Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a time when Europe was dependent on expensive sugar from sugarcane grown using slave labor in the Caribbean, Andreas Marggraf discovered that sugar extracted from a European crop, the beet, was identical to that from sugarcane. His discovery eventually led to the development of a commercially successful sugar beet industry in Europe and North America.

Summary of Event

Prior to the development of the sugar beet industry, the world’s supply of refined sugar was extracted entirely from a grass called sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum). Sugarcane is an old crop, believed to have been harvested for the first time several thousand years ago on Pacific islands. During the Middle Ages, it was widely grown in the Mediterranean region. Nevertheless, honey long remained the major sweetener in Europe, because cane sugar was prohibitively expensive. Then, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sugarcane grown on Caribbean islands, first by the Spanish and Portuguese and later by the British and French, became the world’s chief source of sugar and a major commodity in world trade. [kw]Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets (1747) [kw]Beets, Marggraf Extracts Sugar from (1747) [kw]Sugar from Beets, Marggraf Extracts (1747) [kw]Extracts Sugar from Beets, Marggraf (1747) Sugar extraction Beets [g]Germany;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] [g]Prussia;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] [c]Agriculture;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] [c]Science and technology;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] [c]Manufacturing;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] [c]Trade and commerce;1747: Marggraf Extracts Sugar from Beets[1190] Marggraf, Andreas Sigismund Achard, Franz Karl Napoleon I Napoleon I;sugar industry [p]Delessert, Benjamin

To provide for the highly labor-intensive cultivation and processing of sugarcane, Europeans transported large numbers of slaves Slavery;sugar industry across the Atlantic from Africa. African slaves As larger quantities of sugar reached Europe, the price declined, and Europeans increasingly developed a “sweet tooth,” though the substance remained a luxury.

In contrast to that of cane sugar, production of sugar from beets (Beta vulgaris in the family Chenopodiaceae) got off to a slow start. In the late sixteenth century, a French agronomist, Olivier de Serres, noted that beet roots that had been cooked produced a juice similar to sugar syrup. It took another 150 years, and the work of Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, to isolate and identify sugar in beet roots, and another fifty years before commercial sugar beet production got under way.

Beets come in a number of varieties, including the common garden beet, whose leaves and roots have been eaten as vegetables since ancient times. Another variety of beet has long been used as livestock fodder. The roots of sugar beets are white and sharply tapered, and commonly grow to a depth of 6 feet. Although they are biennial plants, they are commonly harvested at the end of their first growing season. All beet varieties are descendants of a wild beet plant that still grows on the European seacoast.

Marggraf, whose achievements include a number of refinements in the analytical tools of chemistry, was an expert at “wet methods,” or solvent extraction, Chemistry;solvent extraction and at carefully washing and recrystallizing the end product of such extraction. In 1747, he used hot alcohol to extract the juices from several crop plants commonly grown in Europe, including the root of a beet variety used for livestock fodder. After the extraction, minute crystals appeared in the beet root’s dried juice. Using a microscope, Marggraf recognized that these crystals were identical to the crystals produced by sugarcane. The sugar in both beets and cane is now known to be sucrose. Marggraf’s achievement may have marked the first time a microscope was used for chemical identification.

Although Marggraf had identified beet extraction as a potential means of producing sugar in Europe, his initial extraction process was expensive—unsurprisingly, since it was invented as a method of scientific research rather than industrial production. In an effort to provide poor European farmers with a means of producing their own sugar, Marggraf later developed a less expensive method, in which beet roots were macerated to obtain the juice and a calcium hydroxide solution was used to help crystallize the sugar. His vision of a cheap, new source of sugar for the farmer did not materialize, however, and its discovery remained a mere laboratory curiosity for half a century.

The commercial potential of beet sugar was clear, though. A new source of sugar would find a ready market, because sugar was still a luxury item despite declines in price due to the burgeoning supply from the Caribbean. Furthermore, unlike sugarcane, which was a tropical crop, beets were adapted to temperate climates such as those in Europe, so they could be grown in the regions where large amounts of sugar were consumed. In addition, with antislavery sentiment on the rise in some quarters of European society, there was growing unhappiness with the slave-based Caribbean sugar industry.

