Is this the best song of all time? Probably. It is one of those tunes that you will be rocking to every time you waltz up to your neighbour’s front door asking to borrow a cup of the stuff.
Most of us use “the white death” every day without giving a second thought to where it comes from. That bag of brand X granulated sugar on your shelf, what do you know about it? Is it beet sugar from Canada or cane sugar from south of the equator? Today we have a brief look at some of the options available for your consideration.
The growing of sugar cane in Canada is impossible because of our climate, so 90% of Canadian refined sugar is produced from raw cane sugar imported from tropical regions including South and Central America, Australia and the Caribbean. The raw sugar is transported by ship in bulk cargo to refineries in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. Here it is refined to separate the pure sugar crystals from molasses, plant residue and impurities. The other 10% is refined beet sugar from domestically grown sugar beets in Alberta. Whether produced from cane or beet, the refined sugar is the same — pure sucrose.
Available in three main categories: white granulated sugar, liquid sugar and specialty sugars, 88% of Canada’s sugar production is destined for the industrial market, so the stuff you see on your grocery shelves represents only 12% of the sugar refined in Canada.
Sugarcane is harvested by hand and mechanically. Hand harvesting accounts for more than half of production, and is dominant in the developing world. In hand harvesting, the field is first set on fire. The fire burns dry leaves, and kills any lurking venomous snakes, without harming the stalks and roots. Harvesters then cut the cane just above ground-level using cane knives or machetes. A skilled harvester can cut 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of sugarcane per hour.
Mills extract raw sugar from freshly harvested cane, and sometimes bleach it to make “mill white” sugar for local consumption. Refining further purifies the raw sugar. It is first mixed with heavy syrup and then centrifuged in a process called “affination”. Its purpose is to wash away the sugar crystals’ outer coating, which is less pure than the crystal interior. The remaining sugar is then dissolved to make a syrup, about 60 percent solids by weight.
The sugar solution is clarified by the addition of phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, which combine to precipitate calcium phosphate. The calcium phosphate particles entrap some impurities and absorb others, and then float to the top of the tank, where they can be skimmed off. An alternative to this “phosphatation” technique is “carbonation”, which is similar, but uses carbon dioxide and calcium hydroxide to produce a calcium carbonate precipitate.
After filtering any remaining solids, the clarified syrup is decolorized by filtration through activated carbon. Bone char is traditionally used in this role. For those of you wondering what “bone char” is, it is a granular material produced by charring and grinding animal bones. To prevent the spread of mad cow disease, the skull and spines are not used. Oh goody.
Some remaining color-forming impurities adsorb to the carbon. The purified syrup is then concentrated to supersaturation and repeatedly crystallized in a vacuum, to produce white refined sugar. As in a sugar mill, the sugar crystals are separated from the molasses by centrifuging. Additional sugar is recovered by blending the remaining syrup with the washings from affination and again crystallizing to produce brown sugar. When no more sugar can be economically recovered, the final molasses still contains 20–30 percent sucrose and 15–25 percent glucose and fructose.
To produce granulated sugar in which individual grains do not clump, sugar must be dried, first by heating in a rotary dryer, and then by blowing cool air through it for several days.
Many consumers motivated by ethical and dietary considerations, opt to purchase products that are Fair Trade Certified-guaranteeing that a fair price is paid directly to the farmers– organic and free of animal by-products used in their production.
“Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Sugar” is “grown and produced without the use of herbicides, chemicals or bleaching agents and is not filtered through animal by-products” Fair Trade Certified means the farmers “can compete with factory farms whilst protecting sustainable farming practices. It also means they can enjoy higher living standards and develop thriving communities.”
You might want to think about some of this the next time you’re asked if you’d like one lump or two.