Sugar’s Journey from Field to Table: Sugar Cane

Sugar is one of the purest ingredients and a natural carbohydrate, found in fruits, vegetables and nuts. All green plants produce sugar (sucrose) through photosynthesis, a natural process that turns sunlight into energy.

Sugar is harvested from sugar beets, root vegetables that grow in cooler climates, and sugar cane plants, tropical grasses that grow up to 20 feet tall. Sugar beet and sugar cane go-to sources for sugar because they have the highest percentage of sucrose of all plants. For both, the refining process removes all impurities and the surrounding plant matter, leaving only pure sucrose.

Today, we’re looking at the process for sugar cane, and how it gets from the field to your kitchen pantry.

Sugar Cane Refining

1. Sugar cane stalks are harvested from fields in locations such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas and then sent to a nearby sugar mill.
2. At the sugar mill, the sugar cane stalks are washed and cut into shreds. Huge rollers press sugar cane juice out of the shredded stalks.
3. The juice is then clarified, concentrated and crystalized.
4. The crystals are spun in a centrifuge to remove the liquid and produce golden raw sugar.
• Sweet fact: Raw sugar is 96–98% sucrose.
5. Raw sugar is transported to a cane sugar refinery, where it will be further purified.
6. The raw sugar is melted and filtered to remove remaining impurities (primarily molasses).
7. The sugar is crystallized.
8. Crystals are dried.
9. Sugar is packaged and shipped to grocery stores and food manufacturers.

The amount of molasses left on the crystals or added back to the sugar crystals determines which type of sugar is produced. Beyond the traditional white granulated sugar and light and dark brown sugars, there are lightly colored sugars, golden or tan, produced for specialty uses.

As for the materials left over from sugar processing, many of them are recycled and reused. For example, sugar cane refining results in leftover cane fiber called bagasse. This bagasse is used to generate electricity for sugar mills and even their surrounding communities.

Throughout the manufacturing process, sugar is tested for purity, sucrose content, proper pH balance, temperature, color and consistency. Monitoring of equipment and filtering materials ensures that they are working efficiently. Because it’s 99.9% sucrose, refined sugar is one of the highest-quality products you can find at a grocery store.

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