Sugarcane's history, involving war, trade, colonization, slavery, diet, and disease, paved the way for today's massive production and widespread use of sweeteners.
Most of us think of sugar in terms of personal-sized servings: a teaspoonful for a cup of coffee or a cupful for a cake batter. But on a global scale, all these teaspoonfuls and cupfuls, along with the myriad foods and beverages that contain added sugar, add up to tens of millions of tons of sugar per year.
Today the term sugar, in its everyday usage, refers to sugar from both sugarcane and sugar beets, as well as to sweeteners derived from corn. During the past century alone, the global, per capita consumption rate of sweeteners of all types has increased tenfold. It is likely to continue increasing well into the twenty-first century, as more people achieve the modernized lifestyle that fosters heavy sugar intake.
Beet sugar and corn sweeteners, however, are relative newcomers to the world of sweetness. For thousands of years, the world had but a single source of sugar apart from fruits and honey: sugarcane.
Common sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is a perennial herb that at maturity attains a height of 8 to 20 feet (2.4 to 6 meters) and has jointed stalks an inch or two (2.5 to 5 centimeters) in diameter. Saturating the soft, interior fibers of these stalks is a light, amber- colored liquid called cane juice, demand for which has made sugarcane one of the world's largest agricultural crops.
Sugarcane's many impacts go far beyond modern agricultural economics. Over the centuries, the cultivation of sugarcane as a source of sugar and molasses has opened major trade routes, caused mass migrations and unspeakable human misery, generated enormous profits, helped precipitate wars, and hooked countless millions of people on the taste of sweetness, radically altering dietary patterns around the world-- remarkable achievements for a plant that is nothing more than a giant member of the grass family (Poaceae, formerly Gramineae).
'A reed which gives honey'
Sugarcane originated on the southwestern Pacific island of New Guinea, where it was chewed for its sweet juice. By 1000 b.c., islanders had carried sugarcane along ancient migration routes to the Asian mainland. The first technology to extract sugar from cane juice was developed in India.
In 327 b.c., in the Punjab region of present-day northwestern India, the invading army of Alexander the Great found Indians cultivating "a reed which gives honey without bees." Alexander also observed Indians pressing sugarcane to extract the cane juice, which they boiled to obtain crystals of sarkara, or sugar. The Sanskrit sarkara would become the origin of many words for sugar, including the Arabic sukkar, the Latin saccharum, the Spanish azucar, and the German Zucker.
Sarkara was actually sucrose, a disaccharide carbohydrate with the chemical formula C12H22O11. Sucrose consists of linked molecules of two simple monosaccharide sugars, glucose and fructose. On the tongue, sucrose imparts to the taste buds the pleasurable and satisfying gustatory quality of sweetness. When ingested, sucrose is quickly broken down into its monosaccharide components. The blood carries glucose to cells, where further breakdown provides quick energy if it is needed. If the energy is not needed, the glucose is modified and stored as fat. Fructose is converted into glucose in the liver. Over the coming centuries, however, the growing demand for sugar would derive primarily not from a need for its quick energy but rather from the desire for its universally appealing and satisfying taste, which would bridge continents and cultures.
By a.d. 800, Arab traders had brought sugarcane and the technology to extract sugar from cane juice to the Mediterranean. Three centuries later, returning Crusaders carried sugar to Britain, where it became a taste sensation. As demand for this pleasant-tasting new "spice" spread across Europe, caravans began transporting sugar from India, while small sugar industries appeared on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Sicily. By 1400, about 100 pounds of sugar were reaching Britain each year, with each pound worth the modern price equivalent of $50.
Eyeing the lucrative sugar market, the Spanish and Portuguese introduced sugarcane to the Atlantic islands--the Azores and the Madeira and Canary Islands--and established the first sugar plantations on which sprawling cane fields surrounded centrally located mills. Improving upon extraction technology developed 2,000 years earlier in India, Atlantic island sugar-mill workers used heavy stone rollers to press the juice from the cane. They then boiled the juice in large iron kettles to produce a thick syrup saturated with dissolved sucrose. Upon cooling, the sucrose crystallized out of solution as a mass of sticky, light-brown, impure crystals called raw sugar.
