Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose, and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.

Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction only in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane refers to any of several species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum that have been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century with the establishment of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the common people, who had previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet, a cultivated variety of Beta vulgaris, is grown as a root crop in cooler climates and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century when methods for extracting the sugar became available. Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways, influencing the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar-trade–controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the New World.

The world produced about 168 million tonnes of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms (53 lb) of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialised countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is good for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume or are largely free of any sugar consumption.

Etymology

Ant feeding on sugar crystals.

The etymology reflects the spread of the commodity. The English word "sugar" originates from the Sanskritशर्कराśarkarā,[2] via Persianشکرshakkar. It most probably came to England by way of Italian merchants. The contemporary Italian word is zucchero, whereas the Spanish and Portuguese words, azúcar and açúcar respectively, have kept a trace of the Arabic definite article. The Old French word is zuchre – contemporary French sucre. The earliest Greek word attested is σάκχαρις (sákkʰaris).[3] A satisfactory pedigree explaining the spread of the word has yet to be done. The English word jaggery, a coarse brown sugar made from date palm sap or sugarcane juice, has a similar etymological origin; Portuguese xagara or jagara, from the Sanskrit śarkarā.[4]

History

Ancient times and Middle Ages

Sugar cane plantation

Sugar has been produced in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times. It was not plentiful or cheap in early times and honey was more often used for sweetening in most parts of the world. Originally, people chewed raw sugarcane to extract its sweetness. Sugarcane was a native of tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia.[5] Different species seem to have originated from different locations with Saccharum barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea.[5][6] One of the earliest historical references to sugarcane is in Chinese manuscripts dating back to 8th century BC that state that the use of sugarcane originated in India.[7]

Sugar was found in Europe by the 1st century AD, but only as an imported medicine, and not as a food.[8][9] The Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century (AD) described sugar in his medical treatise De Materia Medica, and Pliny the Elder, a 1st century (AD) Roman, described sugar in his Natural History: "Sugar is made in Arabia as well, but Indian sugar is better. It is a kind of honey found in cane, white as gum, and it crunches between the teeth. It comes in lumps the size of a hazelnut. Sugar is used only for medical purposes."[9]

Sugar remained relatively unimportant until the Indians discovered methods of turning sugarcane juice into granulated crystals that were easier to store and to transport. Crystallized sugar was discovered by the time of the Imperial Guptas, around the 5th century AD. In the local Indian language, these crystals were called khanda (Devanagari:खण्ड,Khaṇḍa), which is the source of the word candy.[10]

Indian sailors, who carried clarified butter and sugar as supplies, introduced knowledge of sugar on the various trade routes they travelled. Buddhist monks, as they travelled around, brought sugar crystallization methods to China. During the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647) in North India, Indian envoys in Tang China taught methods of cultivating sugarcane after Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626–649) made known his interest in sugar. China then established its first sugarcane plantations in the seventh century. Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 AD, to obtain technology for sugar refining. In South Asia, the Middle East and China, sugar became a staple of cooking and desserts.

Crusaders brought sugar home with them to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying "sweet salt". Early in the 12th century, Venice acquired some villages near Tyre and set up estates to produce sugar for export to Europe, where it supplemented honey, which had previously been the only available sweetener. Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as "very necessary for the use and health of mankind".[11] In the 15th century, Venice was the chief sugar refining and distribution centre in Europe.[7]

Modern history

Still-Life with Bread and Confectionery, by George Flegel, first half of 17th century

In August 1492, Christopher Columbus stopped at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for wine and water, intending to stay only four days. He became romantically involved with the governor of the island, Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, and stayed a month. When he finally sailed, she gave him cuttings of sugarcane, which became the first to reach the New World.

The first sugar cane harvest was conducted in Hispaniola in 1501, and many sugar mills had been constructed in Cuba and Jamaica by the 1520s. The Portuguese took sugar cane to Brazil. By 1540, there were 800 cane sugar mills in Santa Catarina Island and another 2,000 on the north coast of Brazil, Demarara, and Surinam.

