Sugar – A Bitter-Sweet Story of Addiction

“The wish for sugar and other exotic foodstuffs changed the planet more than many centuries of history and conquests […] So many tears were shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.” – Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat.

Every western nation consumes more sugar today than ever before. The record breakers are of course the Americans, who consume an average of 61 kg per year, and that figure’s still rising. Even people who don’t add sugar to food and beverages may be surprised how much of this “white death” they eat. It’s added to most food products. For example, one tablespoon of ketchup contains a teaspoon of sugar. It’s stuffed into bread, soups, cereals, canned meats, salad dressings, sauces, mayonnaise, pickles, canned fruits and vegetables, not to mention sweets and fizzy drinks.

A fondness for everything sweet lies in our natures.

sweetsAt the tip of our tongues are thousands of small taste buds which violently react to sweetness. This feature was acquired by all primates during the course of their evolution. It helped us to distinguish between ripe and unripe fruit, and between what was good to eat and what was rotten, as well as enabling us to choose the parts of plants that were suitable for consumption.

We have learned, however, how to refine sugar and cheat our taste buds. As a result, we are biologically addicted to sugar, a fact that is obvious to anyone who has been on a diet at least once in their life. Obesity problems are a throwback to an evolutionary mechanism that allowed us in the distant past to store excess food in the form of fat. This was necessary when we were nomads wandering in search of food. We burned up our fat reserves when there wasn’t enough food. We are not so mobile today, but our bodies are still programmed to store fat. Our bodies, which were primed to live in the kind of harsh conditions in which finding food was never an easy task, struggle in today’s conditions of relative plenty.

Where did sugar come from and how did we get addicted to it?

The giant grass, i.e. sugar cane, comes from India, mainly from the Indus Valley region. Even today, many variations of it can be encountered in their wild state there.

sugar cane

The species from which we get sugar, Saccharum officinarum, only occurs as a cultivable plant. We are not exactly sure when people decided to try out the sweet pulp filling its stem. Indian tradition mentions it from the earliest times. The Sanskrit poem Ramayana, composed in 1200 BC, describes a banquet, at which tables were laid with sweets, syrups and sugar cane for chewing. The term officinalis comes from the Egyptians and Phoenicians, which means that it was once used in medicine. The Greeks and Romans often called it “the Indian salt” because it “crunched under the teeth.” Roman and Greek scholars (Seneca, Gales, Dioscorides) used the term sakcharon, which is derived from the Sanskrit sarkar, providing further evidence of its Indian roots. For the Ancients, sugar was a valuable remedy worth its weight in gold.

The first commercial sugar refinery was set up on the island of Crete.

It was founded by the Arabs, who conquered Persia. The Arabic name for Crete, “Quandi”, basically meant “crystallised sugar”. This word is very similar to “candy” in English. The Arabs established plantations and refineries in the lands under their control. They were like pots of gold. The Arabs also invented caramel. One of its earliest applications was depilation, i.e. the removal of unwanted hairs together with their roots. The entire Middle East gave off a sugary aroma. This soon attracted the Crusaders, who recaptured “Quandi” from the Arabs on their way back from one of their 11th century crusades. For 400 years, sugar continued to be a very expensive medicine and a luxury for the rich.

Spices, including sugar, became the basis for the economic clout of Mediterranean ports, especially that of Venice.

sugarIn spite of the high price and transportation difficulties, it was quite safe to import spices, because demand for them was constantly increasing. As the spices were conveyed toward the north of Europe or to England, they began to become horrendously expensive. This was because a toll was collected in each town. Everybody was reaping the economic advantages of sugar and cinnamon, even if these goods were only passing through their territory.