Raw sugar has a somewhat unpleasant taste and must be refined to produce palatable white sugar. Because sugar draws moisture from the air and picks up dirt during bulk shipping, it was impractical to refine on the plantations. In a brisk trade, ships carried raw sugar from the Atlantic islands to Europe's first sugar-refining center in Venice. There, Venetians dissolved the raw sugar, clarified the solution with lime and egg whites, then boiled it in large, shallow iron pans. Cooling produced off-white crystals of sucrose that were dried and sold as a luxury item throughout Europe.
Despite limited production, the Atlantic islands' sugar industry had enormous significance. It advanced sugar-milling technology and introduced much of Europe to sugar's mesmerizing sweetness. It also established a hierarchal plantation system of agriculture based on West African slave labor--a system that would soon be employed on a grand scale in the Americas.
The sugar islands
Christopher Columbus, who received his navigation training in the Madeira sugar trade, carried sugarcane on his second voyage to the Americas. The climate and soil there proved ideal for its cultivation. The Spanish quickly established sugarcane plantations in Hispaniola and Cuba, as did the Portuguese in Brazil. As the first shipments of raw sugar reached Europe about 1540, a related trade began transporting West African slaves to the growing number of sugar plantations in Brazil and the West Indies. By 1600, with sugarcane the biggest and most profitable crop in the Americas and Europe, colonial sugarcane plantations were importing 10,000 West African slaves each year.
When the British, French, and Dutch gained footholds in the Americas, they also turned to sugarcane cultivation and production of raw sugar. By the mid-1600s, some 150 European sugar refineries, mainly in London, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, were receiving 50,000 tons of raw sugar each year. Sugar had its greatest impact in Britain, where it was called "white gold." Cheap to produce and heavily taxed, sugar was a major source of government revenue and was marked up steeply every step of the way from the West Indian plantations to the European consumers. British consumers who could afford sugar used it to sweeten such exotic new beverages as coffee, tea, and chocolate and even served it as a condiment with many foods.
In the West Indies, now known as the "Sugar Islands," slaves planted new fields with sugarcane cuttings (sugarcane rarely produces viable seeds), then harvested the mature cane during a long cutting season. Using machete-type knives with a small hook on the back of the blade, slaves cut the cane at ground level, leaving the rootstocks in place to grow successive crops. They stripped the leaves with the blade hook, cut the top of the stalks at the last mature joint, then loaded the trimmed cane onto carts for oxen to haul to the mills.
On average, 100 tons of sugarcane yielded about 10 tons of raw sugar, 3 tons of molasses, and huge quantities of bagasse, the fibrous, cellulose residue remaining after the sugarcane had been pressed. Dried bagasse was a convenient fuel for the fires that boiled the cane juice.
Molasses, the brown syrup remaining in the kettles after extraction of the raw sugar, consists of at least half sucrose and lesser amounts of glucose, fructose, ash, starches, protein, and minerals. "First," or light, molasses is a sweet, sucrose-rich, amber syrup produced by the first cane-juice boiling. Second and even third boilings that extract additional sucrose produce a dark, thick, bitter syrup called blackstrap molasses.
Initially, molasses was an inexpensive sweetener for those who could not afford refined sugar. The growing quantity of molasses produced on the Sugar Islands soon demanded a high-volume use, which turned out to be the distillation of rum.
By 1650, West Indian sugarcane cultivation had become the foundation of the "Triangular Trade," a complex and hugely profitable commercial network that affected three continents. West Indian raw sugar and some molasses were shipped to England in return for manufactured goods needed by the plantations. The bulk of West Indian molasses, however, went to the American colonies in New England, where an efficient distilling industry converted it to rum, much of which was then shipped to West Africa as partial payment for more slaves to labor in the West Indian sugarcane fields.
Because sugarcane cultivation was critically important to economic development in both the American colonies and Europe, European naval powers fought to acquire and defend territory in the West Indies; most sugar islands changed hands at least once. In the early 1700s, Britain enacted the "sugar and molasses acts," trade regulations that tightened its control of the sugar industry by imposing prohibitively steep taxes on the importation of French, Dutch, and Spanish molasses into its American colonies, and restricting all colonial trade to British shipping. Deeply resented by the colonists, the sugar and molasses acts were among the factors that precipitated the American Revolution.
