Thursday, November 17, 2011


It is thought that cane sugar was first used by man in Polynesia from where it spread to India. In 510 BC the Emperor Darius of what was then Persia invaded India where he found "the reed which gives honey without bees". The secret of cane sugar, as with many other of man's discoveries, was kept a closely guarded secret whilst the finished product was exported for a rich profit.

It was the major expansion of the Arab peoples in the seventh century AD that led to a breaking of the secret. When they invaded Persia in 642 AD they found sugar cane being grown and learnt how sugar was made. As their expansion continued they established sugar production in other lands that they conquered including North Africa and Spain.

Sugar was only discovered by western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th Century AD. Crusaders returning home talked of this "new spice" and how pleasant it was. The first sugar was recorded in England in 1099. The subsequent centuries saw a major expansion of western European trade with the East, including the importation of sugar. It is recorded, for instance, that sugar was available in London at "two shillings a pound" in 1319 AD. This equates to about US$100 per kilo at today's prices so it was very much a luxury.

In the 15th century AD, European sugar was refined in Venice, confirmation that even then when quantities were small, it was difficult to transport sugar as a food grade product. In the same century, Columbus sailed to the Americas, the "New World". It is recorded that in 1493 he took sugar cane plants to grow in the Caribbean. The climate there was so advantageous for the growth of the cane that an industry was quickly established.

By 1750 there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain. Their combined output was only 30,000 tons per annum. At this stage sugar was still a luxury and vast profits were made to the extent that sugar was called "white gold". Governments recognised the vast profits to be made from sugar and taxed it highly. In Britain for instance, sugar tax in 1781 totalled £326,000, a figure that had grown by 1815 to £3,000,000. This situation was to stay until 1874 when the British government, under Prime Minister Gladstone, abolished the tax and brought sugar prices within the means of the ordinary citizen.

Sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar in 1747. No doubt the vested interests in the cane sugar plantations made sure that it stayed as no more than a curiosity, a situation that prevailed until the Napoleonic wars at the start of the 19th century when Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe. By 1880 sugar beet had replaced sugar cane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe. Those same vested interests probably delayed the introduction of beet sugar to England until the First World War when Britain's sugar imports were threatened.

Today's modern sugar industry is still beset with government interference at many levels and throughout the world. The overall pattern can be seen by investigating the mid 1990s' position in the map. Annual consumption is now running at about 120 million tons and is expanding at a rate of about 2 million tons per annum. The European Union, Brazil and India are the top three producers and together account for some 40% of the annual production. However most sugar is consumed within the country of production and only approximately 25% is traded internationally.

One of the most important examples of governmental actions is within the European Union where sugar prices are so heavily subsidised that over 5 million tons of white beet sugar have to be exported annually and yet a million tons of raw cane sugar are imported from former colonies. This latter activity is a form of overseas aid which is also practised by the USA. The EU's over-production and subsequent dumping has now been subjected to GATT requirements which should see a substantial cut-back in production over the next few years.

What we call sugar, the chemist knows as 'sucrose', one of the family of sugars otherwise known as saccharides in the grouping called carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, as the name implies, contain carbon and hydrogen plus oxygen in the same ratio as in water. The saccharides is a large family with the general formula CnH2nOn. The simplest of the sugars is glucose, C6H12O6, although its physical chemistry is not that simple because it occurs in two distinct forms which affect some of its properties. Sucrose, C12H22O11, is a disaccharide, a condensation molecule made up of two glucose molecules [less a water molecule to make the chemistry work].

The process whereby plants make sugars is photosynthesis. The plant takes in carbon dioxide from the air though pores in its leaves and absorbs water through its roots. These are combined to make sugar using energy from the sun and with the help of a substance called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is green which allows it to absorb the sun's energy more readily and which, of course, gives the plants' leaves their green colour. The reaction of photosynthesis can be written as the following chemical equation when sucrose is being made:

12 CO2 + 11 H2 O = C12 H22 O11 + 12 O2
carbon dioxide + water = sucrose + oxygen
This shows that oxygen is given off during the process of photosynthesis.

Historically, sugar was only produced from sugar cane and then only in relatively small quantities. This resulted in it being considered a great luxury, particularly in Europe where cane could not be grown. The history of man and sugar is a subject in its own right but suffice to say that, even today, it isn't easy to ship food quality sugar across the world so a high proportion of cane sugar is made in two stages. Raw sugar is made where the sugar cane grows and white sugar is made from the raw sugar in the country where it is needed. Beet sugar is easier to purify and most is grown where it is needed so white sugar is made in only one stage.