A Brief, Dark History of Sugar

Sugar is bad news.  I came to this conclusion yesterday as I read this article about the one small diet change women can make that will have the greatest positive effect on their health.  Yep, it’s cutting out sugar.  Then I went and ate two cookies, a piece of cake, ice cream, and a couple of bite-size Reece’s peanut butter cups.  Ugh.

And of course, being the historian that I am, I was immediately curious about when the world’s sugar addiction began.  Wouldn’t you know it, it was earlier than I thought.

The earliest references to sugar come from 8th century BC Chinese manuscripts, stating that sugar cane came from India.  Aside from references, first record of sugar being cultivated comes from India in about the year 500AD.  At that time sugar cane was pressed and processed and the syrup boiled down until it crystallized.  This khanda, as it was called, was easy to transport and trade, both to China and to the Middle East.  And as you might guess, the word khanda gradually evolved into the word “candy”.

So sugar was known in the ancient world but it was still considered a rare commodity.  It’s cultivation spread from India to the Middle East, and through Islamic expansion across the Mediterranean.  In the Early Middle Ages it was cultivated in the Levant (which was the area of Israel, Syria, Jordan).  For a short while sugar was available throughout Europe, though not in great quantities, until Islamic rulers cut off trade routes.  Crusaders brought back bits of sugar as spoils of war.

Yes, sugar was known in the Middle Ages, but it was extremely rare.  Part of the reason for this was that the process of growing, harvesting, and processing sugar cane was grueling and labor intensive.  Because of its weight and bulk sugar cane was inefficient to transport, so each sugar plantation had to have its own processing facilities.  No one wanted to perform the labor involved in boiling vats of cane juice for hours and drying the resultant syrup, so slave labor was imported.

Sugar and slavery have been intertwined right from the start.  Even as technology improved in the 1500s, making sugar production more efficient and expansive, slaves were brought in from Africa to perform the labor.  As the European taste for sugar grew, so did the preponderance of slaves.  Because sugar was an extremely profitable commodity people began looking around for more places to grow it.  They began by looking to places like the Azores and the Canary Islands.  And then came the New World.

Christopher Columbus took sugar cane seeds to the New World on his second voyage in 1493.  The Portuguese brought sugar cane to Brazil in the early 1500s.  By the early 1600s just about every colonizing nation had set up sugar plantations throughout the islands off the coast of South America and in the Caribbean.  Sugar production boomed.

Demand from Europe grew with it.  At first Europeans just used sugar to sweeten their tea, but soon confections and candy became all the rage.  Sugar was more than just a luxury, it was a necessity.

But the actual process of growing and manufacturing sugar hadn’t gotten much easier.  The labor was still difficult and intensive.  And who did these European sugar barons get to do that labor?  You guessed it, slaves.

The slave trade is directly related to the increase in demand and production of sugar.  And the sad and shameful fact of the matter is that it was less expensive to buy a slave and work them to death on the sugar plantations than it was to feed and clothe them.  An estimated 4 million slaves were brought to the West Indies during the sugar heydays, but by the time slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1838 there were only 400,000 slaves left.

Of course the average sugar consumer in Europe in the early Modern era probably didn’t have a clue how much blood sugar carried.  By that point it was too late.  The sweet-tooth had taken over.  In Britain, in 1700 the average person consumed 4 pounds of sugar a year.  By 1800 it was eighteen pounds.  By 1850 it was thirty-six pounds, and by the twentieth century it was over a hundred pounds.  According to Dr. Oz, the average American now consumes 150 pounds of sugar a year.

But slavery was abolished and technology has improved so the horrors of sugar production are gone now, right?  Um, yeah.  That would be nice, wouldn’t it.  The truth is that a lot of the sugar we eat today comes from severely under developed countries and is produced by minimum-wage laborers living in near poverty conditions.

Nowadays, of course, we have all sorts of different kinds of sugar.  That’s not new either.  In the mid-1700s a German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, identified sucrose in beet roots and the sugar beet industry emerged.  In 1957 industrial scientists  Richard O. Marshall and Earl P. Kooi developed the process of making high-fructose corn syrup.  In the US and Japan you’re more likely to find things sweetened with “corn sugar” than with actual cane sugar, in spite of the fact that research is finding more and more health problems associated with the stuff.

As I just discovered when I looked through all of the stuff in my kitchen, sugar is in just about everything these days.  And we’re talking stuff that it doesn’t really need to be in.  One of my friends who took a psychology class about addiction once told me that sugar is the most highly addictive substance on Earth.  That article that I read supported that idea.  Maybe that’s why we can’t shake the habit in spite of knowing how detrimental it is to our health.

All of this reading and research has made me want to go back to the original sweetener.  Before sugar made its mark in Europe the only sweetener available was honey.  And you know what?  Honey is about a thousand times better for you than cane sugar or beet sugar or high-fructose corn syrup or anything else.  It’s the bee’s knees.

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9 thoughts on “A Brief, Dark History of Sugar

  1. All true. Lets try and escape sugar. there is a herb called Stevia which is very sweet, we could look for that to sweeten food with, I’ve had it in things, its very nice.

    • Would you believe it, Stevia is actually way too sweet for me! It kind of makes my face pucker. 😛 I do like honey, but yeah, it’s not good in black tea or coffee.

  2. I love honey, too. Except in my tea. It changes the taste, somehow, dulls a lot of the flavour. I hate sugar, but it’s so damned hard to kick!

    • If only sugar weren’t so addictive! And it’s in so many things that I like, like cookies. 😉 At least when I make my own cookies I can control the amount and the kind going in.

  3. I love honey too, doesnt work so well in coffee though 🙂 Maple syrup is another one I use for sweetening too. Cant ever totally get away from sugar though! Thanks for the history of it here

    • Oh yeah! Maple syrup works in a lot of things too. But nothing is as good in tea or coffee as sugar. I’ve tried cutting that back, but then I justify it by saying that if this is the only place I have sugar it’s okay. Of course that’s usually when I go grab a cookie or a piece of candy from our receptionist at work. 😛

      • I actually treat myself with a (long) dash of chocolate milk in my coffee each morning. Like dessert! And it sweetens it – still sugar but yum

  4. I’ve succeeded in giving up sugar. The trick is putting lots of heavy cream in everything instead (and pretending that’s better for me).

  5. Norbert Rillieux made a sugar processor and evaporator in the 1800s. He made life astronomically easier for sugar workers.

    He was an african american sugar chemist.

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