Hacienda La Fortuna. A sugar mill complex in Puerto Rico, painted by Francisco Oller in 1885. Brooklyn Museum

Sugar was a luxury in Europe until the 18th century, when it became more widely available. It then became popular and by the 19th century, sugar came to be considered a necessity. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. It drove, in part, colonization of tropical islands and nations where labor-intensive sugarcane plantations and sugar manufacturing could thrive. The demand for cheap labor to perform the hard work involved in its cultivation and processing increased the demand for the slave trade from Africa (in particular West Africa). After slavery was abolished, there was high demand for indentured laborers from South Asia (in particular India).[12] Millions of slave and indentured laborers were brought into the Caribbean and the Americas, Indian Ocean colonies, southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, and East Africa and Natal. The modern ethnic mix of many nations that have been settled in the last two centuries has been influenced by the demand for sugar.[13][14]

Sugar also led to some industrialization of areas where sugar cane was grown. For example, Lieutenant J. Paterson, of the Bengal establishment, persuaded the British Government that sugar cane could be cultivated in British India with many advantages and at less expense than in the West Indies; as a result, sugar factories were established in Bihar in eastern India.[15]

During the Napoleonic Wars, sugar beet production increased in continental Europe because of the difficulty of importing sugar when shipping was subject to blockade. By 1880, the sugar beet was the main source of sugar in Europe. It was cultivated in Lincolnshire and other parts of England, although the United Kingdom continued to import the main part of its sugar from its colonies.[3]

Until the late nineteenth century, sugar was purchased in loaves, which had to be cut using implements called sugar nips.[3] In later years, granulated sugar was more usually sold in bags.

Sugar cubes were produced in the nineteenth century. The first inventor of a process to make sugar in cube form was the MoravianJakub Kryštof Rad, director of a sugar company in Dačice. He began sugar cube production after being granted a five-year patent for the process on January 23, 1843. Henry Tate of Tate & Lyle was another early manufacturer of sugar cubes at his refineries in Liverpool and London. Tate purchased a patent for sugar cube manufacture from German Eugen Langen, who in 1872 had invented a different method of processing of sugar cubes.[3]

Chemistry

Sucrose: a disaccharide of glucose (left) and fructose (right), important molecules in the body.

Scientifically, sugar loosely refers to a number of carbohydrates, such as monosaccharides, disaccharides, or oligosaccharides. Monosaccharides are also called "simple sugars," the most important being glucose. Almost all sugars have the formula C
n
H
2n
O
n
(n is between 3 and 7). Glucose has the molecular formulaC
6
H
12
O
6
. The names of typical sugars end with -ose, as in "glucose" and "fructose". Sometimes such words may also refer to any types of carbohydrates soluble in water. The acyclic mono- and disaccharides contain either aldehyde groups or ketone groups. These carbon-oxygen double bonds (C=O) are the reactive centers. All saccharides with more than one ring in their structure result from two or more monosaccharides joined by glycosidic bonds with the resultant loss of a molecule of water (H
2
O
) per bond.

Monosaccharides in a closed-chain form can form glycosidic bonds with other monosaccharides, creating disaccharides (such as sucrose) and polysaccharides (such as starch). Enzymes must hydrolyze or otherwise break these glycosidic bonds before such compounds become metabolized. After digestion and absorption the principal monosaccharides present in the blood and internal tissues include glucose, fructose, and galactose. Many pentoses and hexoses can form ring structures. In these closed-chain forms, the aldehyde or ketone group remains non-free, so many of the reactions typical of these groups cannot occur. Glucose in solution exists mostly in the ring form at equilibrium, with less than 0.1% of the molecules in the open-chain form.

