Where Does Sugar Come From?
Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose, and galactose. The “table sugar” or “granulated sugar” most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. Sugar is used in prepared foods (e.g., cookies and cakes) and is added to some foods and beverages (e.g., coffee and tea).
In the body, sucrose is hydrolysed into the simple sugars fructose and glucose. Other disaccharides include maltose from malted grain, and lactose from milk. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides or polysaccharides. Some other chemical substances, such as glycerol and sugar alcohols may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Diet food substitutes for sugar include aspartame and sucralose, a chlorinated derivative of sucrose.
All plants produce sugar, but the main sources of commercial sugar are sugarcane, a type of grass plant grown in tropical and subtropical regions, and sugar beet, a root crop grown in temperate areas. Sugar is found in the tissues of these plants in sufficient concentrations for efficient commercial extraction.
In 2017–18, the world production of sugar was 185 million tonnes. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms (53 lb) of sugar each year (33.1 kg in developed countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person per day. Each person in the USA uses, on average, about 41 kg (90 lb) of sugar a year. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health.
Over-consumption of sugar has been implicated in the occurrence of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume or are largely free of any sugar consumption.
Sugar has been produced in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times and spread from there into modern-day Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. It was not plentiful or cheap in early times and honey was more often used for sweetening in most parts of the world. Originally, people chewed raw sugarcane to extract its sweetness. Sugarcane was a native of tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Different species seem to have originated from different locations with Saccharum barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea. One of the earliest historical references to sugarcane is in Chinese manuscripts dating back to 8th century BC that state that the use of sugarcane originated in India.
In the tradition of Indian medicine (āyurveda), the sugarcane is known by the name Ikṣu and the sugarcane juice is known as Phāṇita. Its varieties, synonyms and characterics are defined in nighaṇṭus such as the Bhāvaprakāśa (1.6.23, group of sugarcanes).
The Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides in the 1st century CE described sugar in his medical treatise De Materia Medica, and Pliny the Elder, a 1st-century CE Roman, described sugar in his Natural History: “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.”
Sugar was found in Europe by the 1st century CE. Sugar remained relatively unimportant until the Indians discovered methods of turning sugarcane juice into granulated crystals that were easier to store and to transport. Crystallized sugar was discovered by the time of the Imperial Guptas, around the 5th century CE.
In the local Indian language, these crystals were called khanda, which is the source of the word candy. Indian sailors, who carried clarified butter and sugar as supplies, introduced knowledge of sugar on the various trade routes they travelled.
Buddhist monks, as they travelled around, brought sugar crystallization methods to China. During the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647) in North India, Indian envoys in Tang China taught methods of cultivating sugarcane after Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626–649) made known his interest in sugar.
China then established its first sugarcane plantations in the seventh century. Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 CE, to obtain technology for sugar refining. In South Asia, the Middle East and China, sugar became a staple of cooking and desserts.
Crusaders brought sugar home with them to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying “sweet salt”. Early in the 12th century, Venice acquired some villages near Tyre and set up estates to produce sugar for export to Europe, where it supplemented honey, which had previously been the only available sweetener.
Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as “very necessary for the use and health of mankind”. In the 15th century, Venice was the chief sugar refining and distribution centre in Europe.