The arrival of Christmas leads to an indulgence in sugary foods and treats. Sugar has a bad reputation on multiple counts. Firstly, it is bad for the nation’s teeth. The nation’s sweet tooth is perceived as a major cause of increased obesity. Sugar played a major and inescapable historic role in slavery. There are two main sources of sugar today. Both are high in sucrose.
Sugar mainly comes from the tall perennial grass Sugar Cane, Saccharum officinarum. Its history is complicated. It is believed to have originated from an extinct grass that was used as a chewing cane in Papua New Guinea. The development of crude sugar is attributed to India around 2,500 years ago. From here, it slowly spread around the world. Britain’s craze for sugar led to barbaric commercial production of the labour-intensive crop in the West Indies, Caribbean, Brazil and the USA using African slaves. Life expectancy was poor in sugar plantations. Today, sugar cane harvesting is mechanised as shown below.
Stems are cut close to the ground as the richest sugar is found near the base. Ninety percent of Sugar Cane’s weight is formed from juice. This juice contains up to 17% sucrose. The boiling process is not that different today to that used originally in India. The harvested stems are washed , shredded and smashed to extract the juice. Heat is used to clarify, concentrate and crystalise the juice. The end result is a mass of sugar and syrup. The dark molasses are then separated from the sugar. Several further stages of washing and filtering remove colour and impurities. Phosphoric acid and lime are used in the process. Vacuum evaporation takes place at the final stage and sugar crystals are centrifuged and dried.
Sugar Cane is not the only source of sugar. The German Franz Karl Achard (1753-1821) was the first scientist to extract sugar from Beet, Beta vulgaris. This was a root vegetable previously used to feed livestock in Northern Europe. Franz Karl Achard succeeded in extracting around 6% sugar from a root. At that time, Britain had a monopoly over the sugar trade. German and France seized the opportunity to grow hybrid Beets as an alternative source. When the Napoleonic wars cut off sugar supplies to France, Napoleon ensured the large-scale production and refinement of Sugar Beet in 1812.
Sugar at Christmas
Much of Christmas feasting involves sweet, sugar-rich foods. Recipes call for a wide range of different sugars. Options include granulated, caster, golden caster, light brown, Demerara, soft brown, dark brown, dark and light muscovado, molasses and icing sugars. And we mustn’t forget black treacle and golden syrup. Christmas over-indulgence will probably result in many New Year’s resolutions to reduce or abstain from sugary foods.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Davidson, Alan (2006): The Oxford Companion to Food. Second Edition. Ed. Tom Jaine. Oxford University Press.
- Laws, Bill (2010): Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. David & Charles. Exeter. (Sugarcane. Saccharum officinarum.
- Macinnis, Peter (2002): Bittersweet. The Story of Sugar. Allen & Unwin. Australia.
- Sugar Association, The (2018): Sugar’s Journey from Field to Table: Sugar Cane. August 2018.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food plants of the World. An illustrated guide. Timber Press.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.