The Ecology of Humans (49-1) History of Sugar

Sugarcane was domesticated on the island of New Guinea 10,000 years ago, before grains were sown anywhere in the world. Natives cut the cane, chewing a stalk until a starburst of sugar hit.

Sugar featured predominantly in New Guinean myths: an elixir for curing all kinds of ailments, and an answer for malcontent moods. Priests at religious ceremonies sipped sugar water from coconut shells.

Sugar spread slowly among the Southeast Asian islands, reaching the mainland by 1000 bce. By the mid-4th century ce, Indians had learned how to process sugar into a powder. It was used as a curative for headaches, stomach flutters, and even impotence.

Sugar refinement was long kept a secret science, passed from master to apprentice. By the 6th century the craft had crept to Persia, where rulers entertained guests with sugary sweets.

Arab conquests carried sugar with them. The sweet knowledge spread throughout the Muslim world: in the Arabian Peninsula and as far as Spain.

The Arabs perfected sugar refinement and transformed it into an industry. The work was brutal: the heat in the fields, the smoke in the boiling rooms, the crush of the mills.

Sugar demand surged. The work was considered suitable only for the lowest laborers. Field hands were commonly prisoners of war: east European captives of the Ottoman Empire – one of the fruits of conquest.

The first Europeans to succumb to sugar were British and French crusaders who sallied forth to enrich themselves by wresting the Holy Land from the infidels. Those that returned brought with them a sweet powder so rare that it was classified as a spice, consumed only by nobility.

The Western elite who had fallen under sugar’s spell faced a dilemma: deal with the southern European suppliers at exorbitant prices, defeat the Turks, or suss new sources of sugar. The last option seemed the most economical solution.

The European age of exploration was, to no small extent, a search for territories that would support growing sugarcane. Cane is not productively produced in temperate climes. It requires rain-drenched tropical fields to flourish.

In 1425 the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator sent sugarcane and colonists to Madeira, an island just rediscovered in 1420. The crop soon made its way to other newly found Atlantic islands.

In 1493, cane was carried on Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus’ 2nd voyage to the New World. Whence dawned the age of Caribbean sugar. Columbus’ sugarcane was first planted in Hispaniola, the site a few hundred years later of a great slave revolt.

The price of sugarcane was devastation. The rainforests of Jamaica, Cuba, and elsewhere were razed. The natives were killed, subjugated, and enslaved. The Portuguese turned Brazil into a boom colony, with over 100,000 slaves producing tons of sugar.

During the mid-17th century, by dint of surfeit thanks to slavery, sugar was transformed from a luxury spice to a staple, first for the middle class, and eventually the poor. Economists call this feedback loop a virtuous cycle: surging supply creating increasing demand via falling prices.

By the 18th century, sugar and slavery had proved a winning formula. Every few years a Caribbean island was colonized, cleared, and planted.

When the natives expired, they were replaced by African slaves. Over 11 million slaves were shipped to the New World. More than half worked on sugarcane plantations. Millions were tortured, mutilated, and died to satiate Europe’s growing sweet tooth.

In 1700 the average Brit ate 1.8 kilograms of sugar a year. By 1800: 8 kilos. In 1870, the average appetite was up to 21 kg per person per annum. By 1900, individual sugar consumption was 45 kg a year.

Breakfast cereal began its commercial descent in the 1880s, when it was first packaged as a whole-grain health food. In the 1920s, cereal began its evolution into sugar-coated puffs, flakes, and pops. From there cereal’s popularity bloomed. The US trademark office now lists 2,000 different commercial cereal names.

Recent decades have seen a burgeoning consumption of processed sugars. Over the past 50 years, sugar consumption has tripled worldwide. Now, more than 500 calories per day come from refined sugar alone for people in many parts of the world. That is often more than a quarter of dietary energy intake.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is manufactured from corn syrup in a process that yields a mixture of glucose and fructose in roughly equal proportions. Corporations that grow corn are subsidized by the government in the United States, so HFCS is pervasive.

The average American sucks down 23 kilos of corn syrup per year. Most other developed countries eschew HFCS, relying instead on sucrose as an added sugar.