In the distance, plumes of smoke curl toward the clouds, and the air smells sweet. The sugar cane harvest has begun, and those acres of tall, leggy stalks, which are under a controlled burn, will be processed and bagged as sugar before the end of the day. Today, the distance between the sugar cane fields and the grocery store shelf is one that relies heavily on technology, but the process of refining sugar began almost 2,000 years ago in India. By the 600s A.D., the Egyptians, under Arabic rule, had become masters at producing the whitest sugar, and a commodity boom had begun.
Sugar – The World's Oldest Commodity
To better understand the role of sugar in world history, that wars were waged and economies stymied because of the lack of sugar, we have to step back to a time most of us cannot fathom. It's hard to imagine that the indigenous people of New Guinea walked around sucking on a stalk of sugar cane as early as 8,000 BCE, but historians have documented the fact.
Fast-forward more than 8,000 years, and the cultivation of sugar had progressed to fields awash with cane stalks in southeast Asia, China and India. The miracle of a sweet substance created without bees astounded the Greeks and Romans on their visits to India in the early 300 A.D.s, and the great sugar migration began.
As explorers and traders crossed the Eurasian continent, sugar found its way to ancient Persia, where medicinal uses were discovered, and then on to the hotter climes of Sicily and Spain, where cultivation took hold. While India is credited with developing the first processing techniques to turn sugar water into sugar crystals, the Chinese advanced the technology.
By the mid-1400s, Madeira had become a major sugar cultivator, with ships sending the raw product to Antwerp, Netherlands, for refining. It was also during this time that Portuguese explorers introduced sugar to Brazil, and the country still reigns as the major producer of sugar worldwide.
By natural progression, sugar cane fields flourished in the Caribbean Islands, and slaves were imported to keep up with the demand. This was the beginning of the slave trade as we know it, and it also marked the end of sugar's hold on Europe due to abolitionists boycotting slave-produced sugar.
Sugar Beets vs. Sugar Cane
At that time, the majority of sugar production came from cane sugar grown in the West Indies. The tropics, lush with sun and rain, proved a climate favorable to the growth of sugar cane. But the abolition of slavery in the West Indies further hampered cane sugar production, leaving the fields untended by both slave and free labor and opening the door for the production of beet sugar.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the English blockaded all of Europe, leaving the Continent without its sugar deliveries, so Europeans had to come up with another source for their sweetener – sugar beets. In the 1700s, German scientists realized that sugar beets contained an abundance of sucrose, and it was Napoleon who demanded an increase in sugar beet production to compensate for diminishing imports of cane sugar.
There are differences between beet sugar and cane sugar: Beet sugar has a slightly burnt aftertaste, and it reacts differently in recipes. Although 35% of the world's sugar production comes from beets, cane sugar became the preferred commodity, and also the most expensive.
Sugar Cane Comes to America
By the mid-1700s, sugar cane was introduced to America, and the state of Louisiana became the first to plant and roughly refine sugar. It took another 200 years for refining to become mechanized, with the first mechanical harvesters used in Louisiana. Sugar refining advanced quickly after that, with different technology from countries around the world combining to become a systematized process.
Muck – Black Gold
Sugar cane fields stretch for miles in every direction as you drive through Belle Glade and Clewiston, Florida. The earth is black and rich in nutrients, and the locals call it "muck." You cannot buy muck at your local big box hardware store; it's too valuable. And in tribute to the earth that supports a thriving community, the local high schools battle it out every fall in the "Muck Bowl."
In addition to sugar cane, muck also contributes to the abundance of peppers, corn, radishes, cabbages, broccoli and a host of other vegetables that support the economy of the area. But it's sugar cane that's at the heart of this lush terrain surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
The Burning Bush
Stalks of sugar cane are burned to remove the leaves and other "rubbish" growing on the stalk. It's a controlled burn, watched over by firefighters and field hands, and permission is given only if the weather and winds are cooperating. As fire envelops the rows of cane, field mice, rabbits and other rodents scurry to safety, waiting out the hours before they can return to the fields they call home.
Harvesters move through the rows of burned cane, ripping them from the muck and dropping the stalks into open-paneled trucks. The roots remain and become plantings for next year's crop. This cycle lasts for several years before the field is depleted of nutrients and is turned over to other crops for a season or left to replenish itself. Florida's harvest season stretches from the fall through winter, when the air is mostly dry. Then the cycle begins again.
The First Step
Trucks carrying loads of harvested canes lumber toward the "sugar houses," where the cane begins its process of becoming the granulated sugar with which we're familiar. Processing plants are quite common in Florida, Louisiana and Texas in the United States, but the country producing the most sugar from cane is still Brazil.
