What would we do without sugar? It would be an exaggeration to say that the world would come to a stop, but many a diet would need to be changed dramatically if sugar were to disappear. Yes, today in most parts of the world, sugar intake has become part of daily life, making sugar production a worldwide industry.

Millions of people, from Cuba to India and from Brazil to Africa, grow and harvest sugarcane. In fact, at one time sugar production reigned supreme as the world’s largest and most lucrative industry.  It could be said that sugarcane has molded the world in a way that few other plants have.

Sugar production is a world wide endeavor.


What is Sugar?


Sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable.  It is a major product of photosynthesis, the process by which plants transform the sun’s energy into food.  Sugar occurs in greatest quantities in sugarcane and sugarbeets from which it is separated for commercial use.


During the refining process, the natural sugar that is stored in the cane stalk or beet root is separated from the rest of the plant material.  For sugarcane, this is accomplished by


a)      Grinding the cane to extract the juice;

b)      Boiling the juice until the syrup thickens and crystallizes;

c)      Spinning the crystals in a centrifuge to produce raw sugar;

d)     Shipping the raw sugar to a refinery where it is

e)      Washed and filtered to remove remaining nonsugar ingredients and color;

f)       And crystallized, dried and packaged.


Beet sugar processing is similar, but it is normally done in one continuous process without the raw sugar stage.  The sugar beets are washed, sliced and soaked in hot water to separate the sugar-containing juice from the beet fiber.  The sugar-laden juice is purified, filtered, concentrated and dried in a series of steps similar to sugar-cane processing.


Home and Industrial Use


Sugar deliveries in the United States are divided between industrial use – sugar used by industry in the manufacture of processed products—and sugar used in the home as well as in restaurants and institutions.  Non-food uses account for a small portion of total sugar disappearance. (“Disappearance” refers to the total amount of sugar delivered into the food supply.  Sugar disappearance is considerably greater than actual consumption, since waste and other losses are not accounted for.)


Changing lifestyles over the last 50 years have brought about a major change in the way we use sugar.  Today’s consumer relies more on the food industry and less on the home kitchen for meals and snacks.  Much of the sugar that the homemaker once used for home-made breads, cookies, jams, sauces and salad dressings is now used in the variety of packaged foods that the consumer takes home form the supermarket.


In 1925, consumer use accounted for about two-thirds of total sugar disappearance, while one-third was used by industry in food manufacture. Today, those proportions are reversed.  The food industry uses about 66 percent of total sugar deliveries, and direct household use has declined to about 34 percent


Properties of Sugar


Sugar has always been prized for its ability to make foods taste better.  Yet it has many important attributes, in addition to sweetness, that make it invaluable to both food manufacturer and homemaker.  Flavor, aroma, texture, color, body add to its uniqueness. Other properties include: Solubility, Boiling Point Rise, Freezing Point Depression, Preservative, Hydrolysis, Caramelization, Browning and Yeast Fermentation.


Sugar is used for its flavor, used in baking, icings and filings, in cereals, in confectionery, in dairy products, preserves and jellies, in processed foods and beverages.


Sugar and Other Sweeteners


When it comes to home cooking, granulated sugar (sucrose) if the sweetener that consumers know and trust.  In the food industry, too, sugar is considered the “gold standard.”  That is, when alternative sweeteners are included in the formulation of a product, its quality is measured against the sugar-sweetened version.  The food manufacturer today has a variety of nutritive sweeteners available, and the choice and amount usually depend on factors sugar as differences in technical properties as well as cost.  Available sweeteners, in addition to granulated sugar, include:

  • Invert Sugar – When sucrose is acted on by acids or enzymes, it combines with water and is broken down into equal parts of its component sugars—glucose (dextrose) and fructose.  Invert sugar is used by the confectionery industry to control sucrose crystallization and performs many other functions in food manufacture.
  • Corn Syrup—Corn syrup is produced from refined corn starch, using acid or enzymes to break down the starch molecules into dextrose and other saccharides.  Corn syrup is less sweet than sucrose.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – High fructose corn syrup is made by treating dextrose from corn with enzymes.  The result, HFCS, is a liquid mixture of dextrose and fructose that is used by manufactures in soft drinks, canned fruits, jams and other food applications.



Non-Food Uses of Sugar


The physical and chemical properties that make sugar such a versatile ingredient in food preparation also make it an exceptionally functional substance for non-food applications. Some of its applications and potential uses include: pharmaceuticals, wound-healing, fermentation products and Sucrochemistry.


-Pharmaceuticals –      Sugar is valued in cough syrups and other liquid preparations for its solubility and bodying effects.  In tablets sugar functions as a diluent to control concentration of active ingredients and as a binder to hold ingredients together.  Sugar coatings are used to protect tablets from chipping.

Sugar also has a role in “time-release’ preparations that are made up of layers of active and inactive ingredients.  Sugar crystals are used as a base for depositing active ingredients.  In this type of preparation, interlayers of active and inactive ingredients alternate, allowing the use of more than one active ingredient and providing the ability to control the sequence and time for release of the medication.


-Fermentation Products—Sugar readily reacts with a number of other substances to produce a variety of products by fermentation.  One example is ethanol which in some countries is produced from sugarcane.


-Sucrochemistry–        This term is applied to scientific efforts to produce new and useful compounds by manipulating the sucrose molecule and combining it with other substances.  For example, sugar esters, particularly combinations of sucrose with fatty acids, are well suited for use in surface coatings, detergents and paints.  Sugar ester detergents are reported to be excellent in cleaning dirt, agricultural chemicals and bacteria from fruits and vegetables.  Mono- and polyesters of sugar are reported to have desirable properties for use in various cosmetics.




Sugar is used to slow down the setting of cement.


The glue industry uses sugar as an extender and as a vehicle to slow the setting process.


Sugar plays a role in leather tanning; in the manufacture of paper ink and dyes; in textile sizing and finishing.


You can prolong the vase file of cut flowers by adding 1% sugar to the water.  When flowers are developing and growing, sugars are accumulated and utilized by the petals.  For cut flowers, sugar can be absorbed through the stem and transported to the petals where it is metabolized.


Sugar has become and still is a wondrous product and very versatile in its changing economic usefulness and in its production process.