Stirring stuff

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Sugar has been savoured by the Persians, fought over by English and French, and used to amass fortunes for companies worldwide. Victoria Neumark looks at how a humble Polynesian plant ended up shaping the course of world history

So sang The Archies in 1969, but they didn't know the half of it. Sugar has been driving the course of world history for the past millennium, in its own sweet way. Anathematised by nutritionist John Yudkin in his 1972 book Pure, White and Deadly on "the problem of sugar", reviled by campaigners, but gobbled up by consumers in ever-increasing amounts, these hugely profitable crystals are among the most universally enjoyed foodstuffs.

Desire for sugar pulsed through the markets of 13th-century Venice, opened up the Caribbean in the 18th century and fuelled the Atlantic slave trade, created huge fortunes in new products such as soft drinks, ketchup and confectionery, and popularised two engines of the western day - tea and coffee.

We humans love sweetness. Babies give a positive response to sugar almost immediately from birth. Hunter-gatherer peoples will go a long way to empty a beehive. There is a survival aspect to the love of sweetness: in nature, sweet-tasting foods are usually safe to eat, unlike bitter plant poisons.

Naturally occurring sugars - fructose, lactose and sucrose, in fruits, milks and plants - are broken down in the body into glucose and galactose and used as fuel. So sweet tastes indicate useful provisions. Yet recent research suggests that our ever-growing appetite for refined sugar, freed from its plant or milk base, offers more than directly absorbable fuel.

"Sugar," says neuroscientist Bart Hoebel of Princeton University, at least in rats, "triggers production of the brain's natural opioids (painkilling chemicals)."

Not only does sugar make you feel good, withdrawal of it can also make you feel shaky and anxious. Reason enough for consumption in the developed world to top 20 teaspoons a day per person? You got me wanting you...

The origins of a sugarcane culture

Sugar is currently cultivated in more than 130 countries and 65 to 70 per cent of it sugar cane - a tropical grass which grows up to 15 feet high (4.5 metres). The rest comes from sugar beet, which is a root vegetable that only grows in temperate climates. Crystals refined from these different plants are chemically identical. In 2002, global sugar production was nearly 143 million tonnes and the world sugar market was estimated at US$11.6 billion ( Trading in sugar is secretive, controlled by a few, hugely profitable businesses, and hotly fought over. In the European Union, for example, sugar is protected by subsidy and high tariffs limit imports; consumers are steered towards buying sugar derived from the sugar beet, which is a native crop. The UK consumes about 2.25 million tonnes a year, three-quarters of which goes to food-processing and soft drinks industries ( That means, on average, each individual gets through 39 kilograms a year. In 1800, with a population of 11 million (compared to today's 58.7 million), the annual average consumption was about 7.25kg.

Evidence suggests that sugarcane probably originated in Polynesia and spread through trade. The plant was introduced into China from India around 800 BC. Crude sugar was being produced by 400 BC, however the process was a closely guarded secret. In China, the boiled down and sun-dried juice of sugarcane was called "stone honey"; the most highly prized luxury items were white cakes of stone honey imported from India. In 510 BC, a Persian military expedition recorded finding sugarcane there. In 327 BC Nearchos, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, described "a reed which makes honey without bees". Dioscorides, a Greek physician who lived during the first century, told of "... a kind of concentrated honey, called saccharon, found in canes in India and Arabia, like in consistence to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth". Sugar was already being extracted from cane.

Sugarcane culture spread westward, reaching Persia by 500 AD. When the armies of Mohammed conquered Persia in the next century, they found sugarcane and adopted its cultivation, carrying it with them in their conquests, as "the Persian Reed". They introduced it to Egypt in 710 AD, where the process of refining it moved up a gear. Early production of sugar used a blindfolded mule or ox treading in a circle, driving a vertical grinding mill to crush the cane. The juice was evaporated by boiling to a sticky mixture of crystals and syrup. Such a method is still in used in India where the product is called "gur" or "jaggery". It does not keep well. Egyptians added lime to purify the syrup, boiling and reboiling it to separate the crystals from the sticky molasses.

Throughout the following centuries sugar's popularity spread across Africa and the Mediterranean. In 10th-century Europe it was considered a valuable medicine. Later, it was considered a rare spice, its price as high as that of pepper, saffron and cinnamon. An efficient preservative, it was used to season things to a degree that we would find unpleasant today. Mincemeat, for instance, was minced meat cooked in a heavy syrup of sugar, with almonds and fruit.

