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Feel the beet

Sugar is good for you! It's something you don’t hear very often, but the sweet stuff makes an excellent ingredient in lots of products – caster sugar is exfoliating on the skin, and icing sugar is lovely and softening in our bath bombs and lip tints.

Beet sugar has been produced in Europe since the early 1800s. Sugar beet, ancestor of the sea beet, is better suited to Europe’s cooler, more variable climate than sugar cane, which flourishes in the West Indies and Americas. UK interest in producing our own sugar started during the First World War, when the import of cane sugar became impossible due to attacks on trading ships. Now, sugar is a good industry here and a major asset to the UK’s farming economy.

Using homegrown beet sugar, which is harvested and processed within the UK, means that the average field-to-factory journey for the raw beet is 28 miles. This is staggeringly lower than the thousands of air miles it requires to import cane sugar. The National Farmer’s Union helps to negotiate between buyers and sellers, as a associate explains: 

‘We [NFU] contract with the growers in order to negotiate on their behalf. We’re not allowed currently to approach individual growers; we have to go to a grower-led body. Here in the UK we use the NFU. The contract includes how much beet they’ve grown over the last couple of years, how much they want to grow, and the area they’re using. We then assess that and adjust the order, so that we can then order the seed around July-August time, to be drilled the following March.’

Sugar beet is grown in rows 50cm wide, and a 50-acre field of beet will produce around 1000 tonnes of sugar – which means two long days of harvesting, 55 truck loads of raw beet and about 90,000 1kilo bags of sugar. The yield all depends on weather as well, and a hardy frost can be perilous to beet crop, so the farmers use a minimal amount of pesticides in the seed pellets to reduce the risk of disease.

The sugar Lush uses is stamped with the Red Tractor Assured Food Standards symbol, which means that it has met their ‘responsible production standards and is fully traceable back to independently inspected farms in the UK.’ This is primarily for food and drink products in order to reassure the consumer of their food’s origin, and it’s also relevant to us in making sure that our ingredients are 100% traceable. 

sugar beet
beet_portrait

The beet is driven to the factory, and washed thoroughly in lots of water where all the stones and dirt are removed. The stones cleared get sold to garden centres as aggregate, whilst all the dirt gets used and sold back to farmers as topsoil. They are then sliced into thin sticks called ‘cossettes’. These then go into diffusion tanks in order to create the sugar. The first stage of this process is to extract the raw juice from the pulp; the fibrous pulp then gets dried out and turned into animal feed, and the juice enters the next stage, which is purification.

This process removes any last impurities from the juice. Minerals are stirred through the liquid, and then fuse together and are precipitated out. The leftover liquid is then called thin juice, and it’s from this liquid that the evaporation process can begin, leaving behind ‘thick juice’, whilst the residue mineral substance is sold as fertiliser. Next, crystallisation. This is where the juice is ‘seeded’ with minuscule particles of sugar in order to encourage the liquid to crystallise. The end result is a syrupy liquid with sugar particles suspended in it: massecuite. Once the two are separated via centrifuges, the sugar goes into huge dry storage containers ready to be packaged up.

Interestingly, the sugar is naturally white – brown sugar can be created by coating it with molasses, post-crystallisation. Beet molasses have a bitter taste, whereas cane molasses are sweet and sticky, so even beet sugar when brown has been coated with cane molasses. 

The average field-to-factory journey for the raw beet is 28 miles

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