Sugar Research Paper

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Sugar, a dietary source of sweetness and energy, can also act as a binder, stabilizer, caramelizer, and bulking agent. Throughout much of history sugar was a luxury. The expansion of the industry in the Western Hemisphere increased the supply of sugar in Europe, making it less costly; it also linked sugar production with slavery and plantation agriculture, thus affecting lasting political, economic, social, and cultural consequences.

The familiar white crystals in the sugar bowl on the breakfast table are virtually pure sucrose, an organic chemical defined technically as a disaccharide carbohydrate. Other common disaccharides are lactose, the sugar found in milk, and maltose or malt sugar. Sucrose is a product of photosynthesis, the complex biochemical process whereby green plants use light energy to combine aerial carbon dioxide and hydrogen from soil water into rings of carbon atoms to which atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are attached, usually in the same ratio as in water (hence “carbohydrate”). It is found in the sap of many plants, where it functions as stored energy, but the commercial article—and the substance usually meant when people speak of sugar—is chiefly extracted from sugarcane or sugar beet.

Sucrose is composed of two simple carbohydrates, likewise very prevalent in nature: glucose (also called dextrose and grape sugar), which occurs in fruits, plant juices, and honey, as well as in blood, and fructose (levulose or fruit sugar), which occurs in the free state, notably in honey. Sucrose is easily inverted by acid hydrolysis or enzyme action into glucose and fructose, both monosaccharides (so named because they cannot be reduced to smaller carbohydrate molecules) that share the same chemical formula but differ in atomic structure and are interconvertible by chemical and biological reactions. Fruits, young vegetables, floral nectar, and the sap of certain plants and trees owe their sweet taste to the presence of different sugars. As a saccharide, sucrose is also related to starch, another form of stored energy consisting of long branching chains of glucose molecules.

Multiple Sources

These affinities explain how sugar can be obtained from two quite dissimilar botanical sources: sugarcane, a perennial giant grass grown in the tropics and subtropics for its stalks and exploited industrially for more than two millennia, and sugar beet, a temperate-zone biennial of the goosefoot family, which has been harvested for the sugar in its roots for barely more than two centuries. They also explain how sugar has more recently been partially replaced in manufactured foods and beverages by starch-based sweeteners. And they explain minor sweetener sources, some going back to ancient times, such as boiled-down grape juice; fig and date syrup; the sap of palms, the maple tree, and sweet sorghum; and the exudations from certain trees and shrubs. Like sugar, honey—the first concentrated sweetener known to humans—is ultimately a product of photosynthesis. Bees making honey and humans processing cane or beet to crystal sugar are basically doing the same thing—both extract dilute sugar solutions from plants and convert them into forms easier to handle and storable by evaporating unwanted water.

All forms of sugarcane are species or hybrids of the genus Saccharum, a member of the large family of Gramineae. Their botanical derivation from ancestors in northern India or China is still debated, but cane probably became a cultivated food plant, originally selected for chewing, in eastern Indonesia, New Guinea, or the Philippines from about 4,000 to 3,000 BCE. It eventually spread eastward across the Pacific and northwestward to India—where crystalline sugar has been made since at least the fifth century BCE—and thence by way of Persia and the Mediterranean basin to the Atlantic seaboard, finally reaching the New World in 1493, with the second voyage of Columbus. The expansion of the industry in the Western Hemisphere had two effects. First, it increased the supply of sugar in Europe, making it less of a costly rarity. Even so, British per capita sugar consumption in the early 1700s is estimated to have averaged just four pounds a year, or about a teaspoonful a day. Second, it linked sugar production with slavery and plantation agriculture on a scale far greater than anything previously seen in the Old World, with lasting political, economic, social, and cultural consequences.

Sugar beet, on the other hand, a type of Beta vulgaris L. (red garden beet, Swiss chard, and fodder beets are of the same species), is a child of science. The plant is known to have been used as a vegetable and medicinally in Greek and Roman times. But it was not until 1747 that a German professor, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709–1782), reported having extracted from red and white beets a substance identical with cane sugar. Toward the end of the 1700s, another scientist, Franz Carl Achard (1753–1821), began to grow white beets for sugar, opening the world’s first beet sugar factory in Silesia in 1802. Expanding under the umbrella of state protection, beet sugar production became an important driver of the agricultural and industrial development of nineteenth-century Europe.

Whether starting from cane and beet, a sugar factory in essence performs a series of solid–liquid separations: (1) extraction of the juice, with fiber or pulp the residue; (2) purification of the juice, removing nonsucrose substances; (3) concentration of the purified juice to syrup; (4) crystallization of the sucrose in the syrup by further evaporation; (5) separation of the crystals from the syrup. While some high-quality raw cane sugar is sold for consumption, most undergoes additional refining —on-site or in a separate plant—by washing and redissolving the crystals and further clarifying and decolorizing the resulting solution. The clear syrup is then again boiled until crystals form or is made into liquid sugar. White sugar can also be produced directly after a more thorough purification of the juice, as is now done in some cane sugar factories and throughout the beet sugar industry.

A Staple Commodity

No fewer than 115 countries produced sugar in 2004, but just five areas—Brazil, India, the European Union, China, and the United States—accounted for around 55 percent of global output. World consumption of sugar from industrial-scale processors amounted to some 130 million metric tons, white quality, equivalent to about 21 kilograms per person. Roughly threequarters came from sugarcane and the rest from sugar beet. In addition, on the order of 12 million metric tons of indigenous types of cane and palm sugar were produced by small rural enterprises, mainly in Asia and Latin America. Average annual per capita sugar consumption by country ranged from less than 10 kilograms to more than 60 kilograms, depending on economic factors as well as national habits and tastes. At higher living standards sugar is mainly consumed as an ingredient of processed foods and drinks, where it now competes against high-fructose syrups, made chiefly from corn, particularly in the United States. In early 2010 (according to reports in Bloomsberg, Businessweek, and Financial Express), the production of sugar was slated to fall short of demand by 14 million tons for the year (about enough to make 346 billion cans of Coca-Cola), and the price of refined sugar on the futures market soared to reach a twenty-year high at 30 cents a pound. Supply interruptions due to too much rain in Brazil (the world’s largest producer) and not enough rain in India (the world’s second-largest producer and first largest consumer in 2010) were the culprit.

Like starchy foods, sugar is a source of dietary energy, providing nearly 4 kilocalories (about 16 kilojoules) per gram. As such it is often denounced as “empty calories.” In one sense the charge is true—even raw sugar supplies practically no minerals, vitamins, fiber, or protein and excessive consumption contributes to obesity. In a more important sense, however, the charge misses the point. Whereas potatoes or rice can be eaten alone by the plateful, it is hard to swallow even a teaspoonful of sugar without dissolving it in a liquid. Sugar is first of all a sweetener, although in that role it can be replaced by high-intensity sweeteners. But it also fulfills other functions, acting as a binder, stabilizer, and bulking agent. It caramelizes on heating to form complex coloring and flavoring substances, and part of it is inverted during food preparation, the resultant monosaccharides reacting with other recipe components to lend aroma and browning to the final article. This increases the color, luster, and flavor of bread crust, for example. Well known, too, is sugar’s antimicrobial effect in fruit preserves, jellies, and jams, where a high concentration of dissolved sugar inhibits the growth of spoilage microorganisms.

Ultimately, what has made sugar a staple food is that it enhances the beverages and foods in which it is ingested.


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