Everyone loves the sweetness of sugar. Few people know exactly how we get sugar. Diet gurus are talking about reducing or eliminating sugar from our diets. Given our sweet tooth of sugar, is that possible?
Sugar, which we now consider a staple, was once so rare and expensive it was called white gold. Sugar cane, the first source of sugar, is a perennial grass, which originated in Asia. It is now grown in tropical and subtropical areas. Before people used the many types of refines and raw sugar, honey and fruit were the only sweeteners. During the Napoleonic war, the supply of cane sugar from the tropics was cut off. An alternate source of sweetener, that produced the same effect of sugar cane was discovered in beets. The sugar derived from both sugar cane and sugar beets is 99.8% pure sucrose, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose.
Most people think of sugar only as a sweetener. However, when sugar is used in baking, sugar becomes more complex because it also adds volume, tenderness, texture, color, and acts as a preservative. When a recipe calls for creaming together butter, margarine, or any fat with the sugar, it is not only a way of mixing these two ingredients together. The reason for this step is to get air into the batter. Mixing causes the sugar granules to rub against the fat producing air bubbles in the fat. When the flour is added, the leavening gases enlarge these air bubbles and cause the batter to rise when baked.
The process of making sugar by evaporating juice from sugar cane developed in India around 500 BC. By 200 BC, China had begun to grow it too. Westerners learned of sugarcane in the course of military expeditions into India. Nearchos, one of Alexander the Great’s commanders, described sugar as “a reed that gives honey without bees.”
At first, people chewed the raw cane to extract its sweetness. Sugar refining developed in South Asia, the Middle East, and China, where sugar became a staple of cooking. The first methods for refining were grinding or pounding the cane to extract the juice, and then boiling the juice or drying it in the sun to yield the gravely sugary solids. The use of sugar spread to other areas of the world along the trade routes.
Sugar remained unusual and very expensive in Europe until the Arabs started cultivating it in Sicily and Spain. The Spanish began cultivating sugarcane in the West Indies in 1506. Cane sugar comes from countries with warm climates, such as Brazil, Pakistan, India, China, and Australia.
In 1747, a German chemist identified sucrose in beetroot. This discovery remained a mere curiosity for some time until one of his students built a sugar beet-processing factory. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte, cut off from Caribbean imports of sugar cane by the British, banned sugar imports in 1813. The beet-sugar industry that emerged grew, and today, sugar beet provides approximately 30% of world sugar production.
Beet-sugar comes from regions with cooler climates: northwest and eastern Europe, northern Japan, and some areas in the United States. In the northern hemisphere, the beet-growing season ends with the start of harvesting around September. Harvest and processing continues until March in some places. The availability of processing-plant capacity and the weather both influence the duration of harvesting and processing.
Sources of Sugar
- Sugar Cane – Cane-sugar producers crush the harvested vegetable material, then collect and filter the juice. They then treat the liquid to remove impurities and then neutralize it with sulfur dioxide. Boiling the juice then allows the sediment to settle to the bottom for dredging out, while the scum rises to the surface for skimming off. When it cools, the liquid crystallizes, producing sugar crystals.
- Sugar beets – Beet-sugar producers slice the washed beets, and then extract the sugar with hot water in a diffuser. An alkaline solution then helps to precipitate impurities. After filtration, evaporation concentrates the juice to a content of about 70% solids, and controlled crystallization extracts the sugar. A centrifuge removes the sugar crystals from the liquid. Sieving the white sugar produces different grades for selling.
Cane versus beet
Little difference exists between sugar produced from beet and that from cane. The production of sugar results in residues that differ depending on the raw materials used and the place of production.
Raw sugars range from yellow to brown sugars. They are made from clarified cane-juice boiled down to a crystalline solid. Raw sugars result from the processing of sugar-beet juice, only as intermediates to white sugar. Types of raw sugar available as a specialty item include demerara, muscovado, and turbinado. Mauritius and Malawi export large quantities of specialty sugars. Manufacturers sometimes prepare raw sugar as loaves rather than as a crystalline powder, by pouring sugar and molasses together into molds and allowing the mixture to dry. This results in sugar-cakes or loaves.
White refined sugar has become the most common form of sugar in North America and in Europe Finer grades result from selectively sieving the granulated sugar
Powdered sugar – 10X sugar, confectioner’s sugar (0.060 mm), or icing sugar (0.024 mm) is produced by grinding sugar to a fine powder. A small amount of anti-caking agent or cornstarch may be added to prevent clumping and caking of the fine sugar.
Sugar-cubes are produced by mixing sugar crystals with sugar syrup.
Brown sugars come from the late stages of sugar refining. The sugar forms fine crystals with large amounts of molasses content, or from coating white refined sugar with cane molasses syrup. The color and taste are enhanced with increasing molasses-content along with their moisture-retaining properties. Brown sugars tend to harden when exposed to the air.
How to store: All granulated sugar can be kept for long periods, if tightly sealed and kept in a cool, dry place.
Substitutions in recipes:
1-cup corn syrup or 1-cup honey plus decrease liquid called for in recipe by 1/4 cup = 1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup of firmly packed brown sugar = 1 cup granulated sugar;
Caster sugar, which is superfine sugar 1 cup = 1 cup granulated