Plant science at your dinner table: Sugar

Michigan is a leading producer in sugar beet production – learn more about this household staple derived from plants.

Sugar - oh how sweet it is! But do you buy cane sugar or sugar from beets? Consumers have so many choices in the products they buy and consume; sugar is no different. There are many choices on the market for sweeteners and with all the hype about natural vs. unnatural, processed vs. unprocessed, and good vs. bad, how do you decide? In this article, I will share some of the science behind sugar to help consumers decide.

Exploring sugar

Sucrose is the chemical name for sugar and is a naturally occurring carbohydrate found in fruits and vegetables. Plants produce sucrose through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process where plants make their own food using carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. The word photosynthesis can be broken apart to help make this easier to understand: “photo” means light and “synthesis” means putting together.

Another name for sugar is a saccharide, which is an organic compound containing sweet-tasting carbohydrates. Sucrose it is a disaccharide, which means it is a double sugar, made from one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose, which are both monosaccharides. Monosaccharides are simple sugars; disaccharides are crystalline water-soluble compounds.

Sugar comes from two sources: sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar cane is a true grass that grows in temperate to tropical climates. It belongs to the genus Saccharum, tribe Andropogoneae. Sugar beets are the root of the plant Beta vulgaris. When sucrose is extracted from cane or beets, it can then be dried and naturally forms sugar crystals.

The world leader in sugar beet production is Russia. Poland, France, West Germany, Turkey, Canada and several states in the United States also produce sugar beets. Michigan is one of the lead producing states for sugar beet production. Here are a few fun facts about sugar from Michigan State University Extension:

  • Michigan farmers grow approximately 160,000 acres of sugar beets each year.
  • Nineteen counties in and around mid-Michigan and the Thumb grow sugar beets.
  • Sugar beets are planted in the early spring and harvested in the fall.
  • In 2016, 4.9 million tons of sugar beets were grown in the state.
  • More than 1 billion pounds of sugar is produced in Michigan each year.
  • Processing sugar beets is a series of separations, extracting the naturally-occurring sugar from the beet. The extraction process involves washing, slicing, diffusion, filtration, crystallization, drying and cooling.
  • Sugar has 25 calories per teaspoon.
  • Sugar is pure sucrose and contains no preservatives or additives.

To learn more about sugar beets and Michigan sugar production, visit the Alternative Field Crops Manual, sugar beets article, Michigan Sugar website or the MI Ag Facts document

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