In 1786, four years after Marggraf’s death, the king of Prussia became interested in the commercial potential of beet sugar. A subsequent Prussian king granted Franz Karl Achard, a student of Marggraf, an estate in Silesia, where Achard began artificial selection of beets as a source of sugar. In addition, Achard built the first pilot beet-sugar refinery, at Cunern, Silesia (now in Poland), in 1802. This factory, however, was not profitable.


Marggraf’s discovery of sugar in beet roots led to the development of an industry that rivaled the sugarcane industry. More than any other crop plant, the modern sugar beet is an industrial crop plant developed by human efforts in plant breeding. It is tailored for processing in centralized factories. Beets have been bred, for example, to have sugar contents as high as 20 percent, compared with the original 2 percent.

The eventual rise of a successful sugar beet industry owes much to French emperor Napoleon I, who became interested in developing such an industry after the British navy cut off his empire’s supply of cane sugar from the Caribbean. Napoleon financed beet research, cultivation, and factories, in the hope that sugar beets would provide a domestic source of sugar for his armies. Benjamin Delessert in 1812 became the first person to extract beet sugar in large quantities. Two years later, forty small factories had opened in France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria.

Many people were suspicious of beet sugar, however, and after Napoleon’s empire fell in 1814, the French sugar beet industry collapsed, as the country eagerly returned to importing cane sugar. Even so, the French achievements in sugar beet technology were not forgotten, since sugar beets offered a source of sugar that could be cultivated domestically in quantities large enough to preclude the need for costly imports from across the Atlantic. Production subsequently increased rapidly throughout Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, sugar beets were also being grown in North America, and beets surpassed sugarcane as a source of world sugar.

A major factor in the commercial success of sugar beets is their adaptation to temperate and cold climates. With advances in beet breeding and technology, sugar beets became an attractive crop for Europeans to grow. The success of the crop contributed significantly to the decline of the slave-based system of cane sugar production in the Caribbean, which had fueled much of Western commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Sugar beets, which are by far the most important commercially grown beets, have become an important crop in many parts of the United States and southern Canada, and they are even more important in other parts of the world. The major sugar-beet growing areas are countries of the former Soviet Union as well as France, Germany, the United States, Poland, and Turkey. In the United States, the states of California, Minnesota, Idaho, North Dakota, and Michigan are major growers of the sugar beet. As of the early twenty-first century, sugar beets provided close to 40 percent of the world’s supply of sugar.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hobhouse, Henry. Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. Interprets the post-Renaissance world based on plant history. Chapter 2, on sugar, describes the rise of the Caribbean sugar trade and its waning after the rise of beet sugar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marggraf, Andreas. Expériences chymiques, faites dans le dessein de tirer un véritable sucre des diverses plantes, qui crossent dans nos contrées. 1747. In Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettres, année 1747. Reprinted in the author’s Chymische schriften 2 (1767). The results of Marggraf’s attempts to extract sugar from beets and other plants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musgrave, Toby, and Will Musgrave. An Empire of Plants: People and Plants That Changed the World. London: Cassell, 2000. Richly illustrated exploration of plants important to European trade and power. Chapter 2 focuses on Caribbean cane sugar and its decline with the rise of commercial sugar beet production. Index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaughan, John G., and Catherine A. Geissler. The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Color illustrations and descriptions of crops including sugar beets and other kinds of beets. Glossary, indices, and bibliography.

Tull Invents the Seed Drill

Lind Discovers a Cure for Scurvy

Beginning of Selective Livestock Breeding

Ingenhousz Discovers Photosynthesis

Leblanc Develops Soda Production

Whitney Invents the Cotton Gin

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Andreas Sigismund Marggraf. Sugar extraction Beets

Categories: History Content