The possibility of beet sugar was first discovered in 1605 when a French scientist found that the boiled root of garden beet (Beta vulgaris) yielded a syrup similar to that obtained from sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum). It was not until the mid-1700s, however, that the commercial potential of sugar beets was recognized. Once realized, sugar beets quickly became a major crop in Europe and elsewhere, displacing some of the sugarcane that could only be obtained from tropical plantations. The cultivated sugar beet is, therefore, a variety of the common garden beet, known as Beta vulgaris var. crassa.
The sugar beet has wide, thin leaves, growing from a large, tuberous root mass. It is a biennial herb (having a two-year life cycle), storing most of its first-year production of biomass in its large, carbohydrate-rich root (containing 17-27% sugar).
In 1999, about 16.8 million acres (6.8 million ha) of sugar beets were grown world-wide, and total production was 286 million tons of root mass (260 million tonnes). Sugar beets are used to manufacture sucrose-sugar, as well as secondary products such as alcohol. The pressed remains of sugar extraction can be fed to cows and other livestock.