Sugar is a sweetener of natural origin, consisting essentially of loose crystals of sucrose, obtained from sugar cane or sugar beet, through the corresponding industrial processes. Sucrose is found in all plants, but is much more noticeable in sugarcane, sugar beet, sorghum or maple. Of the total sugar production in the world, approximately 75% corresponds to cane sugar and the other 25% to beet sugar.

Sugar can be classified by its origin (from sugar cane or beet), but also by its degree of refining. Normally, refining can be seen in the color of the sugar (brown, blond, white), which is mainly due to the percentage of sucrose contained in the crystals.
White sugar undergoes a chemical purification process (sulphitation) and dark sugar is supposed to be healthier, as the honey film surrounding the brown or blond sugar glass contains minerals and vitamins. In the sugar jargon, these substances are called “impurities”. It should be clarified that during the refining process all substances other than sucrose are considered impurities, but are harmless to health and also these are the ones that give the sugar the particular color and flavor. Nowadays, it is very common to find different sugars such as fructose, which is obtained from the corn plant, in prepared dishes and sweets.


While in Europe the cultivation of sugar cane is in decline and in Spain has disappeared, the production of sugar cane worldwide has increased to the detriment of sugar from beets. Of the total sugar production that was obtained in the world in the 2014/2015 season, about 81% came from sugar cane and the rest of the sugar beet. In the last years it has been observed how the percentage that represents the production of cane sugar has been growing. Sugar cane is grown mainly in countries with a tropical climate and beet is a crop of countries in more temperate and even cold climates. However, in countries such as the United States, sugar cane production already accounts for more than 60% of its total production. The biggest drawback of sugar beet is that its production costs are higher than those of cane.

World sugar production in the 2014/2015 marketing year stood at 174.3 million tonnes, down from more than 4 million tonnes in production in the previous marketing year. It should be noted that production increased years ago because of the rise in international prices and that since the 2013/14 season prices have returned to stability. Globally, the main sugar-producing countries are Brazil, with an estimated volume of 35.8 million tons, 2 million less than in the 2013/2014 season, where production on the other hand had increased significantly. Behind Brazil is India, with production close to 26 million tons and China, which is around 15 million tons, although its tendency is to growth.

With regard to consumption, a steady increase in the use of sugar, especially in developing countries, is being monitored every year from year to year. By the year 2014 estimated consumption of more than 178 million tons.
Besides sugar, the main products obtained from cane are molasses and bagasse. Molasses are formed at the end of the sugar crystallization process, because not all the sucrose contained in sugarcane juice (as with beets) is crystallizable because of the salt and protein impurities they contain. For their part, sun-dried bagasse can be used as fuel to make new amounts of sugar or alcohol.
As for beet, the main products that are obtained from it are sugar, beet molasses and pulp. Sugar is also obtained from bioethanol, a production that is increasing especially in countries such as Brazil where more than half of the sugar cane crop is already used. Meanwhile, since mid-2014, world sugar prices started to decline on the downward trend as a result of a greater supply in the international market from the stocks of the previous season. The low prices continued in the last months of 2014 and in the first of 2015, due to the excess supply in the markets.

In Europe, the sugar beet crop is grown by improving yields of ordinary beet to ensure a certain degree of independence from the supply of sugar from the European colonies. Over time, higher yields of beets per hectare have been achieved, mainly due to the use of improved seeds, the mechanization of the crop and the control of pests and diseases through resistant seeds. In the last five years, the area devoted to the cultivation of sugar beet has remained around 70 million hectares, although in 2014 the area exceeded 71,400 hectares. Meanwhile, average yields in the EU range from 69-76 tonnes per hectare, well above the yields obtained in Spain.

