Sugar week, Part 1

I thought it would be neat to explore a new topic every week and learn something new, so this week we’re going to talk about sugar. We’ll get into history, uses, the nature of sugars and its varieties.

Sugar is the generalised term used for a class of sweet flavoured substances composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (aka carbohydrates). It is formed naturally in the leaves of numerous plants but concentrated mainly in their roots, stems, or fruits. It can be extracted from maple trees, palm trees (toddy, coconut and date palms), sorghum (a type of sugar grain) but commercially comes mostly from sugar canes and sugar beets.

Before there was sugar, there was honey. Paintings in the Spider Cave of Valencia depict humans collecting honey approximately 10, 000 years ago, with the domestication of bees going back 4, 000 years (Egyptian hieroglyphs showing clay hives). Sometime around 500 BC, people in India developed the technology of making unrefined, “raw” sugar by pressing out the cane juice and boiling it down to a dark mass of syrup-coated crystals (called “gur” or “jaggery”). By 350 BC, this sweet solid was being combined with wheat, barley, rice flours and sesame seeds to make all sorts of confections. Around 6th century AD sugar making technologies were carried westward towards the Persian Gulf. It was from here that Europe first encountered sugar during their explorations and Venice became the hub of sugar trade from the Arab countries.

The 18th century showed a boom in European sugar consumption due mostly to the colonial rule in the West Indies and the enslavement of millions of Africans. After years of revolt, the very countries that had brought the slaves out to the plantations began outlawing slavery and therefore a new method of producing the sweet stuff needed to be found. In 1747, a Prussian chemist, Andreas Marggraf used brandy to extract sugar crystals similar to those of the sugar cane from a common European root vegetable, the white beet. It was only during Napoleon’s time in 1812 that the first sugar beet factory was designed.

In the present, 30% of the world’s sugar production comes from beets with Russia, Germany and the US being its top producers. Although the Carribean still play a role in the production of cane sugar, India and Brazil have taken the leading roles in that market.

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