Types of Sugar

Sugar Facts

Sugar, according to the dictionary, is any sweet-flavored substance used as food.  Classified as a form of carbohydrates, it is composed hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. Chemically speaking, there are two types – the monosaccharide and disaccharide.

Also called simple sugars, monosaccharide has three kinds: fructose, glucose and galactose.  Fructose, also known as fruit sugars, is naturally produced by fruits, honey, cane and some root vegetables. It is considered as the sweetest of all sugars. Glucose, also called grape sugar or dextrose, is a primary product of photosynthesis in plant juices and fruits. During digestion, all carbohydrates taken will turn into glucose and then transported into the bloodstream in the body of animals (including humans). Galactose is a combination of lactose (a disaccharide known as milk sugar) and glucose. It is commonly found in antigens on the red blood cells’ surface that classify blood groups. It is also less sweet than glucose.

Disaccharides include maltose, sucrose and lactose. Lactose (or milk sugar) is evidently found in milk and its bi-products. Upon consumption, the sugar is then broken down into small parts during digestion by the enzyme called lactase. Some adults, when they get older, has difficulty digesting lactose since production of lactase can become scarce compared to children.

The kind of sugar that is familiar to us and can be bought in stores or supermarkets are produced from two main sources – sugar beets or sugarcane. According to history, sugar was first used in the Indian subcontinent in ancient times based on the earliest recorded proof of existence that can be traced back in an 8th century BC Chinese manuscript. Production was not that big back then and therefore, sugar is considered very expensive. Honey was relatively cheap during those times and was subsequently used to sweeten food and drinks more than the crystalline sweetener. Since sugarcane is/was abundant in Southeast Asia and South Asia, the natives of countries located in these areas are seen chewing on sugarcane to extract the sweetness within.

The Indians were able to discover a method to extract the sugarcane juice and make it into granulated crystals so it was easier to use it for trade and for storage. The Buddhist monks learned how to make it and brought the crystallization method with them to China. Because of trade routes between countries in Asia, sugar became a staple ingredient in making desserts and sweet treats like chocolate, candy bars and other types of candy in China, Middle East and South Asia.

Its introduction to westerners was through sea voyage and trade routes as well. It was during the Crusades that Europeans intersected with Arabic culture and was therefore introduced to the new “spice” called sukkar, an Arabic word derived from the Sanskrit śarkarā. Because of its scarcity, it was only available to the royalty and wealthy. It wasn’t until the 17th century that this sweetener can be accessible to many people. When Columbus was about to set sail for his voyages in search of India, where most spices originated from, he carried several plants and was able to bring sugar to the Americas and the nearby islands.

So, how is sugar made?

From the grass family, sugarcane is considered to be one of the most common sources of sugar that grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions and requires a frost-free climate with enough rainfall to produce excellent crops. Harvesting sugarcane is done manually by hand or by the use of farming equipment or machinery. The stem produces juice that is extracted through diffusion or with water after milling. Then it will undergo clarification using lime and heating process to remove enzymes, resulting into thin concentrated syrup that in turn goes through evaporation process. Crystals will be formed and separate from the liquid part and strained. Sticky, brown colored crystals will be finished product. It can be used as is or go through the process of bleaching with sulphur dioxide or carbonization process to give it a white or semi-transparent color and refining. Molasses is a common bi-product of sugarcane and is sometimes used as a preservative and/or ingredient for some desserts and dishes common in Asian cuisine.

Another main source would be sugar beets, which are common in Northwestern Europe and some parts of America. Sugar beets are large, pale brown, tuberous root crops that closely resemble a parsnip and have high sucrose content. Harvesting is quite seasonal and thrived in temperate regions with enough rainfall to make sure crops are well watered and not become acidic. During autumn, sugar beets are harvested manually by hand or though farming equipment or machinery. Unlike sugarcane, they can survive without being processed for weeks and will not immediately turn bad. To process, each root is washed and sliced to start extraction through diffusion. Then, milk of lime will be added to the raw juice before starting the carbonization process to purify it. Under a vacuum, the juice will undergo the same evaporation process like in sugarcane. Crystalline substance will form thereafter as it will separate during centrifuge before drying. Refining is not needed unlike for sugarcane granules. Irish sugar from beets is famous for being flavored.

Sugar has many different forms. There are granulated, milled, screened, brown, liquid, invert, cubes, syrups, treacle, low-calorie sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and stevia), polyols or sugar alcohols, fruit sugar (done through wine-making and fermentation) and residual sugar (the sweet substance that accumulates at the bottom of a wine barrel or wine bottle that gives wine its sweet taste). Most of these forms are used in making jams, preserves, candy, chocolate candy bars, cakes, pastries and other confectionary products like licorice, toffees and caramels.

As of 2011, the major producers of sugar were Brazil, India, the European Union (several countries in Europe), China, Thailand, United States and Mexico, with Russia, Pakistan, Australia and other countries contributing to such a large industry. Currently, Brazil leads as the largest producer of sugar in the world and the largest importer is the European Union. American sugar mostly produced from sugarcane that is harvested from Hawaii, California or Florida.
Despite its sweetness, sugar has definitely changed the course of history. It has influenced the colonization of America and the nearby Caribbean islands as well as some countries in Asia. It has induced migration, political structure and wars.

Nowadays, an average person of any age can consume about twenty-four kilograms (fifty-three pounds) of sugar in a year and more if the person lives in metropolitan or highly industrialized area. With the rise in population, consumption will increase of about twenty-five kilograms per person in a year until 2015, as predicted by the Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO. India, because of its population density, led the list of top sugar consumers in the world as of 2012, which was followed by the European Union and China.

Even if it has been linked to several physical and psychological ailments like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, dental problems, dementia and muscular degeneration, the world still produces roughly around 160 tons annually. Why continue to produce something that can cause so much distress? It is because the chocolate industry, candy-making industry and dessert industry are closely tied with sugar. Millions of people all over the world also depend entirely in this sweet substance for their livelihood. Some countries even have sugar harvest deeply ingrained in their culture and history.