Surprisingly sweet sugar beets

On voit le sucre chaque jour, mais on ne pense pas de son origine. Photo par Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC.

Sugar is a big part of our lives, but we generally don’t think about where it comes from. One source grown in Canada may surprise you. Photo by Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC.

Did you know that a quarter of the sugar consumed around the world comes from beets? No, not the red root that turns your pee red. I’m talking about sugar beets.

I learned about these rather miraculous plants two years ago on an internship with a genetics research organization. I was there looking at the challenges of  communicating their complex experiments. During my reading I learned that a lot of the canola and sugar beets grown in Canada were genetically modified. The GMO debate aside, my question was: what the heck is a sugar beet? I’d certainly never seen one.

The ghost beet

Photo par elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC.

A plump, non-photogenic sugar beet. Photo by elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC.

There’s a reason I’d never seen sugar beet before. They’re pretty ugly. A big white carrot-shaped thing covered in dirt is not the most appealing symbol for a bag of sugar. In fact, it was hard to find photos of sugar beets for this post.

Sugar beets come from the same family as red beets, even though they look nothing alike. They grow best in temperate climates. In fact, the roots have to freeze for the plant to flower the next year.  Unfortunately Canada’s frigid winters  kill the roots completely, so farmers here  harvest every year. But it’s not big deal because the roots grow very fast over a single season.

Sweet root

Photo par Heather. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC.

Sugar beet pile. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC.

So why do sugar beets make sugar? It’s definitely not for our benefit. For most plants sugar is a temporary energy storage that is generally turned into starch for longer-term storage. However, sugar cane and sugar beets are unique. They don’t turn their sugar into starch, but hang onto it in their  tissues. We humans aren’t complaining, because we can extract it pretty easily. Together, sugar cane and sugar beets are responsible for 90 per cent of the sugar produced worldwide.

Curious crystals

Des cristaux de sucre. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC.

Sugar crystals. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC.

In fact, the crystals of sugar beet sugar and sugar cane sugar are identical. They have the same chemical properties, and, most importantly, the same taste.  German chemist Andreas Margaff made this unusual discovery in 1747.His student Franz Carl Achard continued his research on how to make extracting the sugar commercially viable. Today’s sugar beets have been bred to be as sweet as possible, with sugar making up 19 per cent of a root’s weight. I’d like to know what on earth inspired them to test sugar beets, over other sweet roots like carrots. But then again, I’m a bit too fond of carrots for my own good.

Beets of war

La propagande pour encourager l’élevage des betteraves à sucre pendant la guerre. Photo par James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC.

WWII propaganda for sugar beets. It was war that led to the commercialization of the sugar beet.  Photo by James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC.

Sugar beets are nothing new.  Even ancient Egyptians ate them.  However, during the Middle Ages they were somehow relegated to cattle fodder.

After Margaff’s sugar discovery, there were some attempts at industrial production of sugar beet sugar. However, sugar cane from the tropics was popular and cheap, so there wasn’t much incentive to squeeze sugar out of beets.

The quest for another sugar source intensified during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain decided to block shipments of sugar cane and other goods from coming into France, much to the chagrin of that country’s pastry-makers. France to quickly bred a sweeter variety of sugar beet and built factories that could extract the sugar. Napoleon encouraged the sugar beet industry and promote the adoption of the finished product. However, after Great Britain lifted the blockade, France went back to using mostly sugar cane. But to this day France remains one of the world’s largest producers of sugar beets.


Great Canadian Beet

Photo par Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC.

Huge pile of sugar beets. Photo by Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC.

Canada is 31st in the list of world sugar beet producers. The first factory was built in Farnham, Quebec in 1881. During WWI sugar beets were a pretty important crop in Canada, more so than they are today.

Most Canadian sugar beets are grown in Alberta, Manitoba Ontario and Quebec. Sugar beets work really well in Canada because they can adapt to so different types of soil and temperatures.

Even though we grow sugar beets in Canada, most of the sugar we eat is from imported sugar cane. This boggles the mind, but it’s because producing sugar from beets is still more expensive than producing and shipping cane sugar from the tropics. Sugar beets are used more in the prairie provinces because they are further away from coastal ports where the raw cane sugar sails in. One tonne of sugar beets will give 125 kg of white granulated sugar.

Less sweet byproducts

So how do you get sugar out of a beet? You juice them. Most of the root is liquid, and once the juice is squeezed out there isn’t much left. The solid left-overs are used as high-energy food for cows and pigs. The liquid leftovers include molasses, the sticky black sweeter of gingerbread fame. Apparently cattle like it too.

Another unpredictable sugar beet product is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a natural flavor-enhancer that boots the taste of certain foods. Even though some people are concerned about MSG, according to the American Food and Drug Administration most people can consume it safely.

Molasses as antifreeze

Apparently the cities of Toronto and Saint John in New Brunswick use a mixture of molasses and road salt for deicing roads. It get so cold that salt alone doesn’t work, so the sugar helps the salt do it’s thing even at -35 Celsius. Not bad for an ugly white beet!



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