Willem H. Kampen
New Guinea is the home of a cultivated form of sugarcane. In ancient times, people migrating from the Indochina area to New Guinea encountered different types of wild sugarcane. High-fiber forms were used for construction; softer and juicier forms were propagated in gardens for chewing. From about 8000 B.C. on, people migrated from New Guinea to several Pacific Islands, taking a cultivated form of sugarcane with them. It later reached Indonesia, the Philippines and Northern India. By 400 B.C., crude sugar was developed.
Cane culture spread slowly, reaching Persia by 500 A.D. Because of the Islamic Holy War, the Arabs brought sugarcane to Egypt, which they had conquered. They built plantations and stone mills. Around 710 A.D., the Egyptians developed clarification, crystallization and refining. Sugarcane spread westward across northern Africa and into southern Spain and Sicily. The first large shipment of sugar reached England in 1319. Sugarcane reached the Canary Islands in 1420, from whence Columbus introduced it to the New World in 1493.
From Santo Domingo cane culture spread across the New World. It reached Louisiana in the late 1700s. Until some 450 years ago, fruits and honey were the most important sweet foods in the world. Then cane sugar became the sweetener of choice until the 19th century.
Sugar beets have been grown for food and fodder in Europe for centuries. The German chemist Marggraff demonstrated in 1747 that pure beet and pure cane sugar were essentially identical. In 1802, the first beet sugar factory was started up in Cunern, Silesia, Germany. The French began construction of a beet sugar factory that same year. In 1806, England imposed a continental blockade against Napoleon. Imported sugar was unavailable, and consequently the beet sugar industry began to flourish in Germany and France. Napoleon, in 1811, ordered rapid development of the industry and its technology.
In the 1980s the corn wet milling industry diversified by marketing high fructose corn syrups (HFCS) and glucose syrups. Artificial sweeteners also entered the market. Now the natural sweetener market is made up of about 55 percent HFCS, 25 percent cane sugar (of which one-fourth is imported as raw sugar under the World Trade Organization quota system) and 20 percent beet sugar.
Willem H. Kampen, Associate Professor, Audubon Sugar Institute, St. Gabriel, La.
(This article appeared in the fall 2002 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
The LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture