Brief History of Sugar
Sugar is an ancient crop. When first discovered, sugar was scarce, costly to grow and difficult to harvest. This is why honey enjoyed great popularity in ancient times as a sweetener, in place of sugar.
Refined white sugar was once a rare and precious commodity, popularly called “White Gold.” With the slow advent of agricultural revolutions, enhanced farming techniques and technological leaps, sugar has become readily available.
The English word of sugar has its roots in the Spanish word, “azucar” which was itself derived from the Arabic word “shaker.” Sugar’s morphing name is representative of its history.
Sugar cane is thought to have originated in New Guinea. The people of New Guinea first domesticated sugarcane around 8,000 B.C. From New Guinea, it spread to Southeast Asia, China and India. Commercial sugar originated in the fourth century in India. By the 6th century, Persia and the Arab world began using sugar extensively. Sugar was discovered by the Europeans during the Crusades in the 11th century, and in the 14th century, sugar reached the Iberian Peninsula.
Christopher Columbus brought sugar to the new world in 1493. Soon, large plantations sprang up in Brazil. From there, sugarcane products like sugar, molasses and rum were exported across the Atlantic. By the 16th century South America ran over 3,000 sugar mills and sugar cultivation was a major factor in the rise of European colonies in the New World.
Sugarcane was brought to Jamestown, Virginia in the United States in 1619. At the time of the Civil War, almost half of the United States’s sugar came from Cuba, the other half from Louisiana. After the American Civil War, the U.S. imported over 80% of its sugar from Cuba, and nearly 2/3rd of Cuban sugar was directed towards the U.S. Sugar was one of the main forces behind annexing Hawaii to the U.S.
In the 1800s, U.S. grocery stores carried portable mills to grind lumps of sugar into granules. But with the invention of canning, white sugar demand soared. This demand was further propelled by the creation of ice cream in the mid 1800s.
During the twentieth century, the market for sugar endured several price fluctuations and governments around the world tried to stabilize prices through controlled production. Major world events like the Great Depression, the World Wars and the Cuban Revolution affected sugar prices. Sugar futures began being traded in New York in 1914, on the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange and the New York Board of Trade. In 1937 came the International Sugar Agreement, one of the many agreements that tried to balance supply and demand in the sugar market. Since then, sugar has continued to be one of the most politically regulated commodities in the world markets.
Where is Sugar Produced?
Three countries dominate the global sugar production: Brazil, India and China. Brazil produces nearly twice the quantity of sugar than India, and accounts for nearly 25% of all sugar produced in the world. In 2010, Brazil’s sugar output was 39.5 million tons, while India produced 26.5 million tons and the European Union produced 16.1 million tons of sugar.
Nearly 70% of all sugar produced in the world is consumed in the country of its origin; the rest is traded globally. Brazil, Australia, Thailand, the E.U., and Cuba are responsible for over 70% of the total free market exports in the world. Brazil is solely accountable for nearly one third of the world’s exports.
How is Sugar Used?
Today, over 7 billion people in the world consumer around 165 million tons of sugar—nearly 23 kg per capita on average. The 10 largest sugar consumers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the total world consumption of sugar.
While sugar consumption is reaching saturation in developed countries, Asia and the Middle East have a growing sugar market. In fact, emerging markets are the biggest sugar consumers. In 2010, India was the world’s largest sugar consuming nation, with over 24 million tons of consumption, followed by the European Union at 17 million tons and China at 15 million tons.