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Where Does Sugar Come From?

Stalks of sugar cane.
Sugar cane field.
Beets provide about 30% of the world's sugar supply.
Donuts topped with confectioner's sugar.
Sugar cubes.
Sugar cane is a popular crop in the Philippines.
A person sifting powdered sugar.
A globe showing the Caribbean, where a lot of sugar is grown.
Emperor Darius of Persia spread sugar cane throughout the Arabic world.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2014
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Sugar can be made from two main sources, either sugar cane or sugar beets. Its history of introduction into Western Europe is traced back to the early growth of sugar cane prior to the 6th century B.C.E. in Polynesia. The plant is thought to have then been grown in India in the beginning of the 5th century B.C.E, where Emperor Darius of Persia discovered it and spread it throughout the Arabic world.

Europeans didn’t discover sugar until the Crusades brought them into contact with Arabic culture. They referred to it as the new “spice,” and its use was primarily restricted to the extremely wealthy. A pound (0.45 kg) of sugar was prohibitively expensive for most people.

Early sugar from the cane went through a refining process in Italy, and when Columbus left on his travels, he reportedly took the plants with him, which were then established in the Caribbean. The climate of Caribbean islands lent itself perfectly to the plant's growth, since it is best grown in tropic or near tropic temperatures. This increase in the ability to grow lots of sugar cane gradually led to the establishment of plantations throughout the Caribbean.

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Britain had established over 100 sugar refineries by the 18th century, yet sugar remained expensive. Even with this high number of refineries, it was still difficult to get, and the British government placed very high taxes on it. It would take about 100 more years before sugar would be available to the common man, who still primarily used honey as sweetener.

At the same time, sugar was made more available by the introduction of the sugar beet. Much of what was available in Europe by the late 19th century was from beet and not cane. Today, only about 30% of the world’s sugar is made from beets; 70% is made from cane. Sugar cane is grown in the Southern US, Mexico, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Northern parts of Australia. Beets tend to be grown in cooler climates, like Canada, the former Soviet Union, and Western Europe.

American sugar often comes from cane grown in either Florida or Hawaii. Northwestern Europe still tends to get most of its sugar from beets, and Irish sugar from beets is particularly favored.

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Discuss this Article

anon949658
Post 32

I once heard you can get diabetes from sugar.

anon936402
Post 28

Sugar is used in most products along with sweeteners nowadays in order to make something sweeter.

turquoise
Post 19

@anamur-- No, sugar beets are not red. They are whitish, yellowish in color.

I don't know about sugar cane production in the United States, but I have heard that a lot of the sugar beets grown here are genetically modified. In fact, there was a lot of concern about the quality of sugar made from these genetically modified sugar beets. USDA even banned them for a while but I'm not sure if that was ever enforced because clearly that would raise sugar prices.

I'm glad most of the sugar in stores comes from sugar cane. In my opinion, sugar made from sugar cane tastes better and is healthier. I think for the most part, when we buy a random sugar product from the grocery, we can be sure that it's made from sugar cane and not sugar beets.

serenesurface
Post 18

So when we say sugar beets, are we talking about the red beets that are sold in stores?

I've had those before, they are kind of sweet but they don't seem sweet enough to make sugar out of them.

I have tasted sugar cane before though. India is a major sugar cane producer and when I went to Punjab area of India while visiting there, there were lots of sugar cane farms. You can actually take a sugar cane, snap it and chew it. It's really sweet, kind of like sugary syrup.

ZipLine
Post 17

@cloudel-- Even before cane sugar and beet sugar, fruit was available. Of course it was eaten raw then but now producers can actually separate the sugar from fruit and use it in food production. When you see foods with fructose, that's what it is, fruit sugar. I actually have some sugar cookies at home made from a combination of fructose and white sugar.

I didn't know much about white sugar before I read this article though. For some reason I thought that sugar was made by nature sort of like rock salt is and we just dig it out. I had no idea that we have to process beets or sugar cane to get sugar. That's news to me.

shell4life
Post 16

@healthy4life – I hate the flavor of artificial sweetener! I have bought sugar free desserts at the grocery store by accident before, but as soon as I bit into them, I could tell that the sugar wasn't real.

Everything from hard candy to frozen cakes seems to have a sugar free version these days. I'm sure that diabetic people are glad for this, because they have to get used to the taste, and it keeps them from having to totally cut out sweet foods.

Artificial sugar comes from a lab; real sugar comes from the earth. There is just no contest.

cloudel
Post 15

@Kristee – I'm with you! It's interesting to read that even before sugar came to the United States, people here were sweetening foods with honey.

It seems that everyone has a little bit of a sweet tooth! The fact that people were seeking a sweetener in the first place goes to show that.

We've come a long way. Now, we have a variety of sugars to choose from, like organic sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, and confectioner's sugar.

healthy4life
Post 14

Sugar has calories, unlike many artificial sweeteners. However, I greatly prefer its flavor.

Some people say that they can't tell the difference between the two, but to me, stuff that has been artificially sweetened tastes a little fake. In a weird way, it almost tastes too sweet.

I have heard that some artificial sweeteners can be bad for your health, like aspartame. So, I try to avoid these and eat only items made with natural sugar. Sugar made from plants grown in the ground just seems like the most healthy way to go.

Kristee
Post 13

I am so glad that sugar made it to the United States long before I was born! I have a major sweet tooth, and eating sugary foods is a major source of enjoyment for me. Sugar just makes me happy, and it gives me temporary energy.

anon282429
Post 11

About what year was sugar discovered?

anon76654
Post 4

can anyone help me? i want to know if canada exports any kind of sugar to france (it is for a trading company) and my boss wants all the details by next week and i am really starting to stress. please, please help.

DocZ
Post 3

I once read somewhere that once sugar became less expensive, it also boosted to consumption of coffee, which was considered too bitter by many people.

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