What is sugar?

SugarSugar is a sweet tasting carbohydrate compound. The most common form of sugar is glucose. It is considered a food group and a source of energy. Some sugars are naturally occurring and found in our everyday foods, while process sugars are used in food production and cooking. Sugars found in our kitchen cupboards and our tables, are usually derived from sugarcane and beets. Human consumption of sugar goes back thousands of years.

Classification and Types of Sugar

Sugar is broken into three different categories of carbohydrates which are further broken down into various types. :
1)    Monosaccharides are single compound sugars
a)    Glucose - called blood sugar. Naturally occurring in the body.
b)    Galactose - this is found in milk and is one of the compounds that makes up lactose.
c)    Fructose - found in fruits and honey
d)    Ribose - found naturally in the body.

2)    Disaccharides are made up of two molecule compounds.
a)    Sucrose - contains glucose and fructose. Examples of these are table sugar and beet sugar.
b)    Lactose -  contains the compounds galactose and glucose. Found in milk.
c)    Maltose - this sugar has two units of glucose. It is found in fermenting grains, typically used for the production of beer.

3) Polysaccharides are made up of multiple compounds of monosaccharides. These are known as starch, glycogen and cellulose.

Some common sources of Sugar

Sugar compounds can be found in a number of natural sources, including the human body. Please see the list below for some examples:

  • Glucose - fruits, vegetables, table sugar, honey, milk, cereals.
  • Galactose - milk
  • Fructose - fruits, vegetables, honey
  • Sucrose - table sugar, honey, vegetables
  • Lactose - milk
  • Maltose - milk, cereals

The History of Sugar

This section briefly covers the history of sugar that we’re familiar with. The sugar found in on our tables. It is believed that sugarcane was initially planted in Polynesia, then introduced to India. When Persia invaded India, Emperor Darius, started to manufacture sugar from the cane and exported it to other countries. At the time, the process was a well kept secret. This secret was eventually cracked by the Arabs, who then introduced it to Northern Africa and Spain. The rest of Europe got introduced to sugar during the Crusades. The first sugar was recorded in England in 1099. Sugar was soon imported by the western European countries from South East Asia. Sugar was then considered a high luxury item.

In 1493 Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean. From then, European countries colonised the islands and countries and established massive, and numerous plantations across the Americas to grow crops. The main crop that was grown was sugarcane. The sugarcane industry was a booming one, and the demand for labour shaped the nature of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

In 1747 beet sugar was discovered, providing an alternative to sugar cane. However sugarcane maintained its popularity well into the 20th century. It still surpasses beets, accounting for 80% of the sugar produced annually.

How do we get sugar to our kitchen cupboards and dining tables?

Annually, roughly 180 millions tons of sugar is produced. Most of this comes from sugarcane.

The sweet, delicious sugar that we are used to, and utlise in our kitchens for cooking and sweetening, is a form of sucrose (glucose plus fructose). This type of sugar some from two sources: sugar cane and beets.

a)    Sugarcane
b)    Beets

So how do we transform sugarcane and and beets into sugar to sweeten our foods and beverages? The following paragraphs gives an overview of this process.

Sugarcane cane production has been a feature of civilization for thousands of years. The sugarcane plant was cultivated and used for sugar production around 327 B.C. in South East Asia and India. It was introduced to Egypt around 647 A.D. and in Europe (more specifically, Spain) around 755 A.D. Since then sugarcane has been a very popular source of table sugar. Furthermore, with the colonisation of the Western World, sugarcane and sugar was catapulted into a massive global trade that influenced and shaped world politics and societies.

Botanically, sugarcane belongs to the Andropogonae tribe of the family Gramineae, order Glumiflorae, class Monocotyledoneae, subdivision Angiospermae, division Embryophita siphonogama. Sugarcane grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Currently, the biggest sugarcane industries are found in Brazil, India, China, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan, and the United States of America.

