Muscovado Sugar, A New Sunshine Industry Part 1

Did you know that excessive consumption of refined sugar can lead one to suffer from increased cholesterol levels, gallstones, and weak eyesight? For years, refined sugar has been the primary sweetener for everyone. But, recent research has shed light on some health complications caused by excessive intake of refined sugar. Because of the general trend these days for more healthy options, people are rediscovering healthy and organic foods like brown rice, muscovado, etc. These products often contain little chemicals and undergo little processing. Of these products, muscovado has one of the greatest potentials in terms of export and may be the key to revive the country’s flagging sugar industry.

Muscovado also known as “Barbados sugar” or “moist sugar,” is a type of unrefined brown sugar with a strong molasses flavor. It is dark brown, and slightly coarser and stickier than most brown sugars. Unlike most other brown sugars, which are made by adding molasses to refined white sugar, muscovado takes its flavor and color from its source, sugarcane juice. It offers good resistance to high temperatures and has a reasonably long shelf life. This unrefined sugar goes well with coffee and other beverages, and was one of the most prominent export commodities of the Philippines, especially from the Negros region from the 1800s until the late 1970s. It is commonly used in baking recipes and making whiskey.

Muscovado production is naturally labor and time intensive and was usually produced small scale in backyards. This method of production was overtaken with the rise of the large sugar plantations. Due to the access Philippine sugar had to the US market during its time as a US colony and the Cold War period, investments flowed into the local refined sugar industry at the cost of the muscovado industry. This reached its peak in 1929, when 96% of our sugar exports were refined sugar.

Numerous milling sites closed due to decades of neglect and poor marketing.

Farmers also shifted from cane production to rice production. These led to poor quality and lax standards that contribute to the decline of muscovado. In a much smaller scale, muscovado continued in Antique, Pangasinan, Tarlac, Iloilo, Batangas, Negros Occidental, Bukidnon, Davao del Sur, Sultan Kudarat, and North Cotabato. Production in these areas was restricted to a few families.

The muscovado industry was in a slump until a few years ago when consumer preferences looked towards natural and healthy products. This increased market interest breathed back life to the almost dying industry. Since then, there has been renewed interest in developing and expanding production and distribution.

Sugar is one of the prime commodities traded in the market today. Most of the sugar comes from the tropical sugar cane which can be processed either as refined or raw. Raw sugar that produces muscovado is made by heating cane juice. Further processing yields refined sugar used to make casters, granulated, and icing sugar.

Annual global sugar production reached 100 million tons with 13 million hectares planted in 2002 with most of the sugar coming from India, and Brazil. Sugar also forms the agricultural backbone of some countries like Barbados and Mauritius. Sugar from these countries is usually produced from sugarcane. Europe, on the other hand, grants heavy subsidies to their sugar industries based on sugar beets. This causes reduced revenues on other sugar producing countries.

In 2002, muscovado production was pegged at 13.8 metric tons globally with India being the top producer with 9.8 metric tons followed by Columbia and Pakistan. The Philippines was the eight largest producer with 0.1 metric tons representing 0.8% of total production.

The decentralized nature of muscovado production in the country has made it difficult to ascertain the number of mills in the country. But in 1994, the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) estimated that out of 475 mills, only 304 were operational. Most of the mills were located in the traditional areas of muscovado production. According to an SRA report released in 2006, there was only 2,071 hectares allotted for muscovado production which is only a minuscule part of the 396,135 hectares planted to sugarcane. Antique tops the muscovado producing provinces followed by Negros Occidental, and Sultan Kudarat.

Most muscovado farmers are small scale farmers with an average landholding of just over a hectare. Due to the small size of the ventures, the farmers often have to perform multiple functions. They are usually the ones who plant, harvest, process, and even market the products. Household members all contribute to the production cycle.

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