsewhere until much more recently. Sugar first became popular in Europe in the late Middle Ages. People from the Middle East brought sugar to Spain, and its popularity grew from there. However, sugar cost a great deal of money at the time since it was imported to the Middle East from India. “Sugar” is actually an Arabic term that referred to the imported crop.

Today, the most popular source of sugar is sugar cane, which appears to have originated in the Canary Islands. Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the Americas in 1493, by which time it was already very popular throughout the Caribbean. Sugar cane was used in the production of sugar, rum, and molasses, all of which were important exports. By the 1700s, settlers in the Americas had begun growing sugar cane to support demand from Europe. Between 1700 and 1800, the average consumption of sugar in England rose from about 4 pounds per person annually to 18 pounds. The production of sugar cane has actually decreased since 1967, as more farms have begun to grow sugar beets.

The Difference Between Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets

Today, commercial sugar comes about equally from sugar cane and beets and the sucrose produced from each is identical. Resembling a turnip or large radish, the sugar beet grows best in temperate climates. An average sugar beet weighs about 2 pounds and produces 14 teaspoons of refined sugar. The sugar beet industry began in Europe in the 1700s after Andreas Marggraf discovered the wild beet, and one of his students figured out how to extract sugar from it a few decades later. Sugar from these beets was first commercially produced in 1802 in Germany. Napoleon played a major role in the widespread popularity of this crop, which can take up to two years to mature, although it is less labor-intensive than traditional sugar cane.

Sugar cane, which many people are likely more familiar with, resembles a stalk of bamboo. The sugar is in these stalks grows best in tropical climates. Each stalk has a purple outer covering that needs to be peeled or ripped off before enjoying the sweetness of the inner stalk. While the stalks are too fibrous to eat, they can be chewed or processed into sugar. A press can be used to excrete brown sugar cane juice that is directly consumed or processed further. Since sugar cane is a type of grass, it grows very quickly, and several harvests are possible before farmers need to replant it. Like sugar beets, the crop requires a great deal of water to grow it. Sugar is more labor intensive than beets and is typically grown commercially, although the stalks are sometimes sold without being processed. 

How Sugar Is Processed

Once sugar cane is harvested, it is pressed either by hand or a machine. The resulting liquid is brown and extremely sweet. Subsequently, the juice can be consumed or turned into molasses. Steaming and smoking this juice will result in brown sugar. Also, this juice can be fermented directly into rum or other spirits. Byproducts of the steaming process are used to feed livestock, and pressed stalks become fodder and fertilizer. In some commercial processes, the cane is pressed so thoroughly that it becomes dry enough to fuel boiler fires. The typical treatment process for sugar cane juice removes impurities and simultaneously produces molasses and white grains of sugar that are then separated with a centrifuge.

Raw sugar is typically a light brown color and quite sticky, as it still has some molasses in it. In order to remove the molasses, the sugar is dissolved into warm water and filtered, which also helps to remove any lingering impurities. Then, the filtered fluid is recrystallized in vacuum pans that help to wash and dry the sugar. The final step involves granulating the final product into white crystals that are sold commercially.