The story of sugar in Peterborough and British Sugar

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In last week's episode of Jimmy's Food Factory, farmer Jimmy Doherty looked at how sugar was made.

In last week's episode of Jimmy's Food Factory, farmer Jimmy Doherty looked at how sugar was made. But for many Peterborough residents, the process behind turning a mud-covered sugar beet into the pure grains of white sugar is very familiar, because British Sugar was a big employer in the city for several decades.

Features writer Hannah Gray finds out more about sugar production in Peterborough:

The story of sugar in Peterborough began on October 4, 1926, when the first load of beet was delivered to the newly-built British Sugar factory in Oundle Road.

This development saw Peterborough forming part of a radical change to sugar production in this country.

Although sugar beet does grow wild, largely in coastal areas and marshy land, until the mid-1920s Britain used to import the crop, mostly from Commonwealth countries. However, a Government White Paper, published in 1927, set up a new, home-grown sugar industry. At one point, British Sugar had 18 factories across the country, with many on the east coast. Today, after changes in technology and processes, there are four.

Peterborough was, for many years, a big part of this industry.

In the first season – known in the trade as a campaign – the new Peterborough factory processed 63,384 tonnes of beet, an average of 659 tonnes a day.

Although at the time this was probably pretty good going, in a modern campaign, more than seven million tonnes of beet will be processed across British Sugar's remaining four factories.

The factory closed in Peterborough in 1991, but that was not the end of the city's relationship with British Sugar.

Today, its central office is still here, in the aptly-named Sugar Way, and departments such as IT, HR, health and safety and communications are based there. In total, 300 employees still work for British Sugar in Peterborough.

Included in these are scientists who work in the company's food centre, where research and development is done on British Sugar's products. Although it may seem there isn't much to develop in sugar, there is always work going on.

This is done on two fronts, firstly in developing new products to bear the Silver Spoon brand you will see on supermarket shelves, and, secondly, working on behalf of the commercial customers, who use the sugar in their products.

Dr Julian Cooper, who is head of food science at Peterborough, explained: "We tend to focus more on applications, but also new products. We look at how they use our sugar in their products, and how they can get the best out of our sugar."

Commercial clients can approach British Sugar for help with its products, for example by finding ways of making the clients' manufacturing processes less complex, or giving the right level of crunch.

"We need to understand how sugar behaves in products. How it reacts in soft drinks is completely different to how it reacts in cakes," Julian said.

As might be expected from an employee of a sugar company, Julian believes his product has a vital role to play in food production and is not easily replaced.

"There is now universal sugar replacement for all products," he said. "It carries out different functions in different products. It is sweet, it provides bulk, texture, colour and flavour, it gives long life and it's safe.

"You can't take sugar out and expect to replace it with one thing. With each product, you have to go back to the basics and work out what all the ingredients are doing and what you want to take out.

"What we do is work with our customers to work out what sugar does in their products. We can design sugars to meet their needs."

However, that's not to say that in today's health-conscious world, Julian and his colleagues are recommending heaping the white stuff into everything you eat.

"We're not advocating a cola and confectionery diet, but sugar can be part of a healthy, balanced diet," he said.

Did you work for British Sugar?

We'd like to hear your memories and how sugar was made here in our city. Call Hannah Gray on 01733 588726 or e-mail hannah.gray

Did you know?

Many developments in the extraction of sugar from beet were made across the Channel under the reign of Napoleon? Because the British were blockading the ports, he needed to be able to make it domestically, and so much of the terminology around sugar extraction is either French in origin or linked to the military.

An example of this is the name for the season during which the beet is harvested, which is generally from September until March. Even in the UK today, it is known as a campaign.

Here's some they made earlier

The first stage of the process is the arrival and sampling of the sugar beet. At this stage, the experts assess how much sugar is in the crop – the average crop is about 17 per cent sugar.

After this, the crop is washed, and then sliced into thin triangular strips designed to give the maximum surface area possible.

The next stage of the process is to add water to the triangles in a process known as difussion. The water is heated to about 72C and, from this, you get a thin, dark juice.

Chalk is then added to this dark juice, in order to remove the non-sugars, and it turns into a pale yellow liquid.

The water from this liquid is then evaporated using steam from British Sugar's on-site combined heat and power plant. What is left is a thick juice, which is about 65 to 67 per cent sugar. In this form, the sugar can easily be stored as it won't crystalise and bacteria will not grow inside it.

If you are not storing the sugar, more water is evaporated off, and then sugar crystals are grown. These are grown until they are 0.5mm in diameter, the size of normal granulated sugar grains.

Next, the sugar must be dried, which is done in a big rotating drum with warm air passing over it.

After this, the sugar is ready to be stored until needed.

To get caster sugar, it is sieved or screened to filter out the smaller grains, and it is milled to produce icing sugar.

It's not just about the sugar

It may sound odd, but British Sugar is the UK's leading supplier of topsoil to the amenity and leisure industry. Yes, British Sugar. And before you start licking the turf on your local football pitch, it is just soil, as opposed to any type of sugar waste.

This is because of British Sugar's highly sustainable manufacturing processes which seek to make useful products out of things which would otherwise be classed as waste.

The topsoil is created from the soil washed off the beets at the start of the process. This undergoes a gravity settlement stage before a lengthy conditioning process, creating a high-quality product.

And this is not the only by-product which is made use of. Stones washed off the beet are sold as aggregate, pulp from the sugar beet is made into animal feed and lime used to remove the non-sugars is used as a soil conditioner

The company's factory in Wissington, near King's Lynn, was the country's first bioethanol fuel plant. Other by-products from this factory – betaine, raffinate and vinasse – all go into animal feed.

All four of British Sugar's factories produce their own electricity, and any extra not needed can be sold back into the national grid. In addition, at Wissington, heat and carbon dioxide produced by the combined heat and power plant are used to grow tomatoes – some 80 million are grown there annually.

So, as well as putting British Sugar products on your cereal and eating them in foods made by other people, you could be playing football on a British Sugar product at your local park, or even using electricity generated by one of its plants.