In the European Union, with the exception of the production of the French and Portuguese overseas territories, all the sugar produced comes from the cultivation of sugar beet. Beetroot campaigns in the European Union start in the south of Spain around the month of June and end up in the northern part of Europe in late winter or even in early spring if climatology does not accompany. In EU-28, sugar beet production in 2014 increased by 6.9% over the previous year and prices fell by 11.6%, according to Commission data published for the purpose of calculating agricultural income. In the 2014/2015 marketing year, sugar production stood at 19.8 million tonnes, a volume of more than 3 million tonnes produced in the marketing year 2013/2014 and also a figure which implies out-of-quota production 6.3 million tonnes. The record sugar production in the EU during the 2014/2015 season was especially marked in Germany, with more 2013/2014. However, France returned to be one more campaign the country with greater production: 4.7 million tons. Also important is the production of sugar from Poland, which exceeds 1.7 million tonnes, the United Kingdom with 1.3 million and the Netherlands, which approaches one million tonnes a year.
Consumption of raw sugar in this campaign within the EU was 20 million tonnes, well above that of other countries like the United States or Russia, which does not reach even 6 million tonnes per year.
The European Union is the world’s leading producer of beet sugar, with around 50% of the total and is also the main importer of raw cane sugar. The Community sugar market is governed by production quotas until 2017, the year in which this scheme will disappear. The EU also has an important refining sector which processes imported raw cane sugar. However, despite its considerable production of sugar beets, the EU has to import molasses and pulp derived from beet and sugar cane annually for animal feed and for the chemical industry. Since the reform of the sugar market regime, the EU has become a net importer of sugar. In particular, the EU imports sugar cane for refining from countries in the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

All the sugar produced in Spain comes from the sugar beet because the sugar cane crop ended up extinct years ago. In the 2014/2015 season, national sugar beet production stood at around 3.7 million tons of root, up from 32% in the previous year. It should be noted that in the 2013/2014 season production had been reduced considerably. The bulk of sugar beet production is grown in the northern part of the country and is collected in the fall and winter months. However there is also a production
In the south of the country. In this campaign, almost 70% of the national production of sugar beet
Cultivated in Castile and Leon. The rest came from Andalusia (21%), Basque Country (5%), La Rioja (4%) and Navarre (1%).
National production of refined sugar was finally 611,916 tonnes, a volume also much higher than the previous season. The area of sugar beet stood at 38,400 hectares, about 7,000 more than a year earlier, when those same hectares were lost.


The production of sugar in Spain is in the hands of only two large groups. The most important part since 2009 is a large international company of British origin that operates in 46 countries. This company is the world’s leading sugar producer. In our country, the group has a workforce of over 1,000 workers and has four production centers in Castilla y León and one in Andalusia. It accounts for just over 76% of the sugar production quota allocated to our country. The second operator is a cooperative of more than 5,000 farmers, with a single production plant in Castilla y León and around 500 employees. Its production share is the remaining 24%.
Apart from sugar, it is dedicated to the production of biofuels (biodiesel) and solar photovoltaic energy. Both companies
Refine cane sugar, since the quota allocated to our country is not enough to cover the internal demands.
The Spanish beet sector is made up of about 6,700 farmers who supply raw materials to sugar companies. These crops extend through Castile and Leon, Andalusia, La Rioja, Basque Country and Navarre.
In Europe there are about 160,000 farmers who grow beet, on more than 1.3 million hectares.
This production is processed by 56 companies and employs almost 30,000 people. Altogether, one million people depend totally or partially on this activity. The liberalization of the sector has led to a drastic reduction in the number of farmers and sugar companies.


Spanish sugar production is clearly insufficient to supply domestic demand, and imports constitute an essential resource for the maintenance of the market. These imports are both raw sugar that must be refined by Spanish companies, and sugar ready to be consumed. Brazil is the leading producer and exporter of sugar in the world. Spanish imports of sugar cane or beet in 2014 amounted to 1.38 million tonnes, mostly from other European Union countries, amounting to 646.3 million euros. For its part, exports reached barely 80,830 tonnes, worth 60.8 million euros. Almost all target markets were other EU countries.
Total exports of sugar (excluding lactose, isoglucose, molasses, etc., or confectionery) made by Spain in 2014 amounted to 94,395 tonnes, down 55,000 from the previous year. The value of these purchases rose to 60.8 million euros, compared to 107 million euros the previous year.
Imports rose to 1.313 million tonnes (down from the previous year), by a value of 646 million euros, which is also much lower than in 2013.

About the author

Montse Gonzalez