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Cane Sugar - Its History & Grades


Sugar, a beloved ingredient in kitchens worldwide, has a rich history rooted in the cultivation of sugarcane and sugar beets. From its early local origins to becoming a diverse and global trade, sugar has played a major role in shaping cultures and economies. This post explores sugar history, specifically that of cane sugar, detailing well-known consumer and commercially traded grades.

For reference, cane sugar and sugarcane are connected in the world of sweeteners. Sugarcane, a tall and fibrous perennial grass, serves as the primary source for sugar production. When we refer to ‘sugarcane,’ we’re talking about the plant itself, cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions for its sucrose-rich stalks. On the other hand, ‘cane sugar’ specifically denotes the sweet substance extracted, refined, and derived from sugarcane. So, while sugarcane is the source, cane sugar is the end product.

Cane Sugars History

The story of sugarcane cultivation can be traced back thousands of years, originating in Southeast Asia around 8,000 BCE to 6,000 BCE.

Traders and explorers disseminated this sweet ingredient worldwide, marking the beginning of its global influence. Sugarcane cultivation reached the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and eventually the Mediterranean over several centuries, with significant movement and trade occurring from approximately 500 BCE to 500 CE.

A key chapter in the history of cane sugar unfolded in the Caribbean and the Americas during the colonial era, primarily from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane to the Caribbean during his voyages in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. However, large-scale cultivation and the establishment of vast plantations took place in the subsequent centuries.

The demand for sugar surged during the 18th century, leading to the development of the triangular trade. This trade involved the forced migration of enslaved people from Africa to work on sugar plantations in the Americas, peaking during the 18th century.

Simultaneously, technological advancements in refining processes and transportation accelerated during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sugar refineries emerged, and improvements in sugar processing solidified the sugar industry’s place in the global market. This period marked a transformative era, shaping the trajectory of cane sugar from a regional ingredient to a globally traded commodity.

Consumer Sugar Grades

Cane sugar, in its various consumer forms, is often stored in our pantries and kitchens, and is used in our daily lives. Outside of the business-to-business sugar supply chain, most people will be familiar with the names below for the various sugar grades:

  • Raw Sugar: The initial product extracted from sugarcane, raw sugar retains some natural molasses, imparting a golden brown colour and a more complex flavour profile. It often serves as a less refined option and can be comparable to household sugars like turbinado or light brown sugar.
  • Refined Sugar: The most commonly used form, refined sugar undergoes a purification process to remove impurities and molasses. Its crystalline, white appearance and neutral taste make it a versatile ingredient and is used in a wide array of culinary applications. Refined sugar is comparable to the granulated sugar found in most household kitchens.
  • Muscovado Sugar: Originating from the Philippines, muscovado sugar is minimally processed, retaining a high concentration of molasses. Its rich, dark brown colour and robust flavour profile add depth to speciality and gourmet recipes. Muscovado sugar is often used as a substitute for brown sugar in households seeking a more complex flavour.
  • Demerara Sugar: Originating from Guyana, Demerara Sugar boasts large, light-brown crystals and a slightly sticky texture. It’s a popular choice for sprinkling on baked goods or adding a touch of sweetness to beverages. Demerara sugar is comparable to the coarser textures of sugars like turbinado or even speciality sugars used for baking and decorating purposes in households.

ICUSMA Sugar Grades

Outside of consumer-marketed cane sugar, the International Commission for Uniform Methods of Sugar Analysis (ICUMSA) plays a crucial role in standardizing the grading of cane sugar through the ICUSMA system.

These standardized classifications provide valuable information to producers, traders, and consumers, ensuring consistency in sugar quality across borders. These standards are commonly used in the global sugar trade for business-to-business transactions. The main ICUSMA grades include:

  • ICUSMA 45 (White Refined Sugar): Pure and white in colouration, ICUSMA 45 is the major grade for refined cane sugar. With minimal molasses content, it’s the preferred choice for applications where a neutral flavour and colour are essential, such as confectionery and beverage production.
  • ICUSMA 150 (Raw Sugar): With a higher molasses content than ICUSMA 45, ICUSMA 150 retains a light brown colour and a more distinct flavour profile. It is used for various culinary applications, including baking and the production of certain beverages.
  • ICUSMA 600-1200: This range encompasses medium to dark brown sugars with higher molasses content than ICUSMA 150. 
  • VHP (Very High Polarization): VHP sugar represents an advanced stage of refining, with a polarization level exceeding 99.4%. This grade is ideal for international trade due to its high sucrose content and low colour. Widely used in the production of refined sugar, VHP plays a crucial role in meeting global demand.

The history of cane sugar is entwined with the history of cultural development and economic development. From early Southeast Asian cultivation to the standardized classifications of ICUSMA and the purity of VHP, cane sugar has evolved into one of the biggest global commodities, used daily in households and factories across the world.

Sugar at TP-Exports

At TP-Exports, we supply sugar for consumer and industrial demand globally. This includes white sugars, raw sugars for refining and molasses. 

With an Agri division built on sustainability and transparency, our industry-focused approach ensures every kilogram we deliver carriers the assurance of traceability and risk mitigation. With origin tracking and per batch testing, we bring resilience to your supply chain and deliver better raw material solutions.

Explore our capacity information to understand further our sugar supply capabilities and what we can deliver for your production requirements. For a quotation or to speak with someone, please refer to our contact us page.