With the Crusades, knowledge of sugar spread. Venice controlled international trade, trading sugar first to England in 1319 at two shillings a pound - about pound;80 per kg at today's prices. By the middle of the 14th century the Venetians were manufacturing and trading "sugar loaves" with their customers. Sugar was used, as it still is today, to mask the bitter or unpleasant taste of medicines. Special jars of "rose" and "violet" sugars, flavoured with aromatic substances and extremely expensive, were made for sickly royal children. It remained rare and costly: the Badii palace (1578-1594) was built in Marrakech by Ahmed El Mansour and all its building materials, including gold, Italian marble, and onyx were traded for their weight in sugar. Sugar was so rare that a teaspoon of it in the 16th century could be sold for the equivalent of pound;4 today. According to English records from the 17th century, one could purchase a calf for four pounds of sugar. Most sugar was rough and came from north Africa, traded by the Barbary Company, which was founded in 1551. When it reached the royal table of Queen Elizabeth I, Secretary of State Burleigh complained about its quality.

Meantime, across the Atlantic, by 1509 sugar was being produced in profitable amounts on Haiti. Its use quickly spread to Mexico by 1520, where the Spanish explorer Cortez established the first North American sugar mill in 1535. Cultivation was soon taking place in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. Puerto Rico had a mill by 1547. By 1600, the "sugar islands" of the West Indies brought great wealth to England and France. Queen Elizabeth I displayed her wealth by using sugar as an everyday food and seasoning.

Supplies of honey in England had declined because of the Reformation campaign against the monasteries, which had been major honey producers. As crystalline sugar became more available English and European cooks discovered how to make jam and preserve fruit with it (the knowledge of which was previously confined to Indians, Chinese and Arabs).

Sweetened tea shapes a nation

In the mercantile 17th century Britain took a commanding position in the sugar trade, but it was tea which really pushed sugar use into the stratosphere. "The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event," says historian Sydney Mintz (quoted on, "Behind consumption and consumerism"). "It prefigured the transformation of an entire society - a total remaking of its economic and social basis."

That cup of tea, which was probably drunk towards the end of the 17th century, was different from previous cups of tea. It demonstrated how luxury goods change their meanings as the economy changes. It was not like the Chinese and Japanese teas, for a millennia drunk with ceremony and without sweeteners, nor like Arab and Turkish teas, for centuries drunk at social occasions with sugar but without milk. That English worker's milky sweet tea signified that sugar was here to stay, that mass markets would dictate agriculture and that some foods shape people, instead of being shaped by them.

Tea had already moved down-market. Once early tea-drinkers had added milk to save thin porcelain from breaking with the hot brew, poorer tea drinkers joined the party. They were a market for the cheaper dust teas. Happily for trade they found that the kick they got out of the psychoactive substances in tea (caffeine and theobromine) was heightened by the phenomenon known to us now as a "sugar rush". High 18th-century taxes on tea and sugar cashed in on their popularity, as did smugglers. Soon merchants and employers saw the utility of paying wages in tea and sugar, weight for weight, far more cost-effective than the age-old payment to servants of ale and bacon. By the mid-19th century in England, control of the tea-caddy and sugar bowl equated to control of the home. Meanwhile, up to one million slaves had been transported from West Africa to the Caribbean and the southern states of America.

White gold and the slave trade

In Barbados, England's "model colony", there were 1,300 sugarcane plantations and nearly 500 sugar mills in 1700. These were served by a population of 30,000. Barbados then produced about 8,000 tons a year.

Today, a single factory in Brazil produces 30,000 tons per day. Sugar then started being grown in other Caribbean islands - those owned by France and Spain - and in the southern states of the North American mainland. With it a new labour force emerged, replacing recalcitrant criminals "barbadoed" from England with people brought from Africa.

The movement of trade was triangular. Ships left Europe with manufactured goods, such as textiles, hardware, and toys, which were bartered in West Africa for gold dust and slaves. Coastal tribes would supply the latter from among their opposite numbers or enemies inland. Then in the West Indies, slaves were sold and sugar and rum were bought for Europe. It lasted until slavery was abolished in 1833, but not before many fortunes had been solidly founded.

Understandably, freed slaves disliked working on the cane and for a while they were replaced by "indentured" workers from India, Portugal and China, who were imported in "companies" under regulated conditions. The Portuguese and Chinese soon contrived to escape from sugar work and went on to set up shops and businesses. Trinidad today has large population of Indians, as does South Africa, which also ran its sugar plantations with indentured labour.

