Sweet autumn

As Halloween approaches store displays and shelves fill to overflowing with trick or treat candy. It’s one of the sweetest times of the year, at least so far as per capita ingestion of candy goes. Candy, as we all know, gets its sweetness from sugar (to be completely fair, most mass-produced candy is sweetened with high fructose corn sweetener rather than table sugar. Nevertheless, HFCS is sugar too). But Halloween treats aren’t the only reason October is sweet, at least in this part of the country. October is also the time of year when sugarbeets are harvested.

It’s far from uncommon to see and hear campaigns against sugar and candy as Halloween approaches, and there’s little wonder why. Many Americans have serious health issues directly or indirectly related to the overconsumption of sweet carbohydrates.

What is sugar, why is it bad for us, and for that matter, where does it come from anyway?

Sugar is the energy source that fuels all animal life. Carbohydrate sugar in the form of monosaccharide glucose or dextrose is the only fuel animals burn at the cellular level. No sugar, no go.

A lot of people assume that sugar comes from sugarcane, and up to a point, this is correct.

But only up to a point.

Carbohydrates come, of course, from plants, where solar radiation powers the photosynthesis of carbon dioxide and water, yielding cellulose, sugars, and starches, all forms of complex carbohydrate. In consuming plants, herbivore animals cleverly metabolize glucose/dextrose from complex carbs. Carnivores run on sugar too, but their supply comes from the glycogen stored in the flesh and fats of their prey. In that sense, carnivores are one step removed from their energy source. Omnivores consume plants and animals, of course, metabolizing sugar from both meat and veg.

When we talk about sugar, we usually mean white, crystallized table sugar. This is sucrose, a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose. I could go on and on about metabolic chemistry but there’s no need. Our bodies (at times with the assistance of gut bacteria) metabolize carbohydrate into glucose, whether the original form is lettuce, rutabaga, grain, apples, high fructose corn syrup or a spoonful of table sugar.

Obviously, we don’t need table sugar to survive. We could derive perfectly good nutrition from roadkill and wild fruits and grains. We’d all be foragers then, with no time to waste on school or jobs or reading the newspaper. It’s always an option.

In practice, we have a rather more varied diet, where sucrose features mostly as a sweetener. We like sweet stuff, and that’s okay. Sweets and sucrose are nutritious. They should be consumed, like everything else in our diet, in moderation. Sucrose is concentrated energy and extremely easy to metabolize. So concentrated and so easy, in fact, that our body usually can’t immediately use all the energy made available from gobbling down a candy bar or piece of carrot cake. Waste not, want not, so the body stores the extra energy in the form of glycogen and fat. This happens whenever we take in more nutrients than we use. Fat stores come in handy during those lean times when we require more energy than we consume. The stored fat is metabolized, and fat energy keeps us going until we can refuel.

It’s a great system. But if we have more fat times than lean times, if we constantly take in more fuel than we use, the fat builds up, and too much fat can cause a host of problems. Sugar is easy to blame, and rightly so to some extent, because it is so concentrated and easy to metabolize and easy to convert to fat for storage.

But of course, sugar isn’t the culprit. The culprit, I’m afraid, turns out to be us. We consumers. That’s right. I am the culprit. And so are you. If not today, then at some point in your life.

So, sugar is good food. It’s not bad food. We’re fortunate to have it and even the anti-sugar crowd would screech and howl and curse their fates should sugar disappear.

Which brings us, finally, to what I set out to write about.

Sugar. Sweetener. Sucrose. Crystallized table sugar. Where does it come from?

As referenced above, sugar comes from Hawaii and other tropical and subtropical climes. It’s pure cane sugar, grown in the sun. Well, 80 percent anyway.

But (zounds!) a fifth of the world’s production of white crystalline sucrose or table sugar comes from...

The sugarbeet!

Sugarbeets are produced here in the tri-state region of southeast Wyoming, northeast Colorado, and the Nebraska Panhandle, as well as across other regions of the globe featuring a temperate climate. Sugarbeets can’t really be grown in tropical areas, and sugarcane can’t be grown in temperate areas, which is rather a nice coincidence all in all.

Sugarbeets are a row crop, planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, usually after the first hard freeze.

The history of sugarbeets in particular and sugar in general is fascinating:

Scientists were busy genetically modifying sugarbeets way back in the 16th century, producing plants that yielded ever more sugar.

Sugarbeets were first cultivated in the U.S. by abolitionists as a method of producing sugar without the use of slave labor.

Sugarbeets were developed from fodder (livestock feed) beets.

Frederick William III provided the wherewithal to open and operate the first sugarbeet factory in Silesia in 1801.

Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the key driver in sugarbeet production. He willed it and France obeyed. From France, the cultivation of sugarbeet and production of beet sugar spread, eventually, to temperate climes around the globe.

Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.


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