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About us > A history of sugar

Sugar and its History

From honey to beet, without forgetting the all-important sugar cane, sweet products have, since times immemorial, delighted mankind.

Sugar cane goes global

Sugar cane is indigenous to Papua New Guinea. Naturally rich in sugar, it spread rapidly throughout large neighbouring territories, such as China and India.

Sugar arrived in Europe through the Arab world, and this “rare spice” started appearing on the dinner tables of the rich and the upper classes. Sugar cane does not grow well in Europe, and Europeans introduced it to America after the continent is discovered, and it quickly spread through South America. It was then imported by sea, with ships sailing to America carrying slaves, and returning with various goods, such as sugar.

Discovery and rise of sugar beet

In 1806, the Emperor of France, Napoleon the 1st, imposed a continental blockade against England. Shortages of numerous products, including sugar, ensued. Sugar was much more affordable than it had been centuries before, and the pressure of demand drove many industrialists and scientists to find a new source of sugar.

Several decades before, in 1747, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, a professor from Berlin, had discovered that certain varieties of beet had a significant sugar content. One of his students, Franz Karl Achard, inspired by his professor’s research, industrialized the process. Sugar factories then started appearing in Germany.

The problem was that the sugar yield of this process wass very low. Nowadays, we are able to extract close to 20% of the total weight of beet in sugar, whereas, in Achard’s time, the yield was stagnating at 1.6%.

Then Benjamin Delessert and Jean-Baptiste Quéruel came along. These two Frenchmen, driven by Napoleon’s blockade, started researching new sources of sugar that could be grown in Europe. They studied the Achard process and found ways to optimize it, making it more efficient.

Following their discovery, Napoleon supported this new economic asset and decided to make 100’000 hectares available for beet crops, while financing studies on sugar production.

A history in images

The modern sugar industry

Today, beet represents 20% of the worldwide production, and is the 2nd biggest source of sugar, behind sugar cane, which still amounts to around 70%. Optimized over the two last centuries, the extraction process of sugar from beet is now maximized. The challenges no longer reside in our extraction and crystallization capacities, but rather in the profitability of the process, as we strive to make it as efficient as possible, while also reducing its power dependency.

Globally, Europe is the biggest producer of sugar from beet. However, Brazil and India still hold the first places in sugar production, relying on their extensive sugar cane plantations.

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