How Sugar is Made

Once a luxury and now a staple, sugar is one of those things we can’t get enough of! The story of the sweet stuff is 10,000 years in the making and there are lots of different types of sugar. Read on to find out the answer to the question ‘how do you make sugar?

Engineering How It’s Made
26 September 2022

Sugar is a carbohydrate that adds sweetness to food and drinks. It’s found in nature in the form of sugarcane and sugar beet, but it is also produced artificially. It’s also one of the world’s most heavily traded commodities.

Today, the global sugar market is worth billions of pounds and it’s produced in over a hundred countries around the world. In fact in 2020, over two billion tons of sugar was produced with the major manufacturers – Brazil and India – accounting for around half that amount.

So, we like a lot of sugar, but how is sugar made from sugarcane? You’re about to find out.

A Short and Sweet History of Sugar

Sprinkling sugar on cornflakes (Photo: Peter Dazeley via Getty Images)

The pursuit of sweetness is literally programmed into us. The genes that instruct the reception of sugar on our taste buds have been found in primates like monkeys and rodents and were there long before humans evolved.

Sugar itself has a long and complex history. As early as 8,000 BC, the people of New Guinea would chew on the reeds of sugarcane plants for their sweetness. From there, it spread to India, China, and the Middle East. Eventually, sugar found its way to the Mediterranean around the thirteenth century, where Cyprus and Sicily became centres for the production of sugar.

Through the Middle Ages and as recently as the nineteenth century, sugar was considered to be a rare and valuable spice like cinnamon, ginger and saffron rather than the ubiquitous food it has become today.

In modern times, sugar has become one of the most common foodstuffs on Earth but how is white sugar made and how is brown sugar made?

How Sugar is Made

Sugar is made from sugar beet and sugarcane, but what is the difference between the two? Sugar from sugar cane comes from the whole stem of the plant, and grows above ground. Sugar from sugar beet comes from the root of the plant which grows underground.

Sugar beet can be grown in both cold and warm climates, whilst sugarcane requires warmer, more tropical conditions. Sugar from beet also contains slightly more impurities, thus giving it a slightly bitter aftertaste compared with the fruitier flavour of cane sugar.

So, how is sugar made from sugarcane? Sugar is made from sugarcane through a multi-step process. The initial step being the harvesting itself and the transportation of the sugarcane to the processing plant. From here, the process of manufacturing sugar can be broken down into a number of key steps.

The Cleaning

The raw canes are cleaned using jets of water and passed through industrial-sized combs to remove any excess soil and rocks. They’re then ready to be milled.

The Juice Extraction

The hard stalks of the canes are broken down inside a crusher and then rotating hammers break them down further into small pieces. These pieces are fed through a series of mills to separate the sweet liquid from the fibrous stalks, which is known as bagasse. This bagasse can be used as a fuel to produce steam in factories as well as in the manufacture of paper, insulating board, and hardboard.

The sweet liquid is then bleached in a process known as sulphurtation. Next in the process of how sugar is made is adding powdered lime to mix. Lime – a white, powdery substance used in agriculture, chemical manufacturing and various construction materials – is an essential ingredient in sugar production. It’s used to adjust the pH of the sugarcane juice, which helps to initiate the process of sugar crystallisation. Lime also prevents the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms in the sugar syrup.

With the lime added, the mixture is churned for up to six hours and then added to purifier tanks, which allow impurities to fall to the bottom and the clarified juice collects at the top. It’s a complex, time-consuming process, and even at this point in the manufacture there remain a number of additional steps in the process of how white sugar is made?

The Evaporation

The juice is now boiled in evaporator tanks, which bring the concentration of sugar in the juice from 15% up to 60%, while any remaining impurities are also extracted. Next, sucrose crystals steeped in alcohol are added to the clarified syrup which helps to draw out the sugar.

The Boiling

The syrup is then boiled in vacuum tanks and this is where the sugar crystals are formed. It’s then added to a rotating drum at 1,200 RPM which separates the sugar crystals from the uncrystallised syrup.

The Drying

The sugar is added to a huge rotating ryer which brings the humidity level down to 0.02%. Once this process is complete, the sugar can be packed up and shipped out.

How is Brown Sugar Made?

Brown granular sugar and cubes (Photo: BURCU ATALAY TANKUT via Getty Images)

Nutritionally, white and brown sugar are fairly similar, but how is brown sugar made? The only difference is that brown sugar is processed with molasses (a dark syrup made as a by-product of the sugar-making process). It’s the molasses which gives brown sugar the colour and flavour difference.

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