Think sugar only comes from sugar cane? Think again! Sugar also comes from large, strange looking sugar beets! Yep, beets. Sugar beets flourish in the long Idaho summers, and the state ranks second in the nation for sugar beet production. Beet sugar represents about 54% of the nation’s sugar production, and is chemically no different than cane sugar. Have you ever had White Satin sugar? Crystal or Holly sugar? Those are beet sugars!
Sugar beets have been mentioned as being used for food products as far back as Ancient Egypt. They began getting more attention, however, in the mid 1700’s, when Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, and his assistant, Karl Achard, found that sugar crystals could be obtained by boiling down shredded beet pulp.
Napoleon Bonaparte, surprisingly, also had a hand in improving research and development of sugar beets. Napoleon took an interest in the work of Achard, and sent some scientists to study with him. His scientists returned and built two small processing plants, which, although they failed, interested Napoleon enough that he set aside 1 million francs for sugar beet research, and also placed an embargo on sugar imports from the Caribbean, boosting European sugar beet production.
By 1887, France was the largest producer of sugar, a spot it held until 2010. Sugar beet growing and production began in earnest in the United States in California in 1879. By 1917, there were 91 sugar beet processing facilities in the US. In 2005, the number of processors had dropped to 23, but these facilities are highly efficient, processing over 23 million tons of sugar beets each year. Over 4.5 million tons of sugar are produced from beets grown on 1.4 million acres.
95% of all sugar beets planted in the United States are genetically-modified. They carry a gene that enables them to resist Round-up, a herbicide. Roundup ready sugar beets became available to farmers in 2005, and quickly gained traction. Because sugar beets are a slower-growing crop, fields can easily be overtaken by fast-growing weeds, forcing farmers to use very sophisticated weed killers.
New seed technologies enable farmers to use up to 75% less chemicals on their crops, and the chemicals they do use can be less sophisticated, since they do not have to be designed to target specific weeds, and therefore, are far safer for the consumers. Farmers are also able to use less labor, gas, and other inputs, lowering their costs and resource usage. That means lower sugar prices for us. Between the safer sugar beet and the lowered cost of production for the farmer, this is a Win-Win!
Sugar beet production worldwide is unique in that it is usually very vertically integrated. Sugar processing companies have considerable influence over all aspects of production from the area planted through the sale of the final product. The crop is of little value without a processor to extract the sugar, and once a sugar factory is constructed, a company must have a reliable supply of beets. There has always been a closer and more cooperative relationship among growers and companies than is found with other agronomic commodities. In the United States, growers began joining together in the mid 1970’s to purchase their processing companies as cooperatives and by September, 2006 the entire U.S. beet sugar processing industry had become grower-owned.
The sugar industry in Idaho supports approximately 15,000 jobs, and creates an impact of over $2 billion on Idaho’s economy. Idaho farmers grow over 174,000 acres of sugar beets, harvesting over 5.9 million tons! Idaho has three processing plants, including the largest in the country, and possibly the world!
Sugar beets need deep, rich soil, warm sun, little wind, adequate water, and a long growing season to flourish. Only 11 states grow sugar beets now, as the climate must be right, and a processing plant immediately available.
Sugar beets are big, weighing 2-5 pounds at maturity. They’re about 18-20% sugar, 5% pulp, and 75% water. The main product is, of course, sugar, but the pulp is used as animal feed; cattle and hogs love it (it’s sweet!) Brown sugar and molasses for human consumption are only made from cane sugar.
Well, I won’t even bother giving nutrition facts about sugar, since we all know how much, or should I say, how little we should be eating. It is found providing a hint of sweet in hundreds of thousands of products, from ketchup, to coffee, to bread. We all have our favorite recipes using sugar, and we’ll share a couple of ours with you next!
I hope you’ve learned a little more about our nation’s sugar production today! We can’t let sugar cane take all the credit!
For more information on sugar beets, visit the following websites: http://www.sugaralliance.org/where-is-sugar-produced/