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Manufacturing sugarcane in bulk: responsible sourcing and production
Sugarcane is our planet’s largest food crop. Approximately 80% of the sugar consumed globally is produced from sugarcane, and around 1.5 billion tonnes were produced from farming in 22/23. Sugarcane is also the raw material for many of the pure sugars we manufacture at Ragus. In this blog, we take a closer look at sugarcane manufacturing, including sugarcane cultivation, sourcing and bulk production. Discover what happens to sugarcane on its journey from field to final destination.
What is sugarcane?
Saccharum officinarum, commonly known as sugarcane, is a fibrous, perennial plant that belongs to the Andropogoneae tribe of grasses in the Poaceae family. Reaching a height of up to five metres and five centimetres in diameter, sugarcane requires a significant amount of rain and heat in the summer and a mild winter to thrive. For this reason, major growers include Brazil, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Australia.
Sugarcane has grown wild in the tropical and subtropical regions of India, south-east Asia and New Guinea for far longer than it has been cultivated. An ancient crop, humans have cultivated sugarcane for the last 10,000 years, starting with the indigenous people of New Guinea, who chewed it raw.
Today, sugarcane is cultivated for its juice, to produce a range of sugar products, including molasses and increasingly using the fibrous plant material bagasse, a by-product of cultivation, in waste-to-energy. Most sugarcane growing states have indigenous sugar refining operations that produce white refined crystalline sucrose (table sugar) and cane sugars like muscovado, demerara, raw cane crystalline sugars and increasingly molasses.
Sourcing sugarcane responsibly
At Ragus, we focus on sourcing our raw materials from responsible sugarcane mills and refiners. When it comes to quality, sugarcane is only as good as the soil it comes from. This means we check the ethical standards our suppliers employ in their mills, which includes their position on human rights and ethical labour practices, protecting the environment and strong governance.
Our sourcing team often travel to meet sugarcane farmers and suppliers, engaging in person with the suppliers we use. This enables us to find the best plantations, mills and refineries while building strong partnerships with people on the ground and their wider communities. How this works in practice is detailed in our Sustainable Procurement Policy. Our approach to sourcing raw sugarcane is highlighted on our responsibility page and sourcing sugar page.
Responsible sourcing is what Ragus stands for. We hold accreditations from global organisations that champion environmental and social sustainability, and we work with several certified organic sugarcane producers.
Sugarcane cultivation: growing and harvesting
Sugarcane starts life in the field as a mature stalk, planted underground for three weeks before the first sprouts appear. A year later, it is ready to be harvested. One plant will yield several crops from the ratoons, or stalks, which grow after the sugarcane is cut before the yield rate drops off.
Insect pests like termites and diseases such as red rot can blight sugarcane, and farmers play an important role in managing and treating the crop to support the delivery of a successful harvest. However, sugarcane farmers must also contend with erratic rainfall, floods and the impact of climate change, such as longer and more intense droughts. Sugarcane is a thirsty crop, and such conditions can impact the soil and biodiversity in environmentally sensitive regions. For this reason, Ragus only works with sugarcane growers who manage these social and environmental risks effectively.
Harvesting sugarcane is laborious work, and the mechanisation of this process was a major development in the history of the crop’s production. Most farms use mechanical harvesters to first remove the top section of the cane, the leafy part. This is usually stored separately from the stalks, which are cut into pieces called billets. After travelling to the mill by truck or rail, the canes are crushed, and the juice extracted.
Though sugarcane remains in demand globally, its historic cultivation and production in some instances had a negative impact on the environment, from deforestation and the loss of natural habitats to soil erosion and ecological pollution. At Ragus, we continue to work with farmers and growers to help manage and mitigate the environmental risks and impact of sugarcane growing and production.
Sustainably managed historic sugarcane plantations offer positive environmental and societal benefits. Sugarcane is a carbon sink that absorbs more carbon than is emitted during the farming and refining stages. And effectively governed farms offer skilled local employment opportunities. In some historic cane-producing regions, changes of land use from farming to recreation, such as golf courses, have led to soil erosion and the loss of local employment opportunities.
