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Sugar beets, of the genus and species Beta vulgaris, are one of the main sources of table sugar and other forms of refined sugar. Though this plant may be native to the Mediterranean, refining beets into sugar didn’t occur until the 19th century, when the British blockade during the Napoleonic Wars deprived the French of access to sugar cane. Credit for inventing the sugar extraction process from beets goes to Benjamin Delessert. The practice of using beets for sugar spread, and it soon became source for sugar in Europe and the United States, especially because the beets could be grown in a much larger climate area than sugar cane.
Beets are a root crop, and sugar is harvested from the root. Sometimes, the beet tops are also used as food, and they can make up excellent animal feed. After the sugar is extracted from the beets, the remaining pulp can be used to make wet or dry mash for animals too. They can also be used as an alternative fuel source, called biobutanol, though manufacture of this fuel is generally limited to a small area in England.
In appearance, the sugar beet root is nearly white in color, not the red or deep purple of most types of beets sold directly for consumption. In fact, they’re less round than the average beet and more resemble a turnip. Their average size can vary.
The time of year when these beets are grown and harvested depends on their location. In many areas, beets are planted in spring and harvested in fall. In areas like California, they may be sown in fall for a spring harvest. Though grown in many places in the US and Europe, the beet capital of the world may be Sebewaing, Michigan, in the US.
Work to plant, maintain, and harvest crops was a huge job until the introduction of automated processes. Today, most sugar beet crops are harvested by machinery. Other changes to beet farming include the use of genetically modified beet seeds, especially in the US, that are more resistant to certain forms of diseases and exposure to the chemicals in herbicides.
For those who would prefer organic food sources, the use of genetically modified organisms is not preferred, and many are frustrated that sugar made from genetically modified beets may not be labeled accordingly, especially in the US. Some people prefer to use organic cane sugar instead to avoid this issue.
Sugar produced from sugar cane is still more common than sugar beet sugar. Presently, about 30% of sugar produced comes from beets. For most people, there is little taste difference between cane and beet sugar, since the same types of table sugar can be produced from each source.