The Not-So-Sweet History of Sugar Part I

sugar history cane and processed sugar imageAccording to a recent issue of National Geographic, our total fascination with sugar changed the world in a way that we are still recovering from.

Its beginnings reach back 10,000 years to New Guinea, where sugar cane was first domesticated. Chewing on a stalk of sugar cane quickly became known as a “panacea” a “cure-all” for any mood or ailment.

By 1000 B.C., sugar cane reached the Asian mainland and by 500 B.C. Indian alchemists figured out how to make the white powder version, the new secret recipe and medicinal cure-all that changed the world. Even today, Americans consume 22 teaspoons of sugar per day.

Soon it made its way to the Middle East and then to Europe, still being touted as a cure-all 1000 years later. The demand for sugar rivaled the demand for gold. So rare was access to granulated sugar that it was consumed only by the wealthy.

Don’t forget, sugar triggers dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is the I gotta have it now hormone. Soon the developing world had to have it.

With the Ottoman Empire in full force in 1400 A.D, Europeans had to find new tropical territories to grow sugar cane. Many expeditions were commissioned to find suitable land to grow the white powder plant. Columbus took sugar cane plants to the Caribbean on his second trip to the New World.

Soon, island after island was converted into sugar fields with the natives doing all the labor. When the natives died, they were replaced with African slaves. More than 11 million Africans were shipped to the New World as slaves, where millions died, primarily in the name of sugar.

By the 1700′s sugar was not a luxury spice anymore. It had become a staple that was in high demand worldwide. One island after another was depleted of its water table reserves, and when the crops dried up a new island was terrorized with sugar cane and slave traders.  Europeans consumed greater and greater quantities of sugar. In 1700, the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds of sugar a year. In 1800, 18 pounds a year. In 1870, 47 pounds a year. By 1900 the average Englishman was consuming 100 pounds per year “more than today’s average American by 23 pounds. For centuries, the world’s sweet tooth was satisfied on the backs of African slaves and native people.

We now know that yesterday’s cure-all is today’s poison. Stay tuned for: The History of Sugar: Part II.


National Geographic Mag. Sugar Love. Aug 2013


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