White, brown or golden, but it’s not a precious stone…What is it?

Honey, fruits, alcoholic beverages, starchy food, milk. What do you think this food has in common? What we are talking about is sugar. Referred to the food mentioned above, it is in the form of sucrose, fructose, lactose and glucose, that are various carbohydrate-compounds. Yet, we have always seen it in the form of sugary crystals added to sweeten our coffee or tea.

Where does sugar come from?

As most things we eat, we are given sugar by nature. It comes from the stems of sugarcane and the root of sugar beet, respectively a grass that has found its best conditions to grow in tropical countries and a root whose cultivation is more suitable to cooler climates. Sugarcane was cultivated in New Guinea and its surrounding islands since ancient times.

Its cultivation later began to spread to China, India and Indonesia even reaching North Africa. It was only in the 12th century that Europeans got to know sugar during Crusades in the Holy Land, which in turn had learnt it under Arabians’ influence. Eventually, sugar was known in the Caribbean and America thanks to Columbus.

Brown sugar

How sugar is obtained

Originally, most people used honey to sweeten their food. Sugarcane was usually chewed to extract its sweetness. Nowadays, sugar crystals that we are used to seeing are the result of a process that foresees the sucrose extraction and its crystallization. Basically, both sugarcane and sugar beet are sliced and a sugary juice is extracted by the chemical process of diffusion.

This juice is put to cool and is sprinkled with sugar crystals. Thus, the sugar contained in the juice turns into crystals that separate from the fluid. Sugar can have different colours, depending on how much it is refined. The most and the least refined sugar are respectively the white and the brown one. That means that the more sugar colour shades into lighter or darker tone, the more or less refined it is.

White sugar

Sugar's many uses

Everybody knows that sugar is used to sweeten food. Yet, sugar’s utility doesn’t limit to this. Sugar is a good food preservative, since it inhibits water-based food from producing bacteria and mold, as it happens for fruit turned into jam. Moreover, jam is a clear example of how sugar not only preserves fruit but is also useful to give consistency. Let’s think of chocolate, tart and biscuits, whose crunchiness is given by sugar, or a mousse, whose structure is also due to it.

Sugar is also added to alcoholic beverages during fermentation: this helps alcoholic degree increase!

And for those who love making homemade pizzas from scratch, adding a little of sugar before kneading your dough will make it rise more and a fluffier pizza is assured!!

Health impact of sugar

Sugar is important for our diet since it provides our body with energy. Yet, its intake must be limited. An excessive amount of sugars in our diet can lead to obesity that, in turn, leads to cardiovascular problems. Besides, some studies have supposed that a sugar-rich diet causes not only tooth caries but also diabetes, and is also one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. It also seems that a sugar addiction is possible, since the consumption of sugar stimulates brain to release endorphins, the happiness hormone.

Sources - Sugar - Sugar addiction - Technical properties of sugar - Barbabietola da zucchero - Storia dello zucchero

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