Processing and refining sugarcane
Once harvested, sugarcane is processed in a mill. To produce the sugar crystals that end up as the products we recognise, the sugarcane goes through multiple steps at the mill. This multi-step process begins when the sugarcane arrives from the field to when it is shipped out to sugar mills. The steps are:
After the sugarcane is washed, cut up and shredded, high pressure rollers extract the juice. Hot water is added to maximise the yield before the dry stalks, known as bagasse, are burned to produce electricity or used to feed cattle.
The natural juice is heated to 80°C and neutralised with lime. This ensures the impurities settle as sediment, which goes back into the fields as fertiliser.
Industrial evaporators boil the juice for up to two hours, producing a thick, amber-coloured liquid.
The amber juice the mill produces is seeded with tiny sugar crystals and boiled again to allow the crystals to grow in the mixture, turning it into a massecuite syrup.
The massecuite syrup is spun at 1,050 revolutions per minute for two minutes to separate the crystals from the liquid.
Once the sugar crystals are separated, they are passed through drum-rotating driers to help them cool.
The crystals are passed over a vibrating screen and through a rare earth magnet to remove any foreign particles.
The raw sugar is either bagged and loaded into containers or lifted loose and loaded onto trucks before being transported to port terminals.
Manufacturing sugarcane products at Ragus
As a pure sugars industrial ingredients manufacturer, this is where Ragus takes over. We take the crystallines and molasses and manufacture industrial sugar products for our customers to use in their own food, beverage and pharmaceutical products.
Molasses from sugarcane is the raw material for making products like treacle, muscovado sugars, brown sugars and molasses. In the case of molasses production, cane molasses is a by-product of crystalline refining. When the cane juice is boiled into a concentrated syrup, it forms sugar crystals. After boiling again, the resulting liquid is cane molasses.
After arriving at the port in tanker vessels and quality tests, molasses is transported to our Slough factory in temperature-controlled bulk road tankers, where our laboratory staff test it again to ensure it meets our high standards. After being pumped into evaporating vats, the molasses is heated, purified and adjusted to meet specific sugar content and acidity levels. It then goes through a filter to remove any remaining impurities. Finally, it is cooled and matured in holding tanks.
Molasses has a smoky, full flavour profile. This makes it suitable for use in Christmas puddings, marinades and other sauces. Its dark colour and bittersweet taste also makes it ideal for use in Porter beers and stouts. Learn more about the functional properties of cane molasses.
Quality control in sugarcane manufacturing
When manufacturing industrial sugar products, quality control measures are followed at every stage. For example, dark cane muscovado sugar starts its journey at the mill. It is shipped to Ragus where we blend it with molasses from sugarcane to give it a sticky texture and more intense flavour. Quality control processes, such as filtration and metal detection, are carried out to remove any impurities prior to packing and distribution.
Dark cane muscovado sugar provides colour, flavour and moisture. This is why it is used extensively in fruit cakes and puddings like Christmas pudding. Fruit cakes and puddings have a tendency to dry out, but otherwise have a reasonably long shelf life. The muscovado sugar helps to keep the cake or pudding moist, thereby helping to extend its shelf life.
The path that cane demerara sugar takes from field to bagging is similar to that of muscovado sugar. Once the product arrives at Ragus’ facility, quality control measures such as screening, drying and metal detection are carried out. This identifies any impurities, which are then removed. This crystalline, which can only be produced from sugarcane, contains slightly less molasses content. This gives it a drier texture, so it is not used to impart moisture. Instead, its coarse crystals are ideal for adding crunch to puddings, cakes, biscuits and porridge. It is also a perfect complement to coffee, where it’s mellow flavour contrasts with coffee’s bitter notes.
Ragus is committed to responsible sourcing, sustainable sugar production, strengthening the sugar supply chain, and maintaining the highest quality and sugar industry standards. Our sugars are not only sweeteners that enhance the taste of foods and beverages but functional ingredients that provide foundational properties to food products, such as colour, bulk, mouthfeel and texture.
A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.
In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.