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Sugar is the generalized name for a class of chemically-related sweet-flavored substances, most of which are used as food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide (in the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose). Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.

Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is a giant grass and has been cultivated in tropical climates in the Far East since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the common people who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet is a root crop, is cultivated in cooler climates, and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century when methods for extracting the sugar became available. Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways. It influenced the formation of colonies, the perpetuation of slavery, the transition to indentured labour, the migration of peoples, wars between sugar trade-controlling nations in the 19th century, and the ethnic composition and political structure of the new world.

The world produced about 168 million tonnes of sugar in 2011. The average person consumes about 24 kilograms of sugar each year (33.1 kg in industrialised countries), equivalent to over 260 food calories per person, per day.
Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is bad for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.

Sugar has been produced in the Indian subcontinent[8] since ancient times. It was not plentiful or cheap in early times and honey was more often used for sweetening in most parts of the world. Originally, people chewed raw sugarcane to extract its sweetness. Sugarcane was a native of tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia.[9] Different species seem to have originated from different locations with Saccharum barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea.[9][10] One of the earliest historical references to sugarcane is in Chinese manuscripts dating back to 8th century BC which mention the fact that the use of sugarcane originated in India.[11]

Sugar remained relatively unimportant until the Indians discovered methods of turning sugarcane juice into granulated crystals that were easier to store and to transport.[12] Crystallized sugar was discovered by the time of the Imperial Guptas, around 5th century AD.[12] In the local Indian language, these crystals were called khanda (Devanagari:खण्ड,Khaṇḍa) which is the source of the word candy.[13]

Indian sailors, who carried clarified butter and sugar as supplies, introduced knowledge of sugar on the various trade routes they travelled.[12] Buddhist monks, as they travelled around, brought sugar crystallization methods to China.[14] During the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647) in North India, Indian envoys in Tang China taught methods of cultivating sugarcane after Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626–649) made his interest in sugar known. China then established its first sugarcane plantations in the seventh century.[15] Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 AD, to obtain technology for sugar-refining.[16] In South Asia, the Middle East and China, sugar became a staple of cooking and desserts.

The triumphant progress of Alexander the Great was halted on the banks of the Indus River by the refusal of his troops to go further east. They saw people in the Indian subcontinent growing sugarcane and making granulated, salt-like sweet powder, locally called Sharkara (Devanagari:शर्करा,Śarkarā), pronounced as saccharum (ζάκχαρι). On their return journey, the Macedonian soldiers carried the “honey bearing reeds” home with them. Sugarcane remained a little-known crop in Europe for over a millennium, sugar a rare commodity, and traders of sugar wealthy.[11]

Crusaders brought sugar home with them to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying “sweet salt”. Early in the 12th century, Venice acquired some villages near Tyre and set up estates to produce sugar for export to Europe, where it supplemented honey which had previously been the only available sweetener.[17] Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as “very necessary for the use and health of mankind”.[18] In the 15th century, Venice was the chief sugar refining and distribution centre in Europe

In August 1492, Christopher Columbus stopped at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for wine and water, intending to stay only four days. He became romantically involved with the governor of the island, Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, and stayed a month. When he finally sailed, she gave him cuttings of sugarcane, which became the first to reach the New World.[19]

Sugar was a luxury in Europe prior to the 18th century, when it became more widely available. It then became popular and by the 19th century, sugar became considered a necessity. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes.[20] It drove, in part, colonization of tropical islands and nations where labor-intensive sugarcane plantations and sugar manufacturing could thrive. The demand for cheap labor to perform the hard work involved in its cultivation and processing increased the demand for the slave trade from Africa (in particular West Africa). After slavery was abolished, there was high demand for indentured laborers from South Asia (in particular India).[21][22][23] Millions of slave and indentured laborers were brought into the Caribbean and the Americas, Indian Ocean colonies, southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, and East Africa and Natal. The modern ethnic mix of many nations that have been settled in the last two centuries has been influenced by the demand for sugar.[24][25][26]

Sugar also led to some industrialization of former colonies. For example, Lieutenant J. Paterson, of the Bengal establishment, persuaded the British Government that sugar cane could be cultivated in British India with many advantages and at less expense than in the West Indies. As a result, a number of sugar factories were established in Bihar in eastern India.[27]

During the Napoleonic Wars, sugar beet production increased in continental Europe because of the difficulty of importing sugar when shipping was subject to blockade. By 1880, the sugar beet was the main source of sugar in Europe. It was cultivated in Lincolnshire and other parts of England, although the United Kingdom continued to import the main part of its sugar from its colonies.[28]

Until the late nineteenth century, sugar was purchased in loaves, which had to be cut using implements called Sugar nips.[29] In later years, granulated sugar was more usually sold in bags.

Sugar cubes were produced in the nineteenth century. The first inventor of a process to make sugar in cube form was Moravian Jakub Kryštof Rad, director of a sugar company in Dačice. He began sugar cube production after being granted a five-year patent for the invention on January 23, 1843. Henry Tate of Tate & Lyle was another early manufacturer of sugar cubes at his refineries in Liverpool and London.


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