Between 1540 and 1800, the transatlantic slave trade brought more than 10 million West African slaves to the Americas in one of history's greatest and cruelest forced migrations. Sugar plantations initiated this trade and, for the first 100 years, absorbed most of the arriving slaves. Historians estimate that West Indian and Brazilian sugar plantations were directly responsible for the importation of some 3 million West African slaves.
The decline of slavery in the early 1800s coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with a technological revolution in the sugar industry. Many large mills were already using steam to power banks of heavy iron rollers that pressed sugarcane more efficiently than the earlier stone rollers powered by waterwheels. In 1813, the invention of vacuum boiling pans made crystallizing raw sugar faster and less energy- intensive.
By 1837, newly developed centrifugal separators, rapidly spinning iron vats with porous sides, were speeding the separation of molasses from raw sugar. In 1845 Norbert Rillieux (1806--1894), son of a wealthy, white New Orleans plantation owner and his black slave, invented the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator, which allowed a single vacuum pump to simultaneously and inexpensively accelerate evaporation in connected banks of vacuum pans.
The supply of sugar increased rapidly during the 1800s, due to the growing efficiency of sugarcane plantations and the cultivation of sugar beets, a root crop grown in temperate climates. By the 1870s, beet sugar, which is identical to cane sugar, was substantially supplementing sugar supplies in continental Europe and the United States. In 1874, facing overproduction on its West Indies plantations, Britain finally dropped its high tax on sugar, inducing a drop in sugar's domestic price and a sharp increase in domestic consumption.
By the mid-1880s, despite rapidly increasing consumption in Europe and the United States, the world faced a massive oversupply of refined sugar. As prices plummeted, sugar finally became affordable for everyone from low-income families to commercial food processors, triggering a radical change in dietary patterns.
The Industrial Revolution geared many products, including foods, to mass production. Successful marketing of mass-produced foods demanded products that were universally desirable and capable of overcoming strong, regional taste preferences. Sweetness was the only taste that could convince consumers that the new, mass-produced, branded, and nationally marketed food products were as enjoyable or even more so than their traditional fare.
Coinciding precisely with the sharp decline in sugar prices, Coca-Cola appeared in 1886, followed by Log Cabin syrup. Over the next two decades came a host of branded soft drinks, candies, cookies, and desserts, among them Tootsie Roll, Jell-O, Royal Crown Cola, Hershey's chocolate, and Fig Newton and Oreo cookies, all relying heavily on refined sugar to win over consumers.
By 1900, refined sugar had replaced molasses as the preferred kitchen sweetener in the United States and Europe. Previously, shopkeepers had sold sugar by scooping it from barrels. Now consumers could conveniently select clean, individual cartons of sugar in a variety of forms: fine or coarse white crystals, powdered for confectionary use, and even brown, with the rich taste of added molasses.
As authorities touted--erroneously--its purported medicinal and nutritional benefits, sugar became a standard ingredient in commercial and home baking, the sweetener for most beverages, and the biggest component of jams, jellies, and many desserts. Meanwhile, commercial food processors and canners began adding sugar to many products, using its sweetness to smooth taste and remove bitterness.
Once a luxury sweetener, sugar had become a dietary necessity. Between 1900 and 1930, annual per capita consumption of sugar in the United States tripled from an estimated 5 to 15 pounds.
How sweet it is
When sugar first arrived in Britain in quantity in the late 1500s, the incidence of tooth decay soared among the wealthy. The teeth of Queen Elizabeth I (1533--1603), who sugared almost everything she ate, grew black with decay, due to sugar's contribution to dental caries and the era's poor oral hygiene. Dental caries occur when bacteria on the teeth digest fermentable carbohydrates such as sucrose, producing lactic acid that demineralizes the surface tooth enamel and the underlying dentine. Paralleling the experience of Elizabethan Britain, the incidence of dental caries increased sharply in the United States between 1900 and 1930.
Although sucrose is hardly the sole culprit, dental caries have increased steadily along with sugar consumption. Today, half the estimated $20 billion spent annually in the United States on dental care is used to treat dental caries.
Increasing sugar consumption has also triggered a heated debate among nutrition experts. In 1942, the American Medical Association, noting that sweetened carbonated beverages, candy, and other foods rich in sugar but poor in nutrients were displacing more nutritious foods from the diet, urged limited consumption of sweetened foods. Later, medical authorities blamed high sugar consumption for an array of health problems ranging from obesity and hyperactivity in children to kidney stones, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Today, authorities such as Marion Nestle, a molecular biologist and chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, continue to link sugar to many ailments. Yet other agencies and groups, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Dietetic Association, find no evidence to tie current sugar- consumption levels to any disease other than dental caries.
