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What is Sugar and how is it produced?

In today’s “sugar-crazy” world, it is unsurprising that sugar is one of the most widely used commodities. As a global commodity, it is produced in over 120 countries for domestic use and export.

Sugar is often included in the list of “breakfast commodities,” along with coffee and cocoa. It can be sold in a raw or refined form, and used to make baked goods, cereals, candies, etc. Used primarily as a sweetening agent to add flavor or texture to food, it is also popular for lightening skin and surprisingly, as feed for alternative fuel (many experts argue that producing ethanol from sugar is more efficient than producing ethanol from corn.)

Most sugar is derived from one of two sources: sugarcane and sugar beets. Other minor sources include date palm, sorghum and sugar maple. Of all the sugar produced, 75% is processed from sugar cane, while the rest can be chalked down to sugar beet. The sugar derived from sugar cane is 99.8% pure sucrose—a sugar complex made of glucose and fructose. It is a carbohydrate with a sweet taste.

Sugar cane is a hot weather, perennial plant that primarily grows in the warm, tropical and subtropical areas of Asia and South America. It’s largest producers are Brazil, South Asia, the Caribbean Basin and the southern United States. Sugarcane products include sugar, along with molasses, rum, ethanol and other by-products. The largest sugar cane producers currently are South Asia, Brazil, the Caribbean and Southern parts of the U.S. (including Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii).

Natural sugar is found in the stalk of the sugar cane (or root of the sugar beet). The first step in producing sugar is separating this natural sugar from the rest of the plant material.

Sugar cane is juiced, and a thick, sugary syrup is obtained. The syrup is crystallized and the crystals are spinned to produce raw sugar. The raw sugar is then processed in a refinery and packaged. White sugar is sold as either coarse or superfine.

Sugar can also be derived from sugar beet. Sugar beets grow in cool, temperate areas like France, Germany, Russia and the United states. The root of the plant contains most of the sugar. Sugar beet is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. In the U.S. sugar beets are grown throughout the year, and actually account for around 60% of the total sugar produced in the country.

Both cane and beets must be processed into raw sugar very soon after the plants are harvested or else their sugar content will drop precipitously. The bulk of the sugar comes from a few countries in the world. Brazil leads the sugar brigade with over 22% of the global sugar production, followed by India at 15%, Europe at 10% and China at 8%. Production increase over the years has been marred by inconsistent weather patterns and confusing government policies in countries like India and Brazil.

Till 2007, there was excess supply and low prices in the sugar market. But terrible weather and poor crops from 2008 to 2010 led to shortage in supply, which caused sugar prices to go through the roof. In fact, in February 2011, sugar prices hit a 31-year high. Since 2011, supply has increased, and prices have again fallen.

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