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Botanical name: Saccharum officinarum



Sugarcane probably originated in tropical Southeast Asia, more particularly in Polynesia and New Guinea. With the discovery of America, it was brought to the tropical regions there, where it was cultivated in the same way as in China and India. Today sugarcane is grown worldwide in all tropical and subtropical regions.

Appearance, taste, characteristics

Sugarcane belongs to the swamp grasses and is one of the world's economically most significant plants. It fills about 60% of the yearly demand for sugar, the rest being supplied by the sugar beet. The process for extracting sugar was developed in India 2000–3000 years ago.

Sugarcane resembles bamboo. The stalks are yellow-green and have thin, green leaves that can be up to 2 m long. Due to deposits of silicic acid, the leaves are rough-edged. On them grow large shiny blossoms.

Only the stalks are relevant for the extraction of sugar. They grow from a rootstalk that extends deep into the soil, and they can be up to 4 m high and 7 cm thick. The stalk is divided into 10–40 internodes that are covered with wax.

Inside the cane is a sweet pith or pulp that normally fills two thirds of the stalk. The sugar content of this pulp is as high as 18%.

The plant must grow for at least 12 months before it is harvested. Because it stops growing at temperatures below 20°C, cultivation is possible only in tropical and subtropical regions. There are two ways of growing sugarcane: Either it is planted fresh each year, or the plant is allowed to sprout again and again, in which case it can produce for up to 20 years.

Sugarcane is harvested when all leaves except those at the top have died off. To simplify the harvest and to reduce the bulk amount that must be transported, the fields are frequently set on fire. This causes the blossoms and leaves to burn, but the stalks and the pulp they contain remain undamaged. This procedure is extremely harmful, however, as useful plants and small animals are killed, and smoke and fumes that are injurious to health are set free.

The ripeness of the stalk and the sugar content are unimportant for the harvest, which lasts for 6–10 months per year. The time of harvest is based rather on the capacity of the sugar factories, as the cane can be stored there for a maximum of only 2 days; otherwise it may become infested with micro-organisms that break down the sugar.


The vitamins and minerals contained in sugarcane are in such negligible amounts that they do not contribute significantly to filling the daily requirements. Sugarcane contains no fiber.

Form of consumption, use, processing, practical tips for preparation

To extract the sugar, the stalks are cut into small pieces and pressed between rollers. Depending on the pressing process, the yield can lie between 50% and 90%. The sugar juice is heated and mixed with lime, which helps to precipitate impurities. The purified sugar juice is then concentrated by heating until a syrup forms containing sugar crystals and molasses.

In order to obtain refined white sugar, the crystals are separated from the molasses and thus also from the minerals it contains. This is done in a centrifuge with water. The following types of sugar are differentiated, according to the degree of processing:

* Whole raw sugar

This brown sugar is not refined at all, but rather obtained by heating to high temperatures or by extracting the moisture in a vacuum. This produces a mass consisting of molasses and sugar that does not form crystals. It is then ground.

* Raw sugar

While the liquid is vaporizing, sugar crystals are added to the sugar juice to initiate crystallization. Through simple refining a portion of the molasses is removed. The sugar thus loses most of the minerals and takes on a lighter colour.

* Granulated / white sugar

This is refined until it no longer contains any molasses residues and is pure white. White sugar contains no vitamins whatsoever and almost no minerals.

The molasses that is left over from the refining process is used as fodder or in the production of alcohol and yeast. The bagasse, i.e., the leftover stalks, is also by no means waste, but is used to make paper and to obtain organic ethanol.

In the countries where sugarcane is grown, presses are frequently seen along the roads; the cane stalks are pressed and the sugar juice is sold directly to the passers-by. It is also popular to suck out the rind from which the pulp has been removed and then chew it.

Fermented juice is used to make Cuban rum or Brazilian cachaça.





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