Natural polymers of sugars

Biopolymers of sugars are common in nature. Through photosynthesis, plants produce glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate (G3P), a phosphated 3-carbon sugar that is used by the cell to make monosaccharides such as glucose (C
6
H
12
O
6
) or (as in cane and beet) sucrose (C
12
H
22
O
11
). Monosaccharides may be further converted into structural polysaccharides such as cellulose and pectin for cell wall construction or into energy reserves in the form of storage polysaccharides such as starch or inulin. Starch, consisting of two different polymers of glucose, is a readily degradable form of chemical energy stored by cells, and can be converted to other types of energy. Another polymer of glucose is cellulose, which is a linear chain composed of several hundred or thousand glucose units. It is used by plants as a structural component in their cell walls. Humans can digest cellulose only to a very limited extent, though ruminants can do so with the help of symbiotic bacteria in their gut.[3]DNA and RNA are built up of the monosaccharides deoxyribose and ribose, respectively. Deoxyribose has the formula C
5
H
10
O
4
and ribose the formula C
5
H
10
O
5
.[3]

Flammability

Because sugars burn easily when exposed to flame, the handling of sugars risks dust explosion. The 2008 Georgia sugar refinery explosion, which killed 14 persons and injured 40, and destroyed most of the refinery, was caused by the ignition of sugar dust.

Magnification of grains of refined sucrose, the most common free sugar.

Types of sugar

Monosaccharides

Fructose, galactose, and glucose are all simple sugars, monosaccharides, with the general formula C6H12O6. They have five hydroxyl groups (−OH) and a carbonyl group (C=O) and are cyclic when dissolved in water. They each exist as several isomers with dextro- and laevo-rotatory forms that cause polarized light to diverge to the right or the left.

  • Fructose, or fruit sugar, occurs naturally in fruits, some root vegetables, cane sugar and honey and is the sweetest of the sugars. It is one of the components of sucrose or table sugar. It is used as a high-fructose syrup, which is manufactured from hydrolyzed corn starch that has been processed to yield corn syrup, with enzymes then added to convert part of the glucose into fructose.[3]
  • In general, galactose does not occur in the free state but is a constituent with glucose of the disaccharide lactose or milk sugar. It is less sweet than glucose. It is a component of the antigens found on the surface of red blood cells that determine blood groups.
  • Glucose, dextrose or grape sugar, occurs naturally in fruits and plant juices and is the primary product of photosynthesis. Most ingested carbohydrates are converted into glucose during digestion and it is the form of sugar that is transported around the bodies of animals in the bloodstream. It can be manufactured from starch by the addition of enzymes or in the presence of acids. Glucose syrup is a liquid form of glucose that is widely used in the manufacture of foodstuffs. It can be manufactured from starch by enzymatic hydrolysis.[3]

Disaccharides

Lactose, maltose, and sucrose are all compound sugars, disaccharides, with the general formula C12H22O11. They are formed by the combination of two monosaccharide molecules with the exclusion of a molecule of water.

  • Lactose is the naturally occurring sugar found in milk. A molecule of lactose is formed by the combination of a molecule of galactose with a molecule of glucose. It is broken down when consumed into its constituent parts by the enzyme lactase during digestion. Children have this enzyme but some adults no longer form it and they are unable to digest lactose.[22]
  • Maltose is formed during the germination of certain grains, the most notable being barley, which is converted into malt, the source of the sugar's name. A molecule of maltose is formed by the combination of two molecules of glucose. It is less sweet than glucose, fructose or sucrose. It is formed in the body during the digestion of starch by the enzyme amylase and is itself broken down during digestion by the enzyme maltase.[23]
  • Sucrose is found in the stems of sugarcane and roots of sugar beet. It also occurs naturally alongside fructose and glucose in other plants, in particular fruits and some roots such as carrots. The different proportions of sugars found in these foods determines the range of sweetness experienced when eating them. A molecule of sucrose is formed by the combination of a molecule of glucose with a molecule of fructose. After being eaten, sucrose is split into its constituent parts during digestion by a number of enzymes known as sucrases.[24]