Sugar and Consumption in the 1700s
Sugar is the broad term used to describe shorter-chain carbohydrates used in food. Sugar has a sweetening effect. There are many types of sugar: Sucrose is simple table sugar, fructose is sugar from fruits, and lactose is milk sugar. More complex, longer-chain sugars also exist. Sugar can be found in most plants, but can only be harvested from sugarcane and sugar beets due to its higher concentration in those plants.
The exact origin of sugar is not known, but it is believed that sugar was first discovered by the Polynesians over 5000 years ago. They discovered that a sweet liquid could be extracted from the stalks of a tall grass. This sugar liquid was brought to the coastal cities of India and did not migrate further for many years. The next historical mention of sugar was in 510 BC when Darius, a Persian emperor, attempted to conquer the people of India. He found that unlike the Persians, who used honey to sweeten their food, the Indians used liquid from a plant. Roughly 700 AD, Arabs invaded Persia and brought the sugar cane plant back with them. Trade between Arabs and others spread sugarcane to most of the Mediterannean. In the 11th century, the crusades brought sugar, known as “sweet salt”, to the western Europeans. In 1493, Christopher Colombus introduced sugarcane to the people of the Dominican Republic. The plant flourished in the heavy precipitation and heat. This would shape the New World, as many flocked to the continent to grow this “white gold.” European countries brought slaves to the West Indies to work on sugarcane plantations. The slave trade was driven almost entirely by the European’s greed for sugar.
In 1655, Britain conquered Jamaica, taking control over from Spain; hereafter, Great Britain would become a larger player in the sugar market. Sugar production skyrocketed in Britain. Within 100 years, British factories were producing 30,000 tons of sugar per year. Taxes on sugar were steep; for a very long time, only the nobility could afford sugar. Sugar reportedly cost 100 pounds per kilogram, the equivalent of In 1781, the government collected 326,000 pounds sterling in taxes on sugar. By 1815, the government had collected 3 million pounds sterling in taxes.
In 1754, it was discovered that beets contained a large amount of sucrose that can be harvested for sugar. Beets are not as efficient to grow and harvest as sugar cane, but beets can grow in a wider range of climates. Despite this, it wasn’t until the Napoleonic wars when the British navy blockaded French ports that beets were grown on a large scale to produce sugar.
Sugar can be produced from Sugarcane. Sugarcane is a perennial grass that grows best in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Sugarcane is harvested, milled, and then the juice is extracted with water or by diffusion. This juice is highly concentrated sugar water. The sugar water is filtered and heated to kill bacteria and enzymes. The remaining solution is heated to evaporate the water and crystalline sugar will precipitate out.
Sugar can also be produced from sugar beet. Sugar beet is a tuberous root that contains a large amount of sucrose. The sugar beet is harvested and sliced, and the sugar is extracted by diffusion. Again, the juice is filtered, heated, and heated a second time to crystallize out the sugar.
Sugar is primarily used for cooking, but has many other uses. Simple granulated sugar is used to sweeten foods and drinks. The granulated sugar can be milled into a fine powder, called powdered sugar, and used to garnish confectioner’s treats and in baking. Brown sugar is formed by soaking granulated sugar in molasses. This sugar is used for all types of cooking. Sugar cubes are formed by steaming granulated sugar and pressing it into cubes. Sugar cubes are used for sweetening drinks. In the Americas, sugar was fermented to produce rum, a substance much more valuable but much less available in England.
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