For thousands of years, humans have loved sweet tastes. Long before sugar was discovered, our ancestors ate wild honey and dates. Nowadays, the best known and most spread two sugar crops are sugarcane and sugar beet. Although the production process differs, the white table sugar – crystallized sucrose – of both sources is the same from a chemical perspective. Sucrose is made up by fructose (also known as fruit sugar) and glucose (also known as dextrose or grape sugar). Naturally it is found for example in sugar maple sap, honey and dates, but in lower concentration.
In the following basic information about important sugar sources will be presented.
It is believed that sugarcane was already used more than 10,000 years ago in Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean as construction material, as medicine, in religious practices as well as for chewing the sweet liquid. From here it spread to India, where it was first discovered around 510 BC by the Persians who referred to it as “reed that gives honey without bees” and about 200 years later by Alexander the Great when he invaded India. By this it got to Greece and then eventually spread around the world. At the beginning it was extremely expensive, wherefore it was also called “white gold”. Only with the increasing production over time it became affordable for everyone.
Sugarcane is a tall, strong-growing grass of the genus Saccarum, principally found and cultivated in subtropical and tropical areas. The plant is mainly grown for its juice from which sugar is processed, but can also be used for biofuel, rum, cachaça or molasses production. A sugarcane plant generally consists of a bunch of stalks with heights between 2 and 7 meters and has an external appearance similar to bamboo. The stalks are rich in the sugar sucrose, which can either be fermented to generate ethanol or serves as raw material for the food industry. Major sugarcane producers are Brazil, India, China, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico.
Since the times of ancient Egypt, sugar beet was grown for food, fodder, and medical use. Only much later, in 1747, it was identified by the German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, that sugar beet also represents a source of sugar. After Napoleon got interested in the process, the business grew rapidly and by 1880 sugar beet became the principal sugar source in Europe. However, the world market is still nowadays dominated by sugarcane.
Sugar beet is a cultivar of the Beta Vulgaris species and member of the amaranth family. The root and the fibre roots grow mainly underground, so that from above generally only green leafs can be seen. This root crop flourishes mainly in the temperate zones of the world and contains a high concentration of sucrose in its roots. Besides it main purpose as source for processed sugar, it is also applied to make alcoholic beverages, sugary syrup or molasses. As top sugar beet producing countries are ranked Russia, France, United States, Germany, Turkey, China, Ukraine and Poland.
History shows that honey as a sweetener has been used already thousands of years ago. While people before gathered honey from wild hives, first traces for domesticated beehives were found with the Egyptians. They as well as later the Greeks and the Romans used honey for instance for baking cakes that were used as offering to the gods, as sweetener in food and beverages, for furniture polishes or as healing medicine and for covering wounds, due to its antiseptic qualities. Later, with the raising importance of Christianity, honey and beeswax were highly demanded to produce church candles. In ancient times, honey was not only considered as food of the gods, but also as symbol of health, happiness and wealth. How appreciated and valued it was in these times is shown by calling Israel “a land flowing with milk and honey” in the Old Testament or describing mead – an alcoholic beverage from fermenting honey in water – as the “nectar of the gods”. Even today, honey is called from time to time “liquid gold”.
Honey is a natural, organic sugar that is free of additives and has an eternal shelf life if stored correctly. It consists predominately of the sugars fructose and glucose, followed by water as third component, and additionally in small quantities pollen, sucrose, maltose, wax and mineral salts. Worldwide around 20,000 bee species can be found, yet, only seven are known as honey bees and belong to the genus Apis. First, the female worker bees collect with their trunks honeydew (for example of conifers) and sweet nectar from flowers, and then transport it back to the beehive in their so-called honey grove. This stomach contains a special enzyme that breaks sucrose into glucose and fructose. Inside the beehive, the nectar is passed from bee to bee, whereby the water content is constantly reduced by the added enzymes. The drying process is supported by bearing in the hexagonal honeycombs, fast blade flaps and pressing. It was found that for obtaining one pound of honey, honeybees tap over two million flowers and cover a distance of up to 120,000 km that would be equal to flying three times around the world. During its lifetime (about six weeks during honey production season, otherwise four to eight month) an average worker bee will just make about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey (seasonal).
Honey for sure is a valuable gift from bees to humans. Yet, even more important is the vital role that bees play in maintaining our planet’s ecosystems. They pollinate about a third of our daily food and it was investigated that nearly 84 % of the crops cultivated for human consumption, like many vegetables, fruits, nuts, sunflowers, rapeseeds, tea, cocoa beans or coffee, depend on bees or other insects. Sadly, in the last years these remarkable animals are disappearing globally, because of inter alia habitat loss, parasites, pesticides or disease.
Fruits as source for fruit sugar (fructose)
The primary sugar in fruits is fructose, the sweetest sugar of all sugars and sometimes also called fruit sugar. Apart from this, fruits contain fiber, water and other beneficial nutrients. Fruits with high sugar content are figs, grapes, litchis, mangoes, pomegranates and cherries. Next to tree fruits and berries, fructose is also found in flowers, root vegetables or honey. Commercially it is generally derived from sugar beets, sugarcane and maize. Dietary sources of fructose are foods as table sugar, honey, maple syrup, fruit and fruit juice.
Sometimes, the term grape sugar can be read in the ingredient list of candies. Although one might automatically link this to fruit sugar, this association is wrong, because the chemical structure of glucose and fructose is similar but not the same. The reason for the name is that at the beginning of 19th century, the French chemist Joseph Louis Proust extracted sugar from grapes and demonstrated that it differed from that one contained in sugarcane. Consequently, he called it grape sugar, which was later named glucose. This sugar type is also found in other fruits, but these days it is normally commercially produced from maize, potatoes, or wheat that are high in carbohydrates. Glucose and glucose syrup are common ingredients of candies.