The ongoing debate has not slowed the rise in per capita sugar consumption. Today, the average American consumes 64 pounds of cane sugar, beet sugar, and corn sweeteners each year, 10 times the level of sweetener consumption in 1900 and a 28 percent increase since 1980. Cane sugar now accounts for only 20 pounds of that average consumption.
Despite increasing production of beet sugar and corn sweeteners, sugarcane remains the basis of a huge global industry. Sugarcane is grown in 98 nations throughout the tropics and subtropics, where sugarcane fields cover more than 30,000 square miles of land--an area equal to that of the entire state of South Carolina. Sugarcane is one of the most labor-intensive of all crops, with most of the annual world harvest of one billion tons still cut by hand because much sucrose is lost in the wastage of mechanical cutting. Even today, much of the Florida sugar cane crop is cut by Jamaican laborers working in the United States under a bracero program.
In India, the world's largest cultivator of sugarcane with 180 million tons per year, some eight million individuals, mostly small farmers and cane cutters, depend upon sugarcane for their livelihoods. Other major sugarcane-producing nations are China, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and South Africa. In the United States, sugarcane is cultivated in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Hawaii. Worldwide, the business of milling cane and cultivating specially developed, high-yield sugarcane varieties employs tens of millions of individuals.
In modern sugar mills, cane is crushed and shredded by as many as a dozen toothed, steel rollers under a continuous spray of hot water to help extract the cane juice, which is boiled and then treated with lime to remove unwanted organic impurities. Finally, the cane juice is bleached with sulfur dioxide before being passed through filter presses.
Most mills now rely on a single, efficient crystallization. Under a partial vacuum, the clarified cane juice is boiled and rapidly evaporated until it forms massecuite, a dense mass of thick syrup and crystals of raw sugar. The massecuite is then placed in steel centrifuges that spin at 1,500 revolutions per minute, cleanly separating the molasses from the raw sugar.
Molasses production varies with the market price of sugar. When sugar prices are high, more sucrose is extracted in second boilings to produce lesser amounts of heavier, blackstrap grades of molasses. If sugar prices are low, mills produce larger quantities of lighter grades of sweeter molasses. Some molasses goes to manufacture ethyl alcohol, rum, table syrup, and food flavorings, but most, because of its significant levels of proteins and minerals, becomes a nutritious component of animal feeds.
Improvements in transportation and packaging have shifted the ground toward conditions favoring the siting of sugar-refining facilities close to the sugar mill. Already, some modern sugar mills have their own refining facilities, which dissolve, clarify, and decolorize raw sugar, then recrystallize it into crystals of desired size ready for marketing.
Each year, the world's sugar refineries turn out some 100 million tons of refined cane sugar. That amounts to about 32 pounds for every person alive in the world today, enough to make the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of cane sugar and cane molasses a $30 billon per year industry.
Although a luxury item for centuries, sugar today is eminently affordable. As a commodity, raw sugar is worth 10 cents per pound, and the supermarket price for refined sugar is usually less than 40 cents per pound.
Sugarcane still provides 65 percent of the world's refined sugar, with sugar beets accounting for the remainder. While sugar beets and corn now compete to sweeten the global palate, neither can match sugarcane's remarkable historical, cultural, social, and dietary impacts. Beet sugar and corn sweeteners would not be the market forces they are today if sugarcane had not turned the world on to sweetness. Sugarcane, that giant member of the grass family, is truly a plant that changed the world.n
On the Internet
Additional Reading:American Society of Sugar Cane Technologists
American Sugar Alliance
Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida
Steve Voynick is a freelance writer residing in Twin Lakes, Colorado.
Lauren Derby, assistant professor in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles, reviewed the article for accuracy.
Voynick, Steve. "The Honey Reed's Bittersweet Legacy." World and I Nov. 2002: 144. Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A94142659
Thursday, December 31, 2009
Sugarcane's history, involving war, trade, colonization, slavery, diet, and disease, paved the way for today's massive production and widespread use of sweeteners.