People have always known honey and, for a long time, it was the only sweetener used. Originally from New Guinea, sugar cane very soon migrated to Southwest Asia and aroused keen interest among the people who discovered it. In the 6th century BCE, the Persians invaded India and marvelled at this ‘reed which gives honey without the need for bees’. In the reign of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, sugar cane reached the Middle East. During Antiquity and the Middle Ages, sugar was a rare and expensive commodity, as with spices such as saffron and nutmeg.
From the late 15th century, shortly after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to America, sugar cane plantations developed in the West Indies, then South America, particularly in Brazil. Sugar became the top colonial commodity. It was at the root of the ‘triangular trade’, where European shipowners exchanged trinkets for African men, who were then sold as slaves in America. The ships then returned to Europe with products from the colonies, including precious sugar.
In the early 19th century, in response to the English blockade on sugar from the West Indies, Napoleon ordered sugar beet to be grown on French soil. Marggraf, a German chemist, had discovered the sweetening aspect of the beet in 1757. In 1811, the first economically viable sugar beet processing plant was built in France. Sugar became widely consumed in the late 19th century, as a result of the farming of sugar beet.