Sugar: Brazil’s sweet source of wealth and power

Sep, 22, 2023
Exportações brasileiras de açúcar

Since the Portuguese colonial period, sugarcane growing is one of Brazil’s leading economic activities. It was the country’s primary source of income until the end of the 17th century.

Nowadays, this commodity remains a driving force of the Brazilian economy, boasting a rich history. Its production and use have had deep economic, social, and cultural impacts that have helped shape Brazil as a nation.

Brazil is one of the world’s largest sugar producers, competing with India for leadership in exports from one harvest to the next. Brazilian production is primarily clustered in the country’s Center-South region, with the state of São Paulo being the largest single producer.

Brazilian sugar exports play a fundamental role in the country’s economy and significantly influence the international commodities market. Sugar plays a crucial role in Brazil’s trade balance.

It’s worth noting that Brazil’s sugar exports follow the pattern of sugarcane production cycles. The Brazilian harvest mainly takes place from April to November, a period when exports peak. During the offseason, the country imports sugar to meet domestic demand.

Another factor influencing exports relates to ethanol production. The decision by sugarcane producers to export sugar instead of producing ethanol is multifaceted. It depends on various economic, political, and logistical factors, as well as market conditions and available opportunities.

The global economic scenario, for example, is one of the elements factored in. If sugar prices in the international market are high and demand is strong, producers may choose to focus on sugar production to maximize their profits.

The same goes for fluctuations in oil prices. When oil prices are high, ethanol becomes more competitive as a gasoline substitute. If oil prices are low, trading sugar may be more profitable.

Seasonality of the harvest is another factor to be weighed in. During times of greater sugarcane supply, producing sugar instead of ethanol may be more advantageous.

A Good Year for Exports

Brazil exports sugar both in containers and in bulk. Generally, containerized sugar is more refined, while bulk sugar is in a crude state. Sugar can also be shipped in bags.

Data from DataLiner, Datamar’s market intelligence tool, shows that in the first seven months of 2023, 87.12% of the sugar exported by Brazil was sent in bulk, 9.73% in containers, and 3.14% in bags.

According to Datamar, Brazilian sugar exports via containers grew by 87.3% in the first seven months of 2023 (year-to-date) compared to the same period in 2022.

See below a chart, developed using DataLiner data, showing Brazilian sugar exports in containers:

Brazilian sugar exports | Jan-Jul 2019 to Jan-Jul 2023 | TEU

Sugar: Brazil’s sweet source of wealth and power

Source: DataLiner

As for the bulk export modality, exports increased by 2.46% from January to July 2023 compared to the same months in 2022.

Here is a chart of Brazilian bulk sugar exports. The data was also gathered through DataLiner:

Brazilian sugar exports | Jan-Jul 2019 to Jan-Jul 2023 | WTMT

Sugar: Brazil’s sweet source of wealth and power

Source: DataLiner

With these promising numbers, exports are expected to remain robust, especially since India is set to ban sugar mills from exporting sugar in the upcoming season, starting in October. This would interrupt shipments for the first time in seven years due to a lack of rain that reduced sugarcane productivity, according to Indian government sources.

Export Ports

With sugar production mainly around the Central-South region of Brazil, especially in the state of São Paulo, it’s natural for the Port of Santos to be the primary gateway for Brazilian sugar exports, followed by Paranaguá.

Data from DataLiner indicates that from January to July 2023, 94% of containerized sugar cargo left the country through the Port of Santos, 3% departed from Paranaguá, and 1% through Suape.

Regarding bulk sugar, 72% of the shipments occurred in Santos, 20% in the Port of Paranaguá, and 5% in the Port of Maceió during the same period.

Brazilian Sugar Worldwide

According to DataLiner data, the African continent was the primary destination for Brazilian containerized sugar exports in the first seven months of 2023, followed by the Middle East. Here are the key destinations:

Top Export Destinations for Brazilain Sugar | Jan 2023-Jul 2023 | TEU

Sugar: Brazil’s sweet source of wealth and power

Source: DataLiner

During the same period, the Middle East was the primary destination for bulk sugar, followed by Asia. Here are the other regions that received this type of sugar between January and July 2023:

Top Export Destinations for Brazilain Sugar | Jan 2023-Jul 2023 | WTMT


Sugar: Brazil’s sweet source of wealth and power

Source: DataLiner

Sugar Types

Sugar can be classified in different ways depending on the degree of refinement and production mode. Here are the main characteristics of each classification type as described by UNICA – the Union of the Sugarcane Industry and Bioenergy, an entity that represents the main sugar, ethanol, and bioelectricity production units in the Center-South region of Brazil, especially in the state of São Paulo.