Field of sugarcane are planted to harvest and produce sugar. It takes about seven months for the sugarcane plant to mature and be ready for processing. The stalks of the sugarcane can be harvested either by hand or machine. The cane is then taken to a mill where they are cleaned and prepared for processing. Heavy rollers crush and juice the cane. The juice contains the sugar that we consume. The next step involves boiling the juice until it forms into a thick syrup. The boiling also works to purify the juice. From the syrup, sugar crystals begin to form. The crystallization process forms a mixture of sugar crystals and molasses called massecuite. The massecuite is placed in a centrifuge where it is rapidly spun to separate the crystals and molasses. The sugar then goes through a drying process. The final step involves packaging, and the sugar is now ready for the supermarkets and into our kitchens!

Beets were introduced as an alternative to sugarcane sugar, after centuries of sugarcane dominating the global sugar market. Unlike sugarcane, beets can be grown in cooler, temperate regions. The main producers of beet sugar are the European Union, the United States, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Ukraine, Japan, Iran and China.

To get the sugar we use for consumption, beets are harvested, washed, sliced and boiled. Boiling in water helps to begin the process of the sugar extraction. The juice that is produced from the boiling process is filtered and reduced to a concentrated thick syrup that is further boiled. Sugar crystals begin to form. Much like the sugarcane process, the liquid is placed in a centrifuge to separate the sugar, which is then dried and finally packaged.

Even though, it is derived from different sources, sugar from beets and sugarcane are the same.

Types of Table Sugar

Both beet and sugarcane can produce different kinds of sugar, varying in texture, size, colour and sweetness. Below are some common types of table sugar.

  • Granulated sugar - traditional sugar, commonly used in the kitchen.
  • Caster sugar - finer than traditional sugar
  • Icing sugar - light, powdery sugar. Used for making butter icing, desserts and dusting cakes.
  • Demerara sugar - a brown sugar, with larger sugar crystals than granulated sugar.
  • Light brown sugar -
  • Muscovado sugar - derived from cane sugar. Has a strong molasses flavour. Has a higher moisture content compared to other sugars.

Uses of Sugar in Food Production

Overall sugar is used to sweeten foods, to preserve foods (for example, jams and marmalade. Sugar prevents bacteria from growing) and to add colour to food. It is also used increase the boiling point or reduce the freezing point of foods (for example, ice cream manufacturing). It enables yeast to ferment.

Uses of Sugar in Non-food Industries

Sugar is typically used in the production of medicines such as cough syrups. Sugar helps to dilute and control the active ingredients in medicines. Sugar is also used to lend to the time release properties of tablets, adding the necessary layers.

Sugar has also been used to treat wounds and burns. The sugar can help prevent the growth of bacteria in the wounds, thus keeping infections at bay. Sugar also has been used to create  liquid epoxies. These are used to bind materials such as wood, glass, metal and concrete.

Health Concerns

Sugar is delicious and used widely in food and drinks. However, over the recent years, sugar has gotten a lot of attention to its link to diseases and health concerns. We will discuss some of these concerns now. Sugar and weight concerns - sugar has been linked to causing obesity in men, women and children. Obesity is usually caused when someone consumes more energy than they need for biological and physical functioning. People who suffer from obesity are more likely to suffer from other ailments and diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Consuming too much sugar can mean that the body stores the excess calories as fat, which also secretes into the body’s blood stream. Sugar and tooth decay - dentists have always advised that persons take care of their sugar consumption and its effect on their dental health. We tend to hear quite often: “Too much sugar rots your teeth!”. By not brushing, the bacteria in the plaque that forms on your teeth feeds on sugar. Acids are created, and if not remove, begin to weaken the enamel of the teeth. Once weakened, teeth are at risk of decay. Sugar and diabetes - too much sugar consumption can increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Persons with type 2 diabetes, bodies do not produce enough insulin or their bodies do not react to insulin normally. For persons with type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not produce the much needed insulin. As a result the body does not manage the presence of sugar properly. These persons must take care of the amount of sugar in their diet.


Article written by: SarahAjaoud
Times read: 5677x
Added: 22-02-2017 19:38
Last modified: 16-06-2017 09:34

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