sugar cane harvesting

Where does sugar come from? 

The relationship humans have with sugar goes back thousands of years. Across many different cultures and civilisations throughout history, sugar has been sought after, fought over, traded and enjoyed.

Today, sugar is more abundant than ever.

A brief history of sugar

Our personal sugar history is likely to be a nostalgic one. Many of us have early memories shaped by sweet treats. Whether for a celebration, treat or to perk us up when we were ill, sugar tasted good and made us feel good.

However, research published in the last two decades has revolutionised the way we look at sugar, and it has emerged as something of a 21st century nutritional villain. Sugar’s main commodity is its taste – and humans have always sought out sweeter-tasting foods. Sweetness is believed to have signalled to our ancient ancestors that a food found in the natural world was beneficial for us to eat or wouldn’t do us harm.1

Humans have always gravitated towards foods which provide us with a ready supply of energy, and sugar is energy-dense. Sugar has 4 calories per gram – yet provides no nutrients on its own.

Where is sugar manufactured?

Early manufacture of sugar came from the sugar cane plant in tropical Southeast Asia, including Taiwan and China, around 6000 years ago. The practice of cultivating the sugar cane plant spread to other parts of the world, including India, the Middle East, the West Indies and South America.

Sugar cane

The sugar cane plant is a tall plant with long green leaves on top and a tough, jointed stem which looks similar to bamboo. The unprocessed, fibrous, gritty sugar is found inside the stems. Throughout history, the stems had to be cut down by hand with a blade, although most often now this process is mechanised.

The sugar cane plant grows well in warm and tropical climates, which is why most of the world’s sugar cane today is still grown in places like South Africa, South America and India.

Sugar from the sugar cane plant was once considered a luxury akin to valuable spices like saffron, as it was highly desired and grown only in certain climates. For hundreds of years, it was harvested by hand under deplorable conditions and used in global trade.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the sugar industry change forever with the mechanisation of the harvesting process. This made it much faster to produce in large amounts.

Sugar beet

Further, when it was discovered that sugar could be extracted from the sugar beet plant, this led to sugar becoming the ubiquitous substance it is today. The sugar beet plant grows in cooler climates, meaning it didn’t have to travel long distances to reach places like Europe and North America.

The sugar beet plant looks similar to a turnip. It has a bulbous root with long, green leaves. The sugar beet matter is found inside the root, which is harvested by slicing, soaking then purifying the extracted juice.

Both sugar cane and sugar beet undergo a chemical process to arrive at the grainy, white substance known as table sugar. Unfortunately, this process strips sugar of its nutrients, meaning what’s left is little more than empty calories.

There is a growing market for raw, unrefined sugars. These retain the original nutrients of the sugar cane and beet plants – including magnesium and potassium. For instance, molasses is a by-product of sugar refinement which when extracted from the sugar cane or beet plants retains the beneficial vitamins and minerals.

Last updated: 29 April 2020

FoodFood & DrinkNutrition