In the tropics, you'll often find street vendors running the cane stalks through what looks like a mangle, which is kind of like your great-grandmother's washing machine. And that's the basis of what happens to the stalks of cane when they arrive at the sugar houses. Chopped into small pieces, the stalks are pushed through three different rollers, and their juices are released. The extracted liquid is sweet, unrefined sugar water that's about 80% water and 20% sucrose. It's also dirty.
Bits of muck, bugs that survived the fire, cane fibers and plant extracts float in the sugar water. The fibrous remains of the stalk, known as bagasse, are recycled into animal feed, bio-fuel and goods made from cane pulp. Even fashion and fabric designers have begun to adapt the leftovers. Bagasse is used in the manufacture of recyclable plates, bowls, cups and utensils, replacing those made of plastic and paper.
Clarification of the Sugar Water
Once the sugar water is separated from the stalks at the processing plant, it's clarified through a chemical process using acid, lime and sulfur dioxide. Sludge and mud shift to the bottom of the clarifier, leaving clean sugar water ready for further processing.
Filtration and evaporation reduce the water to crystals, and a centrifuge spins the crystals, separating them into two products – sugar crystals and molasses. At this point, the product is raw sugar, not fit for consumption since it still contains impurities. The sugar is then ready for the refinery, the second step in its transformation into edible sugar.
Sugar is naturally white. It's the molasses and extraneous particles that color the sugar water, darkening it. Refining further separates out the molasses, and then it's transferred to a holding tank to be used when darker sugars are produced or passed on for use as animal feed.
Filtering and drying are the final refining steps toward the production of food-grade sugar. These steps are repeated until the sugar tests pure. Only then is it transferred to the bagging station. It's notable that a variety of sugar companies all receive the same sugar; the only difference is the writing on the bag.
Defining Sugar by Type
From deep dark brown to faint tan, the sugar on the shelves of your store was all originally harvested as cane sugar. The size and color of the crystals is what distinguishes one type of sugar from another, and they all have a specific taste and use.
To the touch, muscovado sugar feels like beach sand, but the intense dark brown color and flavor of molasses dominate. Like molasses, muscovado sugar has a slightly bitter aftertaste. The refining process for this sugar stops after evaporation, leaving the molasses intact. While it has the same amount of calories as white sugar, about 4 calories per gram, it also has minimal amounts of magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron.
Of all the sugars, muscovado is known as "the healthiest" as it's an antioxidant because of its molasses content. It helps combat free radicals, but it should not be consumed in greater quantities than normal sugar to maintain health.
Light and dark brown sugars are made by adding differing amounts of molasses back into refined sugar crystals. They are what keep your cookies moist and add richness to baked beans, ribs and ham.
Demerara sugar crystals are free-flowing, like white sugar crystals, but they don't burn easily. Demerara sugar is ideal for sprinkling on top of cakes to add a sweet crunch. The molasses has been sprayed onto the white crystal to create the flavor, and its molasses taste is slightly noticeable but doesn't dominate in your recipes.
Confectioners' sugar is simply white sugar that's been ground to a powder. Cornstarch is added to prevent clumping. Confectioners' sugar is used in icings and adds volume to whipped cream.
Granulated white sugar is fully processed and refined. However, variations of granulated sugar exist. Caster sugar, often called for in recipes originating in the United Kingdom, is granulated sugar that has been ground fine. In the United States, some supermarkets sell fine-ground white sugar.
Simple syrup, or liquid sugar, is a 1:1 ratio of granulated sugar and water. It's used in mixing beverages,
Raw sugar, or turbinado sugar, packaged and promoted as a healthier alternative to white sugar, is what's in those tan packets offered at trendy coffee shops. However, it's merely sugar that's less refined and has trace amounts of molasses attached to the grains. Kimber Stanhope, a University of California-Davis microbiologist, studied the effects of white and raw sugar in human chemistry and concluded that, "It is certainly a stretch to suggest that turbinado sugar is healthier than refined sugar."
Experimenting With Sugar
Making your own sugar is a labor-intensive process, but it's not impossible. Buy the canes from your favorite farm stand and wash them thoroughly to remove any field debris. Use a rolling pin to create a mangle, and roll the canes until no more sugar water comes out of them.
Like making syrup from maple tree sap, boiling is the route to take when making sugar. Keep boiling and skimming until you have reduced the syrup to its crystals. You'll note the brownish color, which is the molasses, still intact on the crystals. Dry first with warm air and then in cool air, until the crystals are completely dry. This may take several days, but you'll have made your own homemade sugar as a result.
- Saveur: The Illustrated History of How Sugar Conquered the World
- Healthline: Beet Sugar vs Cane Sugar: Which Is Healthier?
- University of Nebraska- Lincoln: Cropwatch: History of Sugarbeets
- The Sugar Association: History of Sugar
- Healthline: What is Muscovado Sugar?
- Mother Jones: Sorry, Raw Sugar Is No Better for You Than Refined