What are sugar beets? Uses and cultivation of sugar beet

We’ve heard a lot about corn syrup lately, but the sugars used in commercially processed foods come from sources other than corn. Sugar beet plants are one such source.

What is sugar beet?

A plant grown with Beta vulgaris , sugar beet accounts for about 30% of world sugar production. The majority of sugar beet cultivation takes place in the European Union, the United States and Russia. The US harvests more than one million hectares of sugar beet and we use them all, only the EU and Ukraine are major exporters of beet sugar. The nation’s consumption of sugar is a cultural thing, but it seems to be directly correlated with the relative wealth of the nation. As a result, the United States is the largest consumer of sugar, beet or otherwise, while China and Africa are the smallest consumers of sugar.

So, what are these sugar beets that we think are so precious? The addictive sucrose that is so desirable to many of us comes from the tuber of the beet root plant, the same species that includes Swiss chard, fodder beets and red beets, and they are all descended from sea beets.

Beet has been cultivated for fodder, food and medicinal purposes since the time of ancient Egypt, but the processing method by which sucrose is extracted was produced in 1747. The first commercial sugar beet factory in the United States was opened in 1879 by E.H. Dyer in California.

Sugar beet is a biennial plant whose roots have large reserves of sucrose during the first growing season. The roots are harvested for processing into sugar. Sugar beets can be grown in different climatic conditions, but most sugar beets are grown in temperate latitudes between 30-60 degrees N.

Uses of sugar beet

While the most common use of cultivated sugar beets is processed sugar, there are several other uses for sugar beets. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a strong alcoholic beverage resembling rum is made from sugar beet.

Raw sugar beet syrup is the result of crushed beets that have been cooked for a few hours and then pressed. The expressed juice of this mixture is thick like honey or molasses and is used to spread on sandwiches or to sweeten other foods.

This syrup can also be desugared and is used as a de-icing agent on many American roads. This beet «molasses» works better than salt because it does not corrode and, when used together, it lowers the freezing point of the salt mixture, making it more effective at low temperatures.

The by-products of beet processing into sugar (pulp and molasses) are used as fibre-rich complementary feed for livestock. Many farmers allow grazing in beet fields in the fall to use the beet tops as fodder.

These by-products are not only used as indicated above, but also in the production of alcohol, in commercial baking and in pharmaceutical products. Betaine and uridine are also isolated from the by-products of sugar beet processing.

Residual lime used to modify soils to increase their pH can be made from by-products of beet processing, and treated wastewater from processing can be used for crop irrigation.

Finally, just as sugar is a fuel for the human body, surplus sugar beet has been used to produce biobutanol by BP in the UK.

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