Sugar Beet

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), which, unlike sugarcane, thrives in temperate climates, has since the mid-nineteenth century been a commercially important alternative source of sucrose. At the time, it was an especially important source for northern nations lacking tropical colonies, or for those unwilling to purchase sugar produced by slaves.

The recognition of the beet’s industrial potential as a sweetener dates back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1600, Olivier de Serres, a French agronomist, documented similarities between boiled beet juice and sugar syrup, thus making a scientific fact out of a phenomenon that had long been known in kitchens around the world. Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, a German chemist, reported in 1747 that he had extracted sugar from beets. In 1801, Frederick William III of Prussia provided funds so that Marggraf’s student, Franz Karl Achard, could establish a sugar beet farm and a beet sugar factory in Silesia. In 1811, facing complaints from cooks and consumers who could not get sugar from cane grown on British plantations in the Caribbean—there was a British blockade of Continental Europe and a Napoleonic ban on commerce with the enemy—Napoleon decreed that sugar beets be planted in France, that factories be established, and that schools provide instruction in the business. By midcentury, beet sugar was a major industry in Europe and competitive with cane sugar on the world market. Sales of beet sugar outpaced those of cane sugar in the 1880s. Beet sugar today accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s sugar production.