Sugarcane processing generally involves the following stages: sugarcane harvesting, raw sugar extraction and refining.
Sugarcane is harvested both by hand and mechanically in (sub)tropical regions of the world. In both cases the cane is cut at the base and the leaves are removed. The plant grows again from the same root for between 3 and 10 years before it needs to be replanted. Harvested cane must be transported to the sugar mill immediately as it rapidly loses its sugar content once cut.
Raw sugar extraction
The sugarcane is crushed in the mills with heavy rollers to retrieve the juice containing the sucrose. This juice is then filtered to remove impurities before being crystallised. The raw brown sugar which remains is a partially purified sugar that still needs further refining before it can be used in the food chain.
Raw sugar is then shipped in bulk to Europe’s refineries. The refineries remove the remaining impurities and colour by washing and filtering the raw sugar. The refined sugar is then crystallised, dried, and packed ready for the consumer. A full range of sugar products is produced by refineries including different crystal sizes, colours and packaging, whilst some even produce sugar in liquid form.
Refining in Europe today
Sugar refineries in Europe provide 4,500 high-quality manufacturing jobs and serve about 2,400 customers.
Sugar refining is a capital intensive sector. Fixed costs typically account for a large proportion of the total costs, demonstrating how utilising the refineries to their full capacity is paramount to their competitiveness. The current struggle to source raw materials in sufficient volumes and at fair prices is threatening to destroy much of the refining sector in Europe.