Where does sugar come from?

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History of Sugar

sugar cane
Sugar cane harvest in India

Sugar cane began to grow wild in India and south-east Asia about a hundred million years ago, when grasses evolved from earlier plants. When people first walked to India, about 60,000 years ago, they probably began to eat the sugar cane pretty much right away. For people who are using a lot of energy running and working hard, sugar provides a lot of carbohydrates - and it tastes good. Certainly by about 2500 BC, people in India were eating sugar cane. For three thousand years after that, though, only people in India and south-east Asia ate sugar cane. This was because you had to eat it fresh, before the juice dried up, and sugar cane wouldn't grow further north.

The rise of the Silk Road and wealth Central Asian traders about 500 BC encouraged Indian traders to develop profitable trade goods. About 350 AD, under the Guptan Empire, Indian food scientists finally invented a way to make sugar cane juice into crystallized sugar (what you find in your sugar bowl). You did this by grinding or pounding the sugar cane to get out the juice. Then you dried the juice in the sun and you got lumps of sugar that would keep for a long time. Now Indian merchants could sell these lumps of sugar to Silk Road traders in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan.

Buddhist monks began to use the Silk Road to travel back and forth between India and China, they brought sugar to China with them. Emperor Taizong of the T'ang Dynasty got interested in sugar, and he asked official Indian ambassadors to come to China to explain how to grow sugar cane and make sugar. The T'ang emperors sent at least two missions to India in the 600s AD to learn more about sugar technology.

Learn by doing: making sugar candy
Sugar comes to the West

Bibliography and further reading about sugar:

More about sugar
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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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