The Past, Present, and Future of the Sugar Industry

An unassuming pile of sugar has a deep and storied history behind it. From its origins, as sugar cane chewed for its sweetness in 8000 BCE Papua New Guinea to its more modern applications as a refined sweetener, sugar has made an impact on the global trade and lifestyles since the very beginning.

Sugar has a history as colorful as it is long, and has been subject to a plethora of myths, cultivation practices, and more–and it isn’t going anywhere soon.

The Sugar Industry: A Brief History

Sugar began its long journey in Papua New Guinea with the chewing of sugar cane reeds to extract its sweetness in 800 BCE (Sugar.org). By 600 CE, sugar was cultivated and traded with much of southeast Asia such as India. In 1455-1480 CE, large-scale operations refining sugar became the leading trade of Madeira, Portugal. By 1501, sugar had hit the new world and the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean completed their first sugar harvest. By 1715, it had become a leading trade export of European countries. In 1838, David Lee Child brought the first sugar beet factory to American soil.

Sugar has as long of a history as many trade routes themselves do and that history is deep and complex. 

Sugar Nutritional Myths

Sugar is no stranger to nutritional myths in modern times, but many have been debunked by scientists and medical experts.

  • Sugar causes hyperactivity

In a study conducted by DW hoover and R Milich, “Effects of Sugar Ingestion Expectancies on Mother-Child Interactions,” Hoover and Milich found that when mothers were told that their children had consumed a large amount of sugar—when in reality they had not—the mothers reported noticing their child being more hyperactive, showing an inherent bias in reporting. 

Hoover and Milich also noted that mothers were closer to their children and more scrutinous of their actions, and that the mothers who were told their children received a placebo did not exhibit this behavior. In this study, researchers noted that it is important to parse out the difference between correlating behavior and true cause-and-effect, and that any hyperactivity correlation between children and sugar should be heavily scrutinized—busting this myth. 

  • Brown Sugar is better than Refined sugar

Brown sugar and white sugar have long gone together in their special ways. Chefs around will swear by one or tactfully use both in their recipes. But, while there is a definite change in the flavor profile of both sugars, is there a legitimate difference? Is white sugar vastly different from brown sugar? The answer is, both yes and no. As unappealing as that answer is to many, it’s the truth. Traditional white sugar is refined sugar cane or sugar beet juice heated and filtered, crystallized, sent to what is in majority a Western States centrifuge, and spun to finally refine the product. Brown sugar is this exact same process but with steps altered to include the previously present molasses after refinement. Molasses concentrates re-inserted into the sugar help to make a wide variety of brown sugars including: turbinado sugar, free-flowing brown sugar, muscovado sugar, and light and dark brown sugars. Both types of sugar still have the same sweet taste coming from the same unique process and present no difference in nutritional value.

  • It’s Healthier to Consume “Sugar-Free” Products

Sugar-free products are actually more processed and less natural than sugar, with added ingredients to replace the taste and functionality of sugar in a recipe. Furthermore, there is far less research in the long term effects of sugar replacements and artificial sweeteners. Sugar, like all foods and beverages, should be consumed in moderation.

  • Refined Sugar is Heavily Processed

In truth, sugar is a naturally occurring, minimally processed ingredient. It is quite simple to derive, and could even be extracted at home for someone with the time and resources. This means that during all parts of the sugar refinement process, the sugar remains a natural byproduct and never incorporates chemical additives. 

  • Sugar leads to Obesity 

Obesity is a term used to define a set of symptoms associated with a person having extreme amounts of excess body fat. Obesity, along with its symptoms, is classified as a disease or the disorder in function or structure of the human body. Sugar, or the consumption of sugar, does not cause any of the symptoms associated with obesity nor is it the direct cause of the excess body fat necessary for obesity to occur. In truth, obesity is caused by several factors including, but not limited to: genetics, physical inactivity, overeating, and other impacting diseases. Overeating of any food and prolonged physical inactivity are the most likely causes of excess body fat and therefore obesity.

The future of the Industry

New uses for sugar are being developed every day. Each study and trial with sugar as its center increases our knowledge and application of the sweetener. Recent expansions of sugar include:

Sugar began to see widespread commercial use in the cosmetics scene in the early 2000s, and has experienced a large uptick in use in recent years. Thanks to the exfoliation, aroma, and hydration it provides to the skin, sugar is being turned to as a natural ingredient in many cosmetics as consumers and brands push for cruelty-free and sustainable products.

  • Biodegradable plastics

In 2017, the University of Bath shared an article compiling the findings and eventual breakthrough of researchers attempting to create biodegradable plastics from sugar and CO2. The success of this research has uncovered many applicable uses globally, and the proposed solution holds a plethora of unique criteria within its biodegradable classification. Unlike some other biodegradable solutions, these plastics degrade at room temperature and through bacteria enzymes commonly found in soil. It isn’t a modern miracle quite yet, but the research being conducted to finalize and commercialize this plastic provides an innovative push towards planetary health.

Sugar is one of the founding products of the global trade industry and has a history as long as many civilizations. It is derived from natural sources including beets and sugar cane, and sugar is used in everything from food products, to cosmetics, to biodegradable plastics. 

With all of its complexities, myths, properties we’ve yet to understand, and applications we’ve yet to discover, sugar production is a staple of the modern world and Western States is proud to supply the beet and cane sugar mills and refineries around the world with the highest performing and most reliable batch and continuous centrifuges for over 95 years and counting.

To learn more about our robust sugar refining centrifuges, get in touch with our team today.