What is a Sugar Refinery?

Mary McMahon

A sugar refinery is a facility where sugar is processed so that it can be sold. Some sugar refineries are attached to packaging plants, so that the finished sugar can be immediately packaged and shipped out for sale to stores. Sugar refineries are usually located in sugar-producing areas so that the sugar does not have to travel far from field to refinery. Some are open to the public, for people who are interested in seeing the process of sugar production for themselves.

Raw sugar.
Raw sugar.

There are two sources of sugar which can be processed at a sugar refinery: sugarcane, and sugar beets. Cane and beet refineries are usually kept separate, both because cane and beets grow in very different climates, and to assure consumers who prefer one type over the other than their sugar has been processed in a dedicated facility. High volumes of cane and beets are moved through sugar refineries all over the world every year. Cane sugar refineries tend to be located in tropical regions, since this is where sugarcane grows, while beet sugar refineries can be found in cooler climates such as the American Midwest.

Sugar beets are a source of sugar.
Sugar beets are a source of sugar.

There are several different areas in a sugar refinery, reflecting the complex process which is involved in turning natural plant sugar into a refined product for the table. Sugar must be pressed, evaporated, washed, crystallized, and dried, with sugar refineries producing a range of sugar products including granulated sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, and molasses. Each product requires slightly different handling techniques.

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Granulated sugar.
Granulated sugar.

Some sugar refineries specialize in producing “raw” or “minimally processed” sugar. These terms are a bit misleading, as “raw” sugar can actually be processed in a wide variety of ways. In the most straightforward production technique, the sugar is pressed out and evaporated, and the resulting rough crumble is sold as raw sugar. However, some people dislike the texture and taste of this product, so some raw products are also lightly washed and crystallized at a sugar refinery before sale.

Working conditions inside a sugar refinery tend to be messy and very noisy. The machinery used in the processing of sugar can be very dangerous, as it is designed to crush and boil huge volumes of sugar at a time. The air is often thick with particles of sugar, which can sometimes lead to lung conditions in factory workers, and some refineries have experienced accidents in which the suspended sugar particles in the air catch fire and cause a flash fire or explosion.

Sugarcane.
Sugarcane.

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