If you ask the average North American where sugar comes from, they’ll likely tell you it comes from sugarcane. Even if they’ve never seen a stalk of sugarcane before, the essential role this plant played in the development of the world economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has meant that most people are familiar with this remarkable plant.
But the truth is that more than half of all the sugar produced in the United States comes from beets, and globally sugar beets account for twenty percent of total sugar production. So how have sugar beets become so popular, and how do producers turn this ordinary root vegetable into a pile of white sugar?
The Origins of the Sugar Beet
European scientists have been aware of the unique properties of sugar beets for hundreds of years, but because it was easier to process sugar from sugar cane (and because the vast plantation economy that existed in Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries relied on the labour of enslaved people), sugar from beets was not taken seriously as an alternative until the early 19th century.
The fortunes of the sugar beet changed with the rise of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Between the blockade Britain imposed in response to Napoleon’s aggressive military campaigns and the Haitian Revolution, France was suddenly cut off from its Caribbean suppliers, and had to find domestic ways of producing sugar.
Napoleon funded research into sugar beet production, and incentivized French farmers to grow this crop. Though he eventually lost power and was exiled to St. Helena, Napoleon’s innovations bore fruit, and soon sugar beet production was kicking into high gear across Europe.
Two hundred years later, France is still one of the leading producers of beet sugar, alongside Russia, Germany, Turkey, and the United States.
The Story of a Beet From the Field to Your Plate
One of the key differences between sugar beets and sugar cane is the kind of plant they come from. Whereas sugar cane has a very limited range in which it can be produced, beets can grow even in temperate regions like Europe and North America.
In fact, beets are one of the first crops planted in the year. A beet will be planted in the spring,will grow through the summer, and be harvested in the fall. Once harvested, it will be transported to a processing plant where it will be cleaned, washed, and sliced into long strips.
These strips then undergo a process designed to strip the sucrose (which accounts for as much as twenty percent of the root) from the plant fibre. This creates a juice that is then carbonated and filtered to remove impurities, before being concentrated through boiling and evaporation.
Upon reaching the proper concentration, this syrup is seeded with sugar crystals and spun out in centrifuges designed to separate the pure white sugar from the molasses. At this point, the sugar is dried, cooled, and stored before being packaged. Because of the heating and cooling involved in making sugar, one of the most essential products for the sugar processing industry is energy-efficient heating, cooling, and drying equipment to minimize emissions and keep overhead low.
Once it is bagged, the sugar is ready to be shipped out to grocery stores around the world, from which point it will find its way into cakes, bread, and your morning cup of coffee.
The story of sugar beet development is a story of human ingenuity. Not only are sugar beets now an essential part of global sugar production, they are also a reminder that there is almost always more than one way to produce the vital foods we rely on every day.