The History and Origin of Sugar

December 20, 2019


An old drawing of a sugarcane plant

Present in 74% of foods sold in supermarkets, sugar is such a fundamental ingredient in almost everything we eat that it’s hard to imagine what people ate before the discovery of sugar. Flavourless porridge comes to mind. But what are the origins of sugar? When was sugar made? To whom do we owe a knighthood for the discovery of this delicious ingredient?

Where does sugar come from?

Sugarcane, or Saccharum officinarum is thought to have been first domesticated by the Papuans in around 8000 BCE. This ancient civilisation was thought to have simply chewed the cane raw.

Sugar was spread and cultivated by the Austronesian peoples across Island South East Asia, before reaching China and India around 3000 BCE.

It is thought that sugar remained an Asian secret for a long time, but records from the ancient Greeks and Romans would suggest that sugarcane was used in medicine (despite their acknowledgement of its pleasant taste). In 327 BCE Nearchus, a general in the Greek army wrote: ‘There is a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made, though the plant bears no fruit.’ Only a small amount of sugarcane was brought back from Alexander’s conquest in India and traded to physicians. The Romans recorded the first crystallised form of sugarcane, as Pliny the Elder writes: ‘Sugar is made in Arabia as well, but Indian sugar is better. It is a kind of honey found in cane, white as gum, and it crunches between the teeth. It comes in lumps the size of a hazelnut. Sugar is used only for medical purposes.’

When was sugar discovered?

In around 350 AD, the Indians discovered how to crystallise sugar. They decided to share their secret as travelling Buddhist Monks brought their crystallisation methods to China, and taught Emperor Taizong of Tang how to cultivate sugarcane. By 650 AD, crystallised sugar became a culinary staple across India, China, and the Middle East. The Middle East? Did you say Middle East?

Discovery of Sugar

The Middle East hosted one of the most important seminars the world has ever seen. At the Iranian university, Jundi Shapur, Greek, Christian, Jewish and Persian scholars gathered in around 600 A.D. and wrote about a powerful Indian medicine, and how to crystallise it. Arab entrepreneurs then adopted these techniques and expanded the production of sugar cane across Southern Europe and North Africa around 850 AD. This included setting up large plantations with mills and refineries, and included artificial irrigation systems so as to replicate the tropical climate that is native to the sugar cane plant.

The rest of Europe imported sugar from the Arab world, not only for medicinal purposes, but also as a delicacy when combined with almonds: Marzipan. Sugar in the form of confectionary was only initially consumed by Europe’s most wealthy, with William of Tyre describing it as ‘a most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind’. Tyre was writing in the 12th century during the crusades, as crusaders brought sugar home with them back from the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans containing ‘sweet salt’. Sugar reached England in the 13th century.

A new cane press was invented in 1390 which doubled the quantity of juice that each cane could produce. This sparked an economic expansion of the sugar trade, spearheaded by the island of Madeira. Madeira was incredibly accessible by sea, and offered cheaper sugar than the existing European monopolies. The cane was grown in Madeira before being shipped to Antwerp to be refined and distributed. By the late 15th century, Madeira had become Europe’s largest producer of sugarcane.

Origin of Sugar Trade

Sugarcane reached the ‘New World’ when Christopher Columbus sailed to Hispañola, which is modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island set up mills and refineries, and by 1516, it was the New World’s largest producer of sugar. Meanwhile, in 1501, Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral landed in Brazil by accident, and established several sugar plantations. He left Portuguese workers there to run the production of the sugar, and they invented new mill designs and new refinery methods. It wasn’t long before Brazil was producing much more sugar than they could handle.

The need for labour was met by the transatlantic slave trade, which involved 12,570,000 people being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867, for the purpose of facilitating the cultivation of sugarcane. To amplify the problem, coffee, chocolate and tea started being transported to Europe, increasing the demand for sugar and therefore the need for labour, fuelling the abominable slave trade. Britain and the USA abolished slavery when the overproduction of sugar started to make the practice less profitable. Brazil was the last nation to abolish the use of slaves on plantations in 1888.

Sugar naturally spread across South America, and soon, due to its flat terrain and tropical conditions, Cuba rose to become the largest producer of sugarcane in the world. The Cubans adopted modern milling methods, using watermills, steam engines, and vacuum pans. This increased productivity and helped Cuba achieve a rapid production rate.

Sugar Beet

While all the commotion about new technologies and the despicable slave trade was happening across the pond, Andrea s. Margraff discovered that sugar can also be derived from beet root. His student, Franz Carl Achard, then took his professor’s idea and became the first person to extract the sugar for a commercial purpose. The sugar beet industry boomed during the Napoleonic Wars, however as the wars finished, the cheap, slavery-sourced sugar from the Caribbean was regrettably imported throughout Europe once again.

It wasn’t until slavery had almost come to its end, and Vilmorin, a French seed company created a beet that was specifically designed to produce sugar, that European governments began enacting policies to promote beet sugar rather than cane sugar. Sugar beet made it to America in 1838, and commercial beet production began in 1870. The sugar beet industry then expanded throughout the 20th century.

Sugar Production in the 20th Century

During this period, sugar production increased and prices fell. To combat this, sugar producers used scale of production to deliver greater efficiency. For example, leaders of the 8 major sugar producers in the USA formed the American Sugar Trust. The group begin acquiring more companies and become the American Sugar Refining Company. By 1907, after the creation of their Domino Sugar brand, the company was responsible for the majority of US production.

It wasn’t until 1942 that word got round of sugar’s detrimental health effects. Studies undertaken in 1966 concerning the relation between sugar and diabetes ignited discussions about alternative sweeteners. This led to corn syrup being introduced in 1967 and, in the late 1970’s, aspartame started to be used in diet coke.

Sugar still represents a significant health concern globally. The cry out for non-artificial and healthy sweeteners is loud and pertinent, yet there is no non-artificial substitute that can carry quite the same flavour as sugar. Similarly, artificial alternatives do not carry the same health benefits that sugar was first cultivated for. Currently, there are 170 million metric tons of sugar produced annually, with the market unsurprisingly still dominated by Brazil.

If you’re interested in the different types of sugar, or where it’s grown then you can explore further in our guide ‘what is sugar‘ to find out more.

Author: Hugo Rook

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