  1. Demerara Sugar: This type of sugar undergoes light refinement and does not receive any chemical additives, resulting in light brown grains. It has a high nutritional value, similar to brown sugar.
  2. Refined Icumsa 45: Known as white sugar, it undergoes a refinement process that preserves sucrose, making it flavorsome and easy to dissolve. The term “Icumsa” refers to an international standard for purity and whiteness.
  3. White Crystal Sugar: It has large and transparent crystals less soluble in water. Ideal for culinary use, it undergoes a light refinement process.
  4. Organic Sugar: Cultivated using organic practices, sugar that falls under this category has the same calories as regular sweeteners but preserves some of the nutrients in sugarcane. Since it is not refined, it is coarser and darker.
  5. VHP Sugar: This is sugar in its crudest form, still covered with molasses layers that give it a darker color. As the most exported sugar type, VHP sugar (Very High Polarization) is used as a raw material for other types of sugar and industrial processes.
  6. VVHP Sugar: Similar to VHP, it is used as a raw material for sugar refineries and is unsuitable for direct consumption. It has a higher polarization than VHP (99.6°z). The acronym VVHP stands for “Very Very High Polarization.”

Source: UNICA

ICUMSA Classification          

Another way to classify sugar is through the ICUMSA (International Commission for Uniform Methods of Sugar Analysis) system. The term “ICUMSA” refers to an international classification system used to describe the color and quality of raw sugar.

ICUMSA sugar classification is based on color, measured in ICUMSA units (IU). The lower the IU number, the lighter the sugar’s color. The ICUMSA scale ranges from 0 to 10,000, with the most common sugars falling in the range of 100 to 450 IU. Sugars with IU less than 100 are considered white, while sugars with IU above 450 are considered dark.

Here are some of the most common types of ICUMSA sugar:

a) ICUMSA 45: Also known as high-quality refined sugar, it is one of the purest types of sugar and is often used in the food and beverage industry. It is white and refined from raw sugar.

b) ICUMSA 100: This is a standard-quality white sugar with slightly more color than ICUMSA 45. It is still considered suitable for use in many food and beverage products.

c) ICUMSA 150: This sugar is slightly darker than ICUMSA 100 but is still used in many food and beverage products.

d) ICUMSA 600-1200: These numbers encompass sugars with progressively darker colors. They are generally used in industrial products and unsuitable for direct use in food or beverages due to their darker color and higher impurity content.

e) ICUMSA 2,300+: These are very dark and unrefined sugars. They are not suitable for direct consumption and are mainly used in industrial processes such as alcohol production or animal feed.

In addition to color, ICUMSA sugar is also classified based on other criteria, such as purity, moisture, and ash content.

Fun Facts about Sugar

  • The Portuguese word “açúcar” comes from the Sanskrit word “sharara,” which means “grainy substance.”
  • Before the invention of refrigeration, sugar was used as a natural preserver for perishable foods like fruits.
  • Sugar has been used for thousands of years—the earliest records of its production date back to ancient India around 350 AD.
  • Sweeteners are one of the main sources of calories in our diet, but they lack essential nutrients. For this reason, they are known as “empty calories.”
  • Sugar was used as medicine around the 9th century in Iraq. It was combined with fruits and spices to create syrups and other medicinal infusions.
  • According to the World Health Organization, six teaspoons is an individual’s recommended daily sugar intake.
  • In the 16th century, a teaspoon of sugar cost five dollars in London.

In conclusion, sugar is not just a sweet substance but a part of cuisine, culture, history, and even beauty standards. Its ability to preserve food helped humanity endure scarcity for centuries.

However, its excessive consumption has become a global concern, as diets high in sugar are associated with health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, consuming this Brazilian treasure in moderation is essential.





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