Sugar is an important export in many countries worldwide. Sugar can be produced from two separate crops: sugarcane or sugar beets. Both versions are 99.95% pure sucralose, rendering them chemically and nutritionally identical to most users. However, their production processes are slightly different. Most notably, cane sugar is often whitened using bone char, which renders it non-vegan in the eyes of some consumers. Some chefs and bakers also maintain that beet sugar has a slightly earthier taste profile than cane sugar and can behave less desirably in recipes. These differences are typically attributed to trace impurities (the final 0.05%) or moisture differences in the sugars.
According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, sugar is produced in 111 countries, and another 20 additional countries grow sugarcane or sugar beets for export. That said, the International Sugar Organization notes that 70% of the total global sugar production currently comes from just ten sources (one of which is the European Union, which is admittedly several countries).
Top 10 Countries That Produce the Most Sugar (in metric tons — UN FAO 2019):*
* Taken as a single collective entity, the European Union would rank among the top 5 producers. For clarification, a metric ton is equal to 1,000 kilograms, or roughly 2,204 pounds.
The sugar-making process and the first country to make sugar
Evidence exists that sugarcane was first domesticated around 8000 BC in Papua New Guinea, where it was chewed raw. India is generally considered the first country to extract crystallized sugar from sugarcane, and began doing so somewhere between 300 BCE and 350 AD. India and Brazil rank as the world's top two sugar producers every year, though which country is first and which is second can vary from year to year. Djibouti produces the least amount of sugar, having produced roughly five metric tons in 2019. Roughly 80% of all granulated sugar comes from sugarcane, which grows well in tropical climates, with approximately 20% coming from sugar beets, which prefer more temperate growing conditions.
The process of extracting sugar from the source crop varies slightly depending upon the crop. Once harvested, sugarcane is sent to a mill where it is washed, then crushed to release the juice (the solid biomass, called bagasse, is often used to produce paper or burned as biofuel to power the factory). A clarifying agent (usually lime) is added and the juice is repeatedly heated and filtered to eliminate any impurities. Next, the juice is then "seeded" with a solution of sucrose, glycerin, and alcohol, which encourages the sugar to crystallize, and run through evaporators to draw out the water in the solution. Once that step is complete, the solution is slowly cooled and centrifuged, which separates the crystallized raw cane sugar from liquid molasses. The raw sugar is then rinsed and dried.
In some countries (such as India), the raw sugar may be sent to market in this state. In other countries, the raw sugar is further processed into refined sugar by dissolving it in hot water and using charcoal (such as coconut charcoal or animal-based bone char) and additional filtration to further decolor and purify it. It is then re-crystallized, re-dried, tumbled in a granulator, filtered by granule size, and packaged.
The process of extracting beet sugar is largely similar, but simpler. The clarification process is less complex and uses calcium carbonate and/or calcium sulfite rather than lime, and extra refining processes (including the possible use of bone char) are unnecessary.
According to 2022 data released by the American Sugar Alliance, the United States sugar industry employs 142,000 people and contributes $20 billion USD to the economy each year. The US is one of only a handful of countries that grows both sugarcane and sugar beets.
Sugar-Producing States in the U.S.:
|State||Source Crop||State||Source Crop|
|California||Sugar beets||Montana||Sugar beets|
|Colorado||Sugar beets||Nebraska||Sugar beets|
|Florida||Sugarcane||North Dakota||Sugar beets|
|Idaho||Sugar beets||Oregon||Sugar beets|
|Michigan||Sugar beets||Washington||Sugar beets|
|Minnesota||Sugar beets||Wyoming||Sugar beets|
An estimated $3.36 billion flows into the United States from Minnesota's sugar production industry alone, which employs roughly 28,000 people. In addition to the 14 states that grow sugar source crops, 24 states have distribution centers. For example, although the state of New York does not produce or process sugar, it is home to multiple sugar distribution centers, which employ more than 1,000 people and generate some $292 million in revenue.