Posted in Kafevend Blog

After looking at milk and its role in our drinks, we thought it might be a good idea to look at some other staples that grace our cupboards and get brought out with the tea and coffee (and cocoa). Today then we are going to start examining sugar: what exactly it is and its history, and follow that up next week with a look at the present day attitudes concerning its effect on our health. So then, let's get started- just what is sugar?

There are various kinds of sugar, but they are all chemicals made and used by living things to store energy. As we saw last week, sugars can be found in milk- and it is those same sugars that can cause some folk grief. Of course, normally when we think of sugar we imagine the tiny crystalline granules we add to our drinks, recipes and so on. Whilst all plants contain some amount of sugar, it is mainly extracted from just a couple of plants- sugar cane and sugar beet, which contain high concentrations of a form of sugar called sucrose.

The exact date for the discovery and use of sugar cane is unknown, but seems to have arisen somewhere in south east Asia many thousands of years ago. At first, extracting the sugar from the plant would have been as simple as grabbing a bit and chewing on it- not terribly eloborate, but certainly effective. The first signs of an industrial process for extracting and creating crystalised sugar come from India in the early centuries C.E.

From India, this processed sugar spread eastwards into China and westwards into Persia. From Persia it carried on into the Middle East. The Arabs took sugar with them, and the knowledge of how to make it, into new areas they conquered. This same pattern was repeated by the crusaders who first brought word of it back to Europe when they returned home with a variety of exotic goods- for a time, sugar itself was considered a spice, given its rarity and strong taste.

Sugar beets were hit upon as a viable source of sugar much later than sugar cane. This discovery was made in Silesia, part of Prussia, back in the 18th century after the king subsidised experiments into sugar extraction processes. In 1747, a German chemist named Andreas Marggraf found sugar in beetroots, and that it could be extracted in much the same way as it was from sugar cane. A few other colleagues, including his student, examined various types of beet for the highest concentration of sugar. They eventually found and named the white Silesian sugar beet which had 6% sugar content- all modern sugar beets are descended from it.

The sugar beet was soon introduced to France, and Napoleon wasted no time in ordering vast tens of thousands of acres to be given over to growing it. At the time, France was being blockaded by Britain who were in the midst of the Napoleonic war. One of the goods stopped from reaching France was the sugar made from sugar cane. This scenario led to the creation and rapid growth of the European sugar beet industry which continues to this day- even Britain now produces sugar!

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