What’s going on in the sugar industry?
Andrea Pluck, of Kennedy’s Confection chats to Ben Eastick, Director at Ragus, a leading supplier in the production of brown sugars, syrups and treacles, to get his views on the future of sugar.
So, tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into sugar…
Ben: The Eastick family have been in the sugar industry since 1880, so quite a long time. The two brothers, John and Charles Eastick ran an analytical research laboratory in London and at the time there were over 300 sugar refineries in the UK alone.
A lot of them where attached to breweries. But, two years on, in 1882, they were invited by Abram Lyle to set up a lab at his new refinery, and a year later in 1883 Charles formulated the recipe for Lyle’s Golden Syrup.
So, the family has worked in the sugars quite a long time. I started out in the brewing industry working for W. H. Brakspear & Sons PLC in 1988, before joining Ragus full time in 1991.
Tell me a bit about Ragus?
Ben: In a snapshot, two brothers left Lyles in 1889, John went to start Australia’s largest sugar refinery, Bundaberg and the younger brother Charles, went onto Martineau’s which was then the UK’s second largest white sugar producer.
He then spotted a market for speciality sugars for the bakery, brewery and confectionery markets and started in 1928 a factory on the then new Slough Trading Estate, that made inverted syrups, hence the name Ragus, which is sugar spelt backwards.
We were a fairly small company at that stage and only produced inverted syrups. In 1961 Martineaus were brought out by Manbré & Garton (and subsequently Tate & Lyle in 1976) – and at that point the family owned half of the Martineaus business.
Ragus started producing brown sugars in the seventies and became the last independent sugar manufacturer in the UK, a position we still hold today.
We remained under the radar up until the 1990s. That was when sugar reforms gave us the chance to get bigger and have since then, grown and grown.
How has the company grown?
Ben: We moved to a new refinery five years ago, and before this we were operating at 25,000 tonnes, which is now at 33,000. We do have the capacity to do 50,000.
The main market used to be confectionery, baking and breweries, but the big brewery business died off around 30 years ago when the cheaper fermentable glucose syrups began replacing brewing sugars (which have been use in British beers since 1544), but we still supply the traditional regional breweries.
Since the 90s, the baking industry has been the biggest, but in the last three years the confectionery industry has been significantly growing.
Future growth is certainly treacle’s in confectionery and we are seeing an interest which we didn’t expect in the drinks industry as companies look to replace white sugar, with less refined natural sugars.
What is the difference between sugar cane and sugar beet?
Ben: Chemically there is no difference. However, there is a difference in performance. Pharmaceutical companies tend to use sugar cane as it has a cleaner flavour and aroma making cane a superior product.
But since the EU sugar reforms, the price is so much higher than beet, unless customers are prepared to pay the extra price, cane is not used as often as beet in European countries.
However, brown sugars cannot be made from beet, unless pre mixes of molasses and burnt sugars are added to the white crystal.
These ‘blended’ sugars are commonly known as Soft Brown Sugars, rather than natural cane derived Demerara, Muscovado and Golden Granulated sugars.
Aspartame has been a controversial food ingredient with divided opinions on its effect on the human body. What is your opinion?
Ben: We [Ragus] have never got into artificial sweeteners or blending of artificial sweeteners with sugars, although we’ve been asked to. We know that sugar is a natural product and that the brain recognises sugar, so there’s no reason to get involved in sweeteners at all.
If you start using sweeteners, they suppress the production of a hormone called Lecithin, which tells the brain when it has had enough carbohydrate. So, actually you’re better to eat sugar because the brain will recognise when the body is full.
And we haven’t even touched on what happens to the sweeteners. The brain doesn’t recognise them and so your body finds it hard to break sweeteners down.
The government is clamping down on the amount of sugar in products for health reasons. Do you think this is justified?
Ben: The government have a lot to answer for because if you go to a petrol station and fill up, you then have to go through sways of aisles of confectionery to pay for the fuel.
Why don’t they make us go out of our way to the corner of the shop to buy confectionery products? It’s rammed down our throats. And like everything, it has a repercussion. If you take out the sugar, what are you going to put in instead?
And if you use sweeteners, what health problems are going to arise in 20 or 30 years’ time?
We know sugar. It has been around for thousands of years and we know its natural and the effects it has on the body. It’s about common sense really. I think it’s a good idea to reduce sugar content to a sensible level and reduce portion sizes too.
How will you accommodate to the change in perception of sugar?
Ben: We have lost some business in cereal industry where we were putting brown sugar into cereals, but we haven’t lost any other business really.
We have in fact gained business in the drinks industry as less refined natural sugars are becoming more popular for sweetening beverages.
What are your opinions of using syrups as an alternative to refined sugars?
Ben: That’s what we specialise in, invert syrups are 40 per cent sweeter than sucrose so you can actually use less opposed to standard sugar. This can help bring the sugar content down.
We actually supply quite a bit for the slimming industry for that very reason. Invert syrups can also reduce production costs as the sugars are already dissolved and this saves time, reduces labour, material and machinery requirements and energy costs.
So, we are doing a lot of invert syrups as an alternative to granulated sugar. Treacles too, are being used as a natural food colourant, flavour enhancer and they are extensively used for health foods and supplements, due to the high level of minerals and trace elements.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Ben: There’s quite a lot of topics to discuss at the moment in the regards to sugar and it’s all about saying something that’s different and slightly more informative than what’s out there already.
Certainly, in terms of confectionery, you need the function of sugar to create the products because it’s not just about sweetness. It’s about bulking (mouthfeel), texture, colour, moisture retention and so prolonging shelf life. Sugar performs so many different roles that the sweeteners just don’t perform.
Ultimately a product with heavily reduced or no sugar will end up having more ingredients as you’re having to add polyols for bulking, colours and sweeteners to replace sugars. The product then ends up less natural and ultimately it becomes more expensive to make.
Sweeteners only replace one task and that’s sweetness, they don’t bulk products or create mouth-feel. Sugar is vital. You can’t really replace it to be honest.
And why would you want to? Maybe the industry will reduce the amount they want to use, but I don’t think it can be reduced by over 25 per cent.
Find out more about Ragus at www.ragus.co.uk
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