Sugar through the ages

Sweetness is something humans have always sought out. Cave paintings from 15,000 years ago show people collecting wild honey. The production of sugar from sugar cane also has a long history, but it wasn't until the 19th century that we started extracting sugar from sugar beet.

Bees and honey

Wild honey and sugar juice

Honey is the sweetener that has been used most in human history. In the Arona caves in Spain, 15,000-year-old cave paintings have been found, representing women collecting wild honey in the tree tops.

Sugar cane is a plant that requires a warm and humid climate and originates in the tropical parts of south and southwest Asia. Today's sugar cane can grow up to four feet high, but the original wild plant was considerably smaller. It is believed that there were crops in New Guinea as early as 6,000 BC.

At first, people chewed the sugar cane as it was, or they made freshly-squeezed sugar juice. The green beverage is still today a popular thirst quencher in many places where sugar cane is grown, preferably with a splash of lemon to balance the sweetness.

Sugar juice

White gold from the colonies

In 500 BC in India, techniques were developed to extract pure sugar from the sugar canes. In the 700s, the Arabs (the word sugar originated from the Arabian "sacks") brought sugar cane to the Mediterranean, and in the 1400s Columbus took sugar cane to the West Indies.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, most European countries had colonies in the southern hemisphere where sugar cane was grown. As a rule, the cane was processed into raw sugar on site on the plantation and then shipped to Europe for its final refinement into "the white gold". But, sugar was still very much a luxury only for the well-off.

Europe gets its own sugar
At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon blocked the trade routes across the seas, which made importing cane sugar into Europe difficult. Now, people began to search for a way to grow sugar in a colder climate.

In 1747, the German chemist Marggraf had shown that sugar, which was identical to that from sugar cane, could be extracted from fodder beet. His student, Franz Carl Achard, continued this work and, after finding a beet with a higher sugar content (6-8%) - sugar beet, he founded what is commonly considered to be the world's first sugar beet farm in 1801.

Through plant breeding, a sugar beet was gradually developed with a sugar content as high as that of sugar cane (16-19%) and, when production also received state support, a new era in the history of sugar began. In 1880, sugar beet amounted to 63% of the global sugar production.

Historic sugar cane plantation

Gilt edged now as then

Until the 1940s sugar was produced as sugar loaves. They weighed up to 15 kg and were this shape because the sugar was poured into cone-like moulds with a hole on the bottom where the liquid ran out. The loaves were cut into smaller pieces in the shops.

In northern Europe, we do not eat more sugar today than 50 years ago, but the consumption patterns have changed. During the post-war period, increasing numbers of women went out to work. We started buying ready-made food and eating out - and as a natural consequence, households were no longer the major sugar buyers.

Over the last few decades, there has been more and more interest in making things from the basics, and "home-cooking" has also had a renaissance. We get more than flavourful pleasures from baking our own cinnamon buns, or making our own jams or preserves. It's also a way to work with our hands, to relax and to do something completely different from our everyday routine.

Historic sugar factory