It will be necessary for students to be provided or to find some background into the history of sugar and other sweeteners. There is an extraordinary breadth of information about what seems to be a simple subject - sugar. I suggest that this part of the unit can either begin or be taught alongside the science portion. Check out the bibliography at the end of this unit for suggested references. I recommend chapter 13 of McGee's book and especially Sugar by Jacqueline Dineen.
It has been said that the first taste of sweetness after mother's milk is honey. Honey has been consumed by humans for centuries. It can only be imagined how early humans first discovered and tasted the sweet substance that the bees were storing in their hives. The bible is full of references to honey and there are hieroglyphics of bee keeping and honey as far back as the Egyptians.
While most plants form sugar through the process of photosynthesis, people have found only two of these plants are practical enough to raise for sugar. These include sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar cane is like tall grass that can grow to over ten to fifteen feet tall. Historically speaking the sugar cane was found by the Persian emperor Darius in India in the fourth century. Darius referred to it "as the reed which gives honey without the help of bees."Later the use of sugar cane found its way to the Middle East and the countries around the Mediterranean.
In Europe they continued to use honey to sweeten their food until the eleventh century. At that time the soldiers returning from the wars in the Middle East brought home sugar. Its taste was used the mask the bitterness of some of the drugs given to patients. These "confections" (from the Latin conficere, to "put together, or "to prepare") were made by ancient druggist. It was very expensive. During the next few centuries sugar remained a high price commodity that was carried by caravans overland to Europe.
In 1493 when Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the West Indies, he planted some sugar cane seedlings that he had brought with him. The sugar cane thrived in the warm climate and soon sugar found its way back to Spain. Sugar cane is a highly perishable crop. Once it is cut, it must be crushed and the syrup removed the same day. Because there were not enough laborers to do all the work the slave trade developed. In Africa, warring tribes sometimes enslaved their defeated enemies. European slave traders stole or bought these slaves and transported them to the Caribbean where those who survived were sold to plantation owners.
Figure 1: Sugar Plantation on the island of Reunion in the late 1800's
Even after the sugar trade began to flourish in the Caribbean, it was still very expensive and was sold by the ounce not the pound. During the seventeenth century there was more sugar flowing into Europe and candy makers appeared to sell candy to the prosperous middle class. One of the first sugar candies was marzipan which is a paste made with finely chopped almonds. Candy making spread and the different cultures and countries developed a variety of candy. The American colonies found the use of maple sugar and maple syrup. Hard candies first appeared in England on a large scale in the nineteenth century; while the United States made the manufacturing of candy a leading industry in the twentieth century.
One of the most significant developments in the sugar industry came about with the discovery by a Prussian chemist Andreas Marggraf that the juice of the white beet which was a common European vegetable could be an alternative to sugar cane. Sugar beets as they are now called have a leafy green top where the sugar is produced and roots underground where the sugar is stored. Sugar beets have a two year life cycle. Farmers usually pick them after the first year when their roots are full of sugar. Sugar beets are usually rotated with another crop such as wheat or corn. They are fast growing so that beets planted in the spring are harvested in the fall. Sugar beets are not as perishable as sugar cane and they can be grown in more moderate climates.
In the United States most of the sugar beets are grown in California, Colorado, and Utah. Sugar cane is grown in Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas. At present about 30% of the world's sugar comes from beet sugar.