The sugar on your table may come from a surprising source: sugar beets. In the late 1800s, sugar came entirely from tropical sugar cane until sugar beets created a new source for sugar production.
Sugar beets contain 16 percent to 18 percent sucrose, the highest sugar content of any vegetable and some fruits. Sugar beets are a tan root vegetable with impurities that refining removes.
Brazil, India and China were the top three sugar cane producers in 2005, according to the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Sugar cane is a tropical grass that can grow up to 15 feet tall and contains about 10 percent sugar.
Cane sugar needs a tropical climate to grow, such as in Hawaii. Beet sugar grows in a temperate climate, even with cold winters, as in most of Europe and the northern U.S.
After refining, beet and cane sugar have a similar taste and chemistry. Refined white sugar is 99.9 percent sucrose with no additives or preservatives.
Beet and cane sugar have comparable retail pricing, although U.S. sugar prices rose 20 percent in 2009. Sugar prices between countries vary, with prices two to three times higher in the U.S. and Europe than in Canada.