The beets that become sugar (and more)

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Sugar Beets. Photo by Cole Gustafson, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, North Dakota State University, from eXtension Farm Energy via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I never ate beets as a kid—my mom, who was the cook in our house, can’t stand ’em—but I came to love them as an adult. Those marvelous red (and golden, and striped, and more) root veggies are delicious.

But, there’s a variety of beets that go through extensive processing before we eat them. The sugar beet, as I recently learned from an episode of “How It’s Made,” is a major commodity crop that goes through a complex series of mechanical and biochemical steps to become white sugar and other sweeteners. (It’s from season 9, episode 10 of How It’s Made; if you don’t have access to full episodes on Netflix or elsewhere, you can watch a 2-minute excerpt on beet sugar at the program’s website, on YouTube, or below.) Beet sugar is, in fact, the source of more sugar production in the U.S. than sugarcane.

The USDA blog recently touted the fact that researchers are using sugar beet pulp, a byproduct of producing sugar from the root vegetable, to produce biodegradable containers:

America’s sugar industry piles up 1 million tons annually of the leftover beet pulp, so there’s no shortage of that ingredient for the new product. The PLA [polylactic acid, the biodegradable polymer that’s combined with beet pulp] can be made from sugars in corn, sugarcane, switchgrass and other renewable feedstocks.  The [USDA Agricultural Research Service] scientists say you can use up to 50 percent sugar beet pulp in the thermoplastic mixture and still get a finished product with properties similar to those of polystyrene and polypropylene, the compounds now used to make food containers.

That’s not all:  The scientists can combine the sugar beet pulp with water or glycerol to create a different type of thermoplastic that could find a new life as yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs, and bags.  In that formulation, the recipe could be up to 98 percent sugar beet pulp.

For more on sugar beets, head to this page from Michigan State University, which notes, “Not all sugar beets are processed into sugar…. Beet pulp is used as cattle feed and dog food. Molasses, a byproduct of processing, is used to make citric acid, vinegar, yeast and antibiotics.”

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