As long as humans have been consuming and cultivating food, there has been a desire for sweetness. That craving for sweetness is found in sugar. There are two main plant sources for today’s worldwide sugar consumption; sugarcane, and sugar beet. These two crops have similarities between the two of them, as well as some differences. Both of these options carry varying capabilities of being produced sustainably, even though they are similar products. Also, like any profitable crop, sugarcane and sugar beet have the potential to change socially and environmentally as they continue to be used.
Sugarcane is the more popular of the two crops. Sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum is of the grass family (Poaceae). This wind pollinated plant was originally cultivated in New Guinea about 8,000 years ago. Then, sugarcane began to be spread worldwide. About 3,000 years ago, sugarcane was spread throughout Asia and India. Sugarcane was brought to the Mediterranean and Near East by Arabic people.
Also, Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane to the Caribbean Islands in 1493. Santo Domingo and Hispaniola obtained sugarcane by 1509. Then it was grown in Brazil by 1521, in the West Indies by the 1640s, and then Louisiana by 1753. It eventually replaced honey as a popular sweetener. About 80% of the world’s sugar comes from sugarcane. Additionally, sugarcane is a rather expensive good. In the 1500’s one pound of sugar cost 1/3 oz. of gold. Today, that is the equivalent of $110. Even though sugarcane is a great resource that boosted the economy, its roots in slavery and the slave trade make you start to question if sugarcane was worth the struggle. The demand for sugarcane in the New World is what led to slavery reaching the western hemisphere.
After populations of native peoples were wiped out, it was in 1517 that African slaves were considered to be used. Because of this decision, an estimated 10-20 million Africans were brought without consent to the New World to help farm sugarcane. The Triangular trade is infamous for the goods that were traded on it. From the Americas to Europe, rum and sugar were traded. From there, Europe traded firearms, salt, and clothes to Africa. Then, Africa traded slaves to the Americas. In our culture, we think of sugar being added to other foods, but sugarcane was traditionally chewed. Around 1000 years ago, however, it began to be boiled.
The process to even produce sugarcane is rather lengthy and intense. First, in order to remove dead leaves, the cane field is set on fire. Then, the stalks are harvested from the field. From there, sugarcane is transported to the refinery, where the cane is chopped or shredded. Large roller mills the crush the cane. This process releases the raw sugarcane juice. The sugarcane juice is refined and processed through calcium hydroxide, carbon dioxide, strained and then boiled. This process ends with the raw sugar product, as well as molasses.
The second of the two crops is sugar beet. Sugar beet’s scientific name is Beta vulgaris. There are quite a few differences between sugar beet and sugarcane. One difference is sugar beet is from the amaranth family, Amaranthaceae, rather than the grass family that sugarcane is a part of. Other members of Amaranthaceae family are spinach, chard, and beetroot, but sugar beet was cultivated for more sugar. Instead of originating from New Guinea, sugar beet originated in the mid-1700’s in Germany. Therefore, sugarcane is thousands of years older than the modern sugar beet.
The sugar beet industry developed in Germany, France, and many other European countries. It was so popular in Europe during this time period that Napoleon I used sugar beet as an alternative to sugarcane due to the sugar imports being blocked by the British. It was later produced in the United States, where the process of producing it in the US in 1838, but was later re-started in 1898. While the United States still produces sugar beet, it is much more commonly consumed in Europe. This is due to the United States having an inexpensive supply of the sugarcane sugar from Hawaii, the Gulf Coast, and Puerto Rico.
One similarity between the two of them is that both products have to go through a lengthy process to extract the sugar. Once the sugar beets are farmed, they are sent to processing plants, and are dumped into water. In these water tanks, the beets are separated by their buoyancy. Then they are pumped into a beet washer, sliced in an industrial slicer. Through the slicing process, the beets are ‘opened’ and the sugars can be easily extracted.
From there, the sugar beets are sent through a machine called an extractor. The beets are mixed with hot water, where the sugar will be removed from the beet slices. The beet remnants are dried into beet pulp, and the raw juice is treated with lime. By the end of continued boiling and straining, the sugar beet product emerges as a thick syrup. Unlike sugarcane, the sugar beet refining process doesn’t produce molasses or brown sugar.
In recent years, there’s been discussions surrounding sugar intake and increased health issues. Things such as cardiac problems, obesity, and diabetes all show links to high intake of sugars. I believe that going forward, healthier alternatives to processed sugars and goods will begin to be more produced. But, due to easy production of sugarcane and high fructose corn syrup, they will still be more affordable and therefore more accessible to most consumers. I believe that sugar beets will decrease in it’s use in the United States, due to its already small production rate and popularity.
Additionally, there are other sugar alternatives that could be used instead of either sugar beet or sugarcane. The list includes sorghum, sugar maple, maize, dates, agave nectar, and coconut. So while sugarcane and sugar beet are globally popular, there is still potential for one of the alternative sugar sources to come into mainstream use.