Sugar beets are a different variety from regular beets, also known as garden beets or table beets. Yet all kinds of beets are the same species of plant, Beta vulgaris vulgaris. The differences between regular beets and sugar beets lie in their color, flavor, and uses.
Sugar beets are a variation of mangel-wurtzel, a variety of beet bred as animal fodder. The original mangel-wurtzel is not meant for human consumption, being too tough and having the wrong kind of flavor for the human palate. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, French and German plant breeders actively sought to breed a variety of mangel-wurtzel that sugar could be extracted from.
Before the process of making sugar from beets was invented, the only way to make sugar was from sugar cane, which grows only in tropical climates. Then as now, much of the world’s sugar cane was grown in the Caribbean, with a smaller percentage being grown in southern Asia. The long distances cane sugar had to travel to reach consumers in Europe made it easy for the supply of sugar to be disrupted by war. During the War of 1812, British troops blockaded New World cane sugar from reaching France. The French adapted by supplying themselves with sugar from beets.
Beet sugar was also used as a substitute for cane sugar by American abolitionists. Not wanting to support the sugar cane industry, which relied on slave labor, many abolitionists turned to sugar beets instead. Unlike sugar cane, beets could be grown in the North, where slavery was illegal. During the Civil War, when northerners, no matter how they felt about slavery, did not have access to commodities produced in the South, beets became the basis for sugar throughout the North.
Regular beets, sweet though they are, cannot be used to extract sugar. They have been bred specifically for small, easily edible roots. The round, red vegetables that most people think of when they think of beets are likewise a relatively recent innovation. Though beets have been cultivated and eaten for several thousand years, the round, red variety was not bred until the seventeenth century. Older varieties of table beet had long, white roots.
In appearance, sugar beets resemble those older varieties. They too are long and white, looking more like parsnips or daikons than like beets. What sets them apart from parsnips and daikons is their leaves. Sugar beets and regular beets alike have broad leaves with long stems. Daikons have much smaller leaves, while parsnips have the feathery leaves of the carrot family.
Though most of the beets sold in grocery stores are dark red, other colors exist. There are also yellow beets, round white beets, and beets that are medium or light red on the outside and white on the inside. All of these are regular table beets. They may vary slightly in appearance and taste, but they are not as different from each other as the sugar beet is from all of them.
The differences between sugar beets and regular beets have to do with appearance, flavor, and uses. They are different varieties bred for different purposes. Yet all beets are the same species of plant, which has been cultivated for thousands of years.