A favourite at meal times and key ingredient in the dessert cupboard, sugar is an essential part of our daily lives. However, out of the 4,6 million tonnes of sugar produced every year in France, the share of direct consumption is very small.
The agri-food industry is the main outlet for sugar on the French domestic market. It not only uses sugar for its sweetening qualities, but also for its numerous technological properties. These multiple applications also interest other sectors such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Is there more than one sugar?
The answer, as dictated by nature, speaks for itself: no, basically,there is only one sugar, also called sucrose, a natural nutrient existing in numerous plants, and particularly in sugar beets and sugar cane, which are cultivated for that purpose. France, including its overseas departments, produces around 4.6 million tonnes of sugar every year, half of which is destined for the national market, the other half being reserved for export.
Sugar benefits from properties far beyond its simple ability to sweeten your morning coffee. In fact, the direct consumption of sugar, also known as “table sugar”, that is, sugar used in homes in a diverse range of forms (lumps, caster, icing, vergeoise, etc.) is far from representative of the largest share of consumption in mainland France. It represents, in fact, 21% of consumption. In contract,“indirect” consumption represents a far greater share of around 79%. The question this raises is: where does the “non-domestic” sugar mountain go?
The sugar agro-industry engine
Firstly and essentially, non-domestic sugar is used by the agri-food industry and its many branches to the tune of 1.7 million tonnes a year (58.1% of the total), to which the restaurant trade (excluding households and institutional restaurants) should be added. Followed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, although with a much lower share (9.1%). The agri-food industry is therefore by far the sugar industry’s biggest customer.
The main reason is that sugar, beyond its sweetening, sense-based, flavour and aromatic properties, offers many additional benefits which make it just as essential to industry. It has a number of irreplaceable technical properties and values, which vary according to the type of process for which it is used and the product being produced. Sugar is a preservative and gives texture, body, consistency and crunchiness to food. It colours... while retaining all of its natural properties.
Sugar and the pastry and cake industry
Would you be surprised to learn that sugar is the basic ingredient for the cake, pastry and biscuit making industry, for both industrial and small-scale ventures? No, we didn’t think so! However, the extent of its properties, in this field, is still little known. A favourite ingredient of pastry, cake and biscuit makers, it loosens pastry, stabilises mousses, prevents the dehydration of gluten, delays protein coagulation and the gelatinisation of starch...
It also contributes to the development of yeast and aromas, promotes aeration and the mixing and beating of ingredients, enables lamination, kneading, cooking, preservation, the colouring of the toppings of biscuits and caramels... Sugar also helps harmonize sweet and sour flavours, which cancel each other out. And that’s not all. Added to grapes, it increases the alcohol content of certain wines.
Sugar, a history of alchemy
The natural alchemy of sugar is much more complex and extensive than is commonly thought. This alchemy opens the door to another, very particular industrial user, outside of the food sector: the chemical industry. Thanks to its purity and high level of stability in crystallised form, sugar is used in the chemical industry as a reaction intermediate. “Sugar chemistry” is a science that developed rapidly during the oil crises of the 1980s.
It also has a number of interesting applications in terms of environmental performance and respect, including the production of rigid polyurethane foams, sucrose polyesters that imitate the properties of fat but without the calories, detergents and plastics. Sugar is an inexpensive raw material and can be used to produce innovative biodegradable products.
The virtues of sugar are also being studied closely by the pharmaceutical industry, which uses it as an excipient in syrups and capsules, or even as a medium for tablets. In the medical field, sugar is closely associated with the boom in the homeopathy sectors, where it is used to produce granules and homeopathic specialities.
Has sugar revealed all of its secrets?
From the agri-food, chemical, pharmaceutical and construction industries to cakes, plastic films, drugs and soap, sugar is everywhere, including 14 July firecrackers!
This raises a final question: with so many forms and physical and chemical properties, and so many applications, has sugar revealed all of the secrets of its innermost mechanisms and reactions? Nothing could be less certain, opening up vast horizons to basic and applied research.