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24 February 1999 Issue

Traditional Production of Refined White Sugar

Like all plant-based food products, sugar starts on the farm. Sugar cane is a
grass crop that has been cultivated since the time of Alexander the Great.
When the cane matures, it flowers at the top of the stalk signaling it is ready
for harvest. In most instances, the fields are burnt as a way of stripping the
plant of excess leaves. The cane is then harvested by cutting the stalks either
mechanically or by hand. The harvested stalks are then delivered to a sugar
mill where the cane is crushed by conveying it through a series of rollers to
remove the juice.

This initial juice is about 10% sucrose, while the rest is water. In order to re-
move field impurities from the juice, it is clarified either by the addition of
natural lime or a flocculent. The cleaned juice is then concentrated by evapor-
ating the excess water through the use of heat under vacuum conditions. This
creates a super saturation solution which, when "seeded" with sugar crystals,
starts the crystallization process.

The molasses-laden crystals are then placed into a centrifuge where the
molasses is separated from the sucrose by the centrifugal force of the spinning
centrifuge. The crystals produced at this stage are considered raw sugar. Raw
sugar by definition is unfit for direct human consumption due to the lack of
proper hygiene and food-grade handling practices. The crystals are of a dark
brown and gray complexion and have a number of impurities or sediment
contained within them. Raw sugar, therefore, is then sent to a sugar refinery
for further processing.

At the refinery the raw sugar is mixed with a heated solution in order to convey
it through the factory. This is called affination. The sucrose solution then goes
through much the same process it originally went through at the mill. It is filtered
and cleaned again, then re-crystallized and, in some instances, re-melted and
re-crystallized again. Finally, it is decolorized by using animal bone char or
other types of decolorizing agents that remove the natural color and any
remaining trace elements. The finished product is refined white sugar.

Go on to The Color Black
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