Around the 12th century, the towns of Southern France, such as Narbonne, imposed a charge on all sugar, no matter whether it arrived by sea or was imported overland. It therefore began to make sense to start searching for a shipping route to India via the Atlantic Ocean. This would be a way to avoid custom duties and other charges. Vasco da Gama took up this challenge in 1497. The value of sugar kept rising, and this encouraged a Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, to establish a sugarcane plantation in Madera, which turned out to be a great success, providing an impetus for the expansion of sugar production into Haiti after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. The business was growing so fast that in 1518 there were already 8 plantations on the island. The profits were so huge that they allowed Charles V to build himself splendid palaces in Madrid and Toledo. This lucrative business needed land and workers to continue its development – and it’s at this point that sugar begins to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

The Bitter Taste of Sugar – Slavery

The popularity of coffee and chocolate caused sugar consumption to triple after the 16th century . The demand for sugar exceeded supply and the productive capacity of the plantations. The indigenous peoples of places like Haiti were decimated by new diseases brought by the white settlers, such as influenza and chickenpox. Labour shortages were rapidly plugged by fresh workers from Africa.

Slaves in chains

Slaves in chains, Wikimedia Commons

It’s difficult to estimate the actual number of Africans who were shipped to the colonies as slaves. There’s no doubt that millions of them reached the Caribbean and Americas by way of the Middle Passage, thus named because it formed the central portion of the slave trade passage. It was a triangular shaped route which joined Europe with Africa and both Americas. Ships departed from Europe with fabrics, tools and weapons that were used to buy slaves at West African ports. They then sailed with these slaves to North and South America and the Caribbean. Finally, the ships were loaded with sugar, cotton and other products from the colonies and sailed back to Europe.

A voyage of this kind was an inconceivable torment for these people. From the moment they got on board they were made to feel as if they had been stripped of their basic humanity. Many thousands died a slow and painful death. It certainly traumatized those who survived for life. The conditions onboard were dire. It was hot, there was a constant shortage of drinking water and food, and measles and typhoid epidemics and fevers were rife. Ships were deliberately overloaded, as it was taken for granted that some people would not survive the passage.

Sailors reported that the stench of the unsanitary slave ships could be smelled from several kilometres away, and they were often called “floating coffins”. The ships were trailed by shoals of sharks waiting for dead bodies to be thrown into the sea. On almost a daily basis, the African women were raped. They were purposefully left unchained, so that the sailors would have easier access to them.


The Slave Ship J. M. W. Turner

How sugar beet entered the equation – and Napoleon’s big idea

In 1745, the German chemist Andreas S. Marggraf extracted sugar from beets and successfully turned it into a solid. His student Franz Achard opened the first sugar factory in Lower Silesia (part of the historic region of Silesia, which is in South-West Poland today) in 1801-1802. So when the British introduced a naval blockade, cutting off Europe from goods imported from the colonies, Napoleon decided that from that point on, sugar beet would be a source of sugar for Europeans. This had an impact on both the economy and the future of slavery. The sugar industry began to become industrialised and such a large labour force was no longer needed.

Anyone in France who produced 10 tonnes of beet sugar was exempted from paying taxes for four years. There was a decline in demand for cane sugar, which strengthened the campaign to eradicate slavery.

Even so, up until 1975, Europe was the world’s main consumer of cane sugar.

Later on, the situation was reached in which more beet sugar was being produced than the internal market required. The surplus began to be exported to countries that had traditionally only been supplied by cane sugar refineries. The fact that sugar factories in the developed world were state-subsidized resulted in them gaining an unfair advantage in the sugar trade.

The European policy on sugar production has led to less developed countries losing about $2 billion of their annual income from sugar exports.

In 2005, the international humanitarian organisation Oxfam, in a report to the World Trade Organization (WTO), estimated that the European Union’s policy of exporting sugar for bargain basement prices (i.e. below production cost) had cost Brazil, Thailand, South Africa and India millions of dollars. In addition, different sugar substitutes, such as saccharin, cyclamate or aspartame, are continuously being discovered in laboratories. Rich countries no longer have any need to import sugar from developing countries. It is unlikely that their demands for a fair pricing policy will be heard out.

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