Sugar: An Origin Story


Sugar, the common hidden ninja in most of our daily foods. Where did it come from? How did it get here? In this series, we will find out.

Sugar – An Origin StorySugar is present in much of the natural world, honey, maple syrup, saps and even sweet potatoes. What we know as sugar (or granulated sugar) is a refined form of sugar. That means that humans have taken a plant that contains sugar (from sugar cane or sugar beets commonly) and extracted the sugar that within it.

Figuring out how to to do it took thousands of years, and we can still see remnants of each step in getting our white sparkly sugar today.

Step 1 – Sugar cane (or beets) are grown in the fields by farmers. When they are ready, they are harvested. At this point, the clock is on to race to extract the sugar before the plants go off.

Step 2 – The juice are (literally) squeezed out of them. Out of which comes a greenish, sticky liquid that resembles a really thin spinach smoothie – yum!

Step 3 – The juice are then treated with milk of lime (no, not the stuff from the green fruit) and carbon dioxide. This makes other bad bits in the juice, that are too small for a physical sieve, to clump together. Then it is put through giant sieve to get a clear juice.

Step 4 – The clear juice is then reduced down to a thick sauce by boiling.

Step 5 – The sauce a la sugar is then left to grow sugar crystals. At which point raw sugar emerges (this is not your supermarket “raw sugar”, for that see below). The sugar crystals are scooped up. The left over gooey mess is what is known as molasses.

Step 6 – The raw sugar then goes through a further wash, spinning, clarifying and filtering to get the remaining molasses off the surface of the crystals, (a bit like a bath and a buff). The resulting clear liquid will go through crystallisation again to get us the white sparkly powder we see on shop shelves.

There are many sugars available now that do not go through step 6, go through a light version of it. There are only definitions for white sugar and icing within the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards. So the key is to read the packaging and understand where the product comes from and how its made.

Next up in the series: Sugar, Where are they now?

Brown Sugar's Secret History

Standard brown/raw sugar are actually refined white sugar with molasses added back in. When I asked a staff at a sugar refinery why would they go into the trouble of the extra step, they said that is to ensure the level of taste and colour is consistent. This is so that a bag of brown sugar does not sit next to the shelf to another bag where it may be lighter due to the natural varying content of sugar cane/beets that had been used to make them.

Make you own Brown Sugar

Brown sugar are actually white sugar and molasses added together. You can make your own. Grab some white sugar and add teaspoons of molasses to it until it reaches the colour and taste that you want. Once you work out your own favourite recipe you can use it in most recipes that calls for brown sugar.

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