The two downsides of sugar production from sugar cane is that the plant will grow only in the tropics, and its cultivation and production processes are labor intensive.
Sugar beets, on the other hand, grow in temperate regions, and the labor requirement is less onerous. A comparison of the relative sugar yield shows that sugar cane contains 10 percent sugar by weight, while sugar beets contain approximately 18 percent.
Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, a German pioneer of analytical chemistry, became interested in producing sugar from plants other than sugar cane in work subsidized by the King of Prussia. In 1747, he identified the sugar beet, Beta vulgaris as a reasonable alternative source of sugar since the chemical characteristics of sugar from both plants are identical.
Cane sugar is sucrose, which is a disaccharide — meaning that it is composed of two simpler sugar molecules linked together. Sucrose is comprised of one molecule of glucose bonded to one molecule of fructose.
The sucrose from sugar beets is chemically identical. Parenthetically, many bakers claim that beet sugar and cane sugar do not give identical results when using the same recipe. Brown sugar is white sugar which has had molasses added back to it.
While sugar beets do produce a molasses, it is not fit for human consumption being foul-smelling. Therefore, brown sugars produced from beet sugar must have cane molasses added to the product.
Franz Karl Achard, a German chemist, devised a method for producing sugar from the sugar beet. He did work to identify the best varieties for sugar production as well as agricultural methods to increase sugar yield. Eventually the Silesian white sugar beet became the mother of all future sugar beet cultivars.
Sugar production moved shortly thereafter to France, where it became of great interest to Napoleon.
Between the embargo of France by the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) preventing delivery of island sugar, the slave revolt in Haiti curtailing sugar’s production, and the public demand for sugar, the stage was set for the growth of a European alternative to cane sugar.
Like all plants, sugar beets have specific requirements for good growth. The soil should be a sandy loam, a mixture of sand, clay and organic material. The soil should be tillable down to 12 to 15 inches to accommodate root growth. Long days of sunshine are ideal, but the plants should not be subject to too much heat.
If the soil is too compacted, the root will be forced to grow upward and out of the soil. Temperature from between 59 degrees and just below 70 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal.
The sugar is produced in the leaves, and on cooler nights, it moves into the root for storage. There should not be a gravel or a hardpan surface located beneath the tilled soil as these will retain moisture and cause root rot.
Beets are heavy feeders using up a large amount of plant nutrients, so a three-year crop rotation is standard. One year the fields are planted in sugar beets, and the next two years, they are planted in peas, beans or grains.
After processing, the leftover materials include beet pulp and beet molasses. The pulp has found a ready market as animal feed. Although the beet molasses is not fit for human consumption, it is used for the production of yeast, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Unfortunately, sugar beets are susceptible to a viral disease leading to rhizomania, a growth of fine, secondary roots which die quickly and cannot take up the water necessary for good growth. There are several research stations run by the USDA devoted to developing new strains that are more resistant to disease as well as having higher sugar content.
The three largest producers of beet sugar are the European Union, Russia and the United States. Eighty percent of the world’s sugar is coming from sugar cane. The three top producers are Brazil, India and Thailand, with the United States coming in eighth. The United States is the fifth-largest consumer of sugar, and the third largest importer.
I remember the national effort to boycott grapes from California lead by Cesar Chavez as a way to support farmworkers. Apparently this was not an original concept to engage the public. Already in 1790, there was a “free produce movement” developed by Quaker abolitionists to induce the public not to buy food and materials produced by slave labor.
In these past two columns, I have been truly struck by how much human suffering has been caused by the demand for a non-essential food source.
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