Sugar cane is grown virtually anywhere in the world’s tropics and subtropical regions, especially in Brazil. In 2020, the global production of sugar cane was 1.87 billion tonnes, with the country producing 40% of the world’s total. Sugar cane accounts for 79% of sugar produced globally—most of the rest is extracted from sugar beets.
While it is popularly associated with sugar and nothing else, in Brazil it is savored raw in small stalks, in the shape of big caramels known as rapadura, juice, or syrup. When consumed in moderate quantities, sugar cane’s derivative products have several known health benefits. Chewing on sugar cane or consuming its natural juice or syrup can help treat urinary tract issues and provide a boost of antioxidants.
Additionally, products derived from sugar fermentation include cachaça, the most known and loved Brazilian spirit. More than 40 thousand smallholder farmers across the country cultivate sugar cane only for the production of cachaça. There are 4.2 thousand registered cachaça trademarks in Brazil, and the liquor is exported to 60 countries. Much like wine, the variety of flavors and aromas of each cachaça reflects the characteristics of the region where it was produced. This is due to the freshness and flavors of the locally grown sugar cane or the local varieties of wood used for the casks where cachaça ages.
Besides other food products obtained primarily through the crushing and juicing of sugar cane stalks, refined and natural sugar certainly form the largest market from a huge production chain. However, this is only one part of sugar cane’s produce and merits as a crop. Sugar cane is also a great source of renewable energy in the form of bioethanol, biogas, biomass, and as raw material for bioplastics and biomaterials.
For now, you can learn more about sugar cane consumed as food in a Brazilian way:
Cana (raw sugar cane)
This variety is very common in Brazil: simply cut the cane at the base of the plant and peel away its hard outer layer. The interior is edible and contains sugar, fiber, and other nutrients. You can simply split it in half, chew on the inside part (but not swallow), and be happy!
Caldo de cana (sugar cane juice)
A mill grinds raw sugar cane to extract its juice. A combination of fresh juice, extracted by hand or from small mills is a popular drink in Brazil. It can also be served with a touch of lemon and ice.
Rapadura (jaggery, or “panela” in Spanish)
Rapadura is a solid form of unrefined cane sugar typically produced and largely consumed in Brazil. Unlike other types of sugar, rapadura is not refined. Thus, it has a high molasses content, which gives it its typical caramel-like color.
Cachaça is so intrinsic to the history and culture of our country that it can be described as “Brazil in a bottle.” It is produced by fermenting the must from sugar cane juice in more than one thousand distilleries all over the country. Though it is best known as an ingredient in the popular caipirinha, the spirit can be drunk in many ways, from drinks to traditional dishes and desserts.
First, sugar cane or sugar beets are crushed, and the juice is extracted. The juice is then boiled down to form sugar crystals, which are removed from the liquid. Molasses is the thick, brown syrup left after the sugar has been removed from the juice. It is used as a sweetener and syrup accompanying other foods, such as cheese or cookies.
Sucrose (table sugar) is extracted from sugar cane in specialized mill factories. All sugar is produced by first extracting sugar juice from sugar cane plants, and from there, many types of sugar can be made. Through slight adjustments in the process of cleaning, crystallizing, and drying the sugar and varying the level of molasses, you can have granulated, coarse, powdered, light or dark brown (açúcar mascavo), or turbinado sugar. All of them are widely consumed in Brazil.