Ibrahim Belo Written by Ibrahim Belo

Beet Sugar: Everything you need to know

Sugar is found in many everyday foods, beverages and medicines, often without our knowledge except when we investigate the label carefully. Beet sugar, derived from the sugar beet plant, is often the source. This blog is a guide to the world of the sugar beet, explaining how beet sugar is made and how Ragus produces a wide range of pure sugar ingredients for industry from this versatile raw material.  

Producing sugar from beet is historically recent

Sugar beet was originally grown in temperate regions for animal feed and as a garden vegetable. It was not until the 16th century that French soil scientist Olivier de Serres discovered sugar beet contained sucrose fluid, the same substance found in sugarcane. When German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf pioneered sugar production from beet in 1747, his discovery was shortly followed by the first sugar beet refinery in Poland.

Before the First World War, the majority of white sugar was imported from Austria and Germany, but this disruption in trade meant nearly all sugar imports had switched from beet to cane sugar, the rationing of which was administered by Ragus’ founder Charles Eastick for which he was later awarded the MBE. Today, British beet growers make up just over 50% of the UKs demand for sugar.

Sugar beets harvest during the months of October through to the following March.

Harvesting sugar

Sugar beet is a root vegetable that grows in the ground. After seven months, a mature sugar beet can grow as large as 300mm long, weighing up to two kilograms. On average, a sugar beet is approximately 16-18% sucrose, which is concentrated in its taproot

Sugar beet is a winter crop in the northern hemisphere and grown in Russia, Poland, China, Germany and the USA. In the UK, it is grown mainly in Lincolnshire and East Anglia.

For sugar beet harvesting in the temperate Northern Hemisphere, this annual process starts in the Spring when the beet is sown. Approximately seven months later, the harvest begins in October and will continue through winter ready to finish by the end of March.

Processing sugar beet into crystalline sucrose

Once fully harvested, the beets are placed into a pile known as a clamp where the beet is accumulated before being loaded onto lorries and taken away for further processing. Arriving at the factory, the sugar is then extracted using a largely mechanical process. Unlike sugar cane, which is first cut and crushed, sugar beet is sliced, purified, filtered and boiled.

The beet slices go into a large hot water tank where they are soaked, breaking down their cell membranes. A brown sugary pulp is then formed, and pumped into a diffusion chamber, creating a sugary raw juice ready for purification. The non-sugary element from the sugar beet is pressed to remove any excess juice ready to be dried to form pellets and sold as animal feed.

Further purification stages include settling out non-sugar particles then multiple stages of evaporation to generate a thick syrup. The syrup is then seeded with tiny sugar crystals which grow when the syrup is concentrated in a vacuum, and the remaining liquid is removed in a centrifuge. Finally, the sugar is washed, dried and sieved to become the familiar white granulated sugar we see on supermarket shelves, sucrose.

combine harvester in fleid

The latest sugar beet harvesting, situated in Cambridge. 

Producing industrial sugars and syrups from white beet sugar

Once beet sugar has been refined and arrives at our factory, it is manufactured into different pure sugar ingredients, including other crystallines such as brown sugars, and syrups:

Soft brown light sugar, where beet sugar is expertly blended with our refiner’s syrup and treacle blend, giving soft brown light sugar its distinctive colour and flavour.

Dark soft brown sugar, also using beet sugar that is blended with our unique molasses syrup and treacle blend, giving dark soft brown sugar its distinctive dark brown colour and rich flavour.

Liquid sugars, are produced by adding the beet sugar with water, which is heated and liquified until the sugar has dissolved and the correct ratio of sucrose to water has been achieved.

Invert sugar syrup, inverting a sugar syrup made from white crystalline beet sugar in inversion pans. Ragus produces two types of invert sugar syrup: fully inverted sugar syrup and partially inverted sugar syrup, such as golden syrup.

Invert sugar syrup is so-called because light passed through it reflects in the opposite direction to when shone through sucrose. The sugar is, therefore, inverted. Charles Eastick, Ragus’ founder, applied the same logic when choosing the company name: Ragus is ‘sugar’ backwards.

Beet sugar is able to produce a range of sugar products.

What applications does white granulated beet sugar have?

Each sugar beet contains approximately 16% – 18% sugar, and once produced into beet, provides just over half of all the sugar we consume. The UK government recommends that no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake should come from ‘free’ sugars, which are the sugars added to food and drink. However, sugar is not just used to sweeten food and drink, it has many essential roles, including as a bulking agent, a humectant to preserve moisture, a natural preservative and to improve the texture and mouthfeel of food.

For example, brown sugar is an ingredient in baked goods, cakes and sweets. And Liquid sugars are found in beverages such as soft drinks, for example cola, lemonade, fruit blends and sports drinks.

Invert sugars manufactured from white crystalline beet sugar are also found in soft drinks as sweeteners, in icings and fondants, ice creams and sorbets, as well as frozen cakes, sauces and baked goods. And, of course, golden syrup is probably the best-known invert syrup.

Beet is used in a variety of foods and products.

Beet sugar or cane sugar?

The sugar selection is determined by the desired characteristics in the finished product since different sugars play key roles in the final taste, texture and appearance. Beet and cane sugars may both be found in a variety of foods including sweets and processed foods, however, they have some distinctions that set them apart.

Once beet sugar and cane sugar are processed and manufactured, our experienced team at Ragus consistently apply the same rigorous testing to ensure the highest quality in each batch when leaving the factory.

Ragus manufactures bulk pure sugars and syrups for industry. To learn more about how our pure sugar products can enhance your application, contact a member of our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or enquiries@ragus.co.uk. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.