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Sugar (C12H22011) is the common name for saccharose  disaccharide, organic compound of carbohydrates which is the most common glucide.  The term “sugar” is sometimes used to refer to glucides in general or carbon hydrate. It is mainly used as food and it is easily assimilated providing about 17 KJs (4 calories) per gram. It is extracted from sugar beet and sugar cane. It is the product of a process by which raw sugar, characterized by yellowish crystals, is extracted; subsequently refining  provides white sugar.


Its history: spreading in Europe


Cane sugar was the first and the only kind of sugar known for many centuries. People from Polynesia are thought to have taken it to China and India. There in 510 B.C. Persians found plantations of a vegetable from which very sweet, thick juice was taken. If dried, it produced long-lasting crystals with strong energetic qualities. They took it with them and spread its cultivation to the Middle East.

In 325 B.C. Alexander the Great revealed that in Eastern countries people had a sort of “honey produced without bees”.

The Arabs, who had been using it since the 6thcentury A.D., spread its cultivation in their territories. The word sugar originates from the Arab word “sukkar”.

In the 11th century Crusaders brought sugar home with them from their campaigns in the Holy Land where they had met caravans carrying “Arab salt”.

Frederick II from Swabia had sugarcane grown in Sicilia (the Arabs had taken it there), but for a long time sugar remained rare, precious and very expensive; it was sold by chemists as a medicine.

Only the rich could afford to use it for sweetening drinks or food and even honey was not so common among people.

After 1492 the Spanish took sugarcane to Cuba and Mexico, the Portuguese took it to Brazil and English and French took it to the Antilles: still nowadays all those countries produce most of it.

As sugar coming from America was better and less expensive, plantations in Italy and Spain disappeared.

Import trade grew flourishing and sugar became more common even if it was still a luxury. This promoted culinary art and in Europe pastry making developed thanks to the union of sugar with cocoa, milk and coffee.

In 1575 the French agronomist Olivier de Serres noticed that beet (Beta vulgaris), a very common vegetable, mainly used as animal feed, if it was cooked, could give very sweet juice like the one produced by sugarcane. Nobody took advantage of that discovery at the time and for longer than one century cane sugar still remained the only sweetener.

Between 1640 and 1750 sugar consumption became three timesas much and boosted slave trade who were captured in Africa and taken to plantations for working.

When Napoleon came to the power, contrasts between England and France increased and English imports were stopped  (Berlin Decree, 1806). Cane sugar disappeared as the English reacted confiscating the ships it was carried by; later on they obliged them to stop at English harbours and pay elevated taxes on their cargo.

Pushed by need, people started looking for an alternative: in 1747 the German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf had proved the presence of saccharose in beets and some decades later one of his students,  Franz Karl Archard, devised an industrial process to extract sugar from that vegetable and the first sugar mill was born in Silesia in 1802.

Napoleon encouraged the production of beet sugar in all territories under his control and soon refineries were opened in France where some technical improvements to the original mill were introduced by Benjamin Delessert.

After Vienna Congress cane sugar was reintroduced but beet sugar spreading didn’t stop as it was cheaper  and more and more people could afford it: European food habits had started to change.


Manufacturing and Trade


As shown in 2005 by the American Agriculture Department, sugar main producing countries are:

  • for beet sugar: EU (21.6 million tons), the USA (4.0 million tons), Russia (2.5 million tons) and Ukraine (1.85 million tons).
  •  for cane sugar: Brazil (27.1 million tons), India (20.3 million tons), China (8.7 million tons), Mexico (5.6 million tons), Australia (5.3 million tons) and Thailand (4.8 million tons).

Brazil massively increased its production: from 2.23% average rate a year (1960-1990) to 8.1% (1990-2006). Europe just produces 288,000 tons of cane sugar and the USA 2.8 million tons.

International trade is fairly good: import and export together almost amount to 65% of whole production. Main exporting countries are Brazil (17 million tons), Europe (7.2 million tons), Australia (4.3 million tons) and Thailand (2.9 million tons). The USA import 2.8 million tons and only export 159,000 tons.

In 2002 an international dispute about sugar was born: Australia, Brazil and Thailand protested with World Trade Organization against support Europe had given its producers granting them the possibility to sell their product at prices below prime cost. The Organization recognized that claim was rightful, but no solution has been given yet.


Sugar as foodstuff


In Italy per head consumption amounts to about kg. 24 sugar every year, less than in the rest of Europe where “per capita” consumption amounts to about kg. 32.

According to the World Health Organization, an excessive consumption of sugar is responsible for:

  • Tooth decay
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

They advise not to add sugar to foodstuffs containing carbohydrates: bread, fruit, pasta and milk provide enough sugar for the average daily intake of an adult which, as nutritionists say, amounts to about gr. 90. Such a quantity is normally provided by what people eat every day.

If too much simple sugar is supplied, it leads to the formation of fats in tissues; therefore it is better to supply the necessary quantity as complex sugars which the organism can burn in small quantities according to its needs.




There are several, both natural and synthetic, alternatives to sugar.

The main natural one is no doubt honey which has been used since the dark ages, as well as syrups derived from trees such as maple or cereals and fruit which mainly contain fructose.

Synthetic sweeteners are xylitol and sorbitol; they are naturally derived and are suitable for people suffering from diabetes.

Totally artificial is acesulfame potassium.

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