Sugar Beets
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The Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris) is an annual plant that has been bred to have a high Sugar content (12% to 20% Sucrose) in its roots.

Olivier de Serres discovered that boiling Sugar Beets could yield Syrup from the juice, but it wasn’t until 1747 that the German scientist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf realized that Sugar Beets could yield Sugar, which he discovered could be extracted using an alcohol-based method.  The extraction process though was costly and not economically feasible.

Sugar Beets were not exploited for another 50 years until Franz Karl AchardMarggraf’s student, created a new scalable process and began a Beet breeding program based on the White Silesian Fodder Beet. By 1801, Achard was able to breed a Sugar Beet that was 5-6% Sucrose by dry weight and convince Frederick William III of Prussia to back a Sugar Beet factory. 

Sugar was a strategic commodity in the 19th Century, and Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor got wind of the Prussian experiment and encouraged Sugar Beet ventures of his own in France. The results were not striking, but only promising, so Napoleon established a sugar school and compelled French farmers to increase their Sugar Beet plantings. Effective in 1813, Napoleon prohibited the further importation of Sugar from the Caribbean.

By 1837, France was the largest sugar beet producer in the world, and as of 2010 it still was though the lead had changed hands a few times over the years. The United States did not start commercially farming Sugar Beets until 1890 in California and Nebraska. 

Production

Sugar Beets do not tolerate extreme heat and grow best in cooler temperate regions with decent rainfall and fertile soil such as northwest and eastern Europe, northern Japan, and some areas in the U.S. (Imperial Valley Calif. and Nebraska). Warmer geographies tend to grow Sugar Cane.

In the northern hemisphere, Beets are mechanically harvested around September. Depending on the weather and Sugar Factory availability (and capacity), harvesting and processing can continue until March. Harvested Sugar Beets can be stored until processed but frost-damaged Sugar Beets are almost entirely impossible to process.

Sucrose is extracted from Sugar Beets by washing and slicing the harvested crop. The raw sugar juice that results has Milk of Lime added to it and then the juice is carbonated in stages, for purification.

To get the Sucrose separated from the raw juice, the Syrup is Boiled so that the Water evaporates. Next, the syrup is cooled and seeded with Sugar Crystals to encourage further crystal growth. The next step is to separate the Sugar Crystals from the Syrup. A centrifuge is used to separate the white sugar crystals from the liquid. Once separated from the liquid, which is now called Molasses, the Sugar crystals are dried and then sieved to grade them for sale. Devoid of valuable Sugar Crystals, the Molasses from Sugar Beets is either discarded or packaged for animal feed or for fermentation feed stock for distilleries. Molasses from Sugar Beets does not make a good commercial food product because Humans don’t like the taste of Sugar Beet Molasses. Dried Sugar Beet Molasses can be a fuel for burning.

Sugar Cane requires four times more water to farm than Sugar Beets do, yet 80% percent of the world’s Sugar is sourced from Sugar Cane. Sugar Beets account for most of the remainder, around 20%. In 2010, the world harvested 227.7 million metric tons of Sugar Beets. The largest national producer was France with 32 million metric tons. The average yield of sugar beet crops worldwide was 48.8 tons per 2.47 acres (1 hectare). Chile has the most productive Sugar Beet farms with 87.3 tons per 2.47 acres.

Purchasing

While you will frequently find labels reading “Pure Cane Sugar,” you will rarely find “Pure Sugar Beet Sugar” on a package but if you know that most “Private Label Brands” are made with Beet Sugar you may increase your odds of purchasing Beet Sugar, should you so desire. If you are a stickler, you can do some detective work, using the lot codes on the package and find out for sure.

Culinary Uses

Fully processed Sugar Beet Sugar is reputed to be almost indistinguishable from fully processed Sugar Cane Sugar with the taste buds or naked eye. The surest way to tell is with chemical analysis (isotope analysis of the carbon) but many bakers claim that Beet Sugar can cause unexpected results when Baking (or cooking). Brown Beet Sugar is by far the most suspect of the Beet Sugars.

Gluten Free

Yes

Low Fat

Yes

Low Calorie

Yes