Sugar Beet History and Facts

Red Sugar Beet

For the longest period of time, Europe had no access to sugar. The only food ingredient that enabled sweetening of food was natural made honey, and because of that Europe has to wait all up to 13th and 14th century until conflict with the middle east during Crusades brought them closer to the riches of the Arab world and India. Sugar created from sugarcane sucrose was very expensive and hard to make, and because of high demand, European traders and governments tried to find the way to make it themselves in large quantities. Because of that need, New World became haven for countless immigrants who immediately started working on producing sugar, importing African slaves to do hard field work, and building several thousand sugar mills that signified dawn of the industrial revolution in Europe and North America.

However, not anyone could get hold to sugarcane sugar. Napoleon Bonaparte, surrounded by enemies on both land sea was not able to get access to Caribbean sugar. Solution to his problems came in the form of beet. In 16th century French soil scientist Olivier de Serres noticed that some beet substances can be processed to state that very much mimicked sucrose fluid that is found in sugarcane. In mid 1700s German physicist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf confirmed the presence of sugar in beet, and his student Franz Karl Achard managed to establish first beet sugar processing plant in 1784. Even though his exploits were not profitable, and he managed to extract only 5-6% of sucrose from the body mass of beet, French scientists in early 19th century saw firsthand how this process is done and suggested it to Napoleon. With one million francs in incentives, French farmers quickly started working in developing a brand new European sugar industry.

Beet sugar industry received major boost after the end of Napoleonic Wars. France took the lead by developing over 500 sugar processing factories by 1837 (producing over 35 thousand tons of sugar), but Germany managed to surpass them by 1880 becoming the largest producer of beet sugar in the world. United Kingdom did not focus much on the beet, and only in post WW1 depression did they started producing their own sugar in small quantities.

Today, France is once again largest manufacturer of beet sugar, managing to produce in 2009 little over 35 million metric ton of beet. Behind them are United States (27 tons), Germany (25.9 tons), Russia (24.9 tons) and Turkey (17.2 tons), with Poland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, China and Netherlands trailing behind with smaller quantities. Modern day hybrid cultures of sugar beet have much larger sucrose content from original species that were used in Napoleonic France. Now, 4 times larger quantities of sugar can be extracted from one beet.

Even though European manufacturers are producing over 228 million metric ton each year (around 20% of total worldwide sugar production), that amount is not enough for their needs. Both Europe and United States needed to import sugar in 2010 and 2011, and this trend will most likely continue to grow.