Since sugar was so popular in the 18th century and was only grown in the Caribbean, England and France fought to control its supply. Admiral Horatio Nelson spent much of his naval career in the West Indies. In 1805, he pursued the French fleet from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, narrowly missing it. The Battle of Trafalgar was nearly fought off Barbados. By 1750 there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain. Their combined output was only 30,000 tons per annum. At this stage sugar, also called "white gold", was still a luxury that made vast profits. In 1781, sugar tax in Britain totalled pound;326,000 and by 1815 it had increased to pound;3 million. Sugar remained an expensive luxury, as the famous chef-historian Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin remarked: "Sugar won't hurt you, but it will make a hole in your pocket". It is not until 1874 that Prime Minister William Gladstone abolished the tax and brought sugar prices within the means of the ordinary citizen.

Sugar beet was first identified as a source of sugar in 1747 by a German scientist Andreas Marggraf. It was no more than a curiosity until the Napoleonic wars at the start of the 19th century, when Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe during the Napoleonic wars. By 1880 sugar beet had replaced sugarcane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe, but beet sugar was not introduced into England until the First World War, when Britain's sugar imports were threatened.

Production then rapidly expanded, with 13 companies producing sugar in 18 factories in the 1920s. In 1936 these companies amalgamated, by Act of Parliament, into the British Sugar Corporation. The move was an indication of how seriously the Government took sugar. In 1981 British Sugar was privatised and its owners remain major contributors to political funds and active lobbyists to retain EU subsidies for sugar production.

Obesity, profit and repression

Last year the World Health Organisation put the health-scare cat among the plump sugar pigeons. In a report of its International Obesity Task Force, it recommended that added sugars - not those occurring naturally in grain, fruits and milk - form no more than 10 per cent of a healthy diet. This is in line with 23 other reports, as well as the task force's own 1990 report.

At present added sugars contribute up to 25 per cent, much of which is hidden in processed foods as diverse as fruit juice drinks, sausages, bread, cooked meats and sauces, as well as sodas, sweets and cakes.

Professor Philip James, chairman of the Task Force, says: "childhood obesity is a global crisis that cannot be ignored", as is the growing prevalence of early-onset adult diabetes, with its life-shortening attacks on human organs. There is growing evidence that diabetes, as well as other illnesses such as degenerative heart disease, cancers of the digestive tract, disturbances of sleep and mood, hyperactivity in children and, above all, obesity are linked to sugar consumption. This evidence is disputed by industries that use sugar, as well as many bodies funded by industry. For instance, the US National Soft Drink Association, which had earlier fought against a lax limit of 25 per cent sugar proposed by the American Medical Association says: "there is no association." A top executive at Coca Cola scoffed at the idea that "a few teaspoons of sugar, like a small can of soda a day" could damage anyone's health. Yet many US teenagers routinely drink three litres of fizzy drinks a day. Nearly half of the US population are overweight and 20 per cent obese. The figures are similar in the UK.

Sugar consumption has other dangers. Use of sugar pushes out other foods, which contain micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) vital to metabolism and growth. In 1970, teenagers in the US used to drink twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk. Yet milk contains calcium needed for bone growth, whereas soda contains sugar, which makes you fat. Calcium deficiency is linked to osteoporosis, a major cause of death among elderly women. Eric Schlosser in his book Fast Food Nation, cites Michael Jacobson, author of Liquid Candy, as reporting that "in one of the most despicable marketing gambits Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Seven-Up encourage feeding soft drinks to babies by licensing their logos to a major maker of baby bottles, Munchkin Bottling, Inc."

Obesity and its ills are no longer the preserve of the developed world.

Sugar consumption and obesity can be mapped on to each other. A 2001 article in The Lancet established a direct link between childhood consumption of soft drinks and obesity.

But while the story of eating sugar expands in one direction, the story of growing sugar goes in another. Anti-globalisation and equality campaigners have for years inveighed against the pricing structures and monopoly practices of big sugar corporations. Not only do they gain vast subsidies from governments, favourable pricing structures and political support against such interventions as the WHO report (40 ambassadors tried to suppress the 1990 document), they have also been linked to repression of workers' rights, to political lobbying, and to the forcing out of small producers from home and international markets. About 42 per cent of all sugar programme benefits go to only one per cent of all growers ( Sugar is said by Oxfam to be the worst example of private agricultural enterprise lining its pockets with taxpayers' money.

Pollution from sugar processing is linked to the destruction of environments from the Everglades in Florida to the reefs of Australia and Cuba, from South Africa to India - and litigation looms in many cases.

There is, at the moment of writing, no safe alternative either: artificial sweeteners have dangers all their own and none are recommended by doctors.

So, can we give it up or even cut down? The portents do not look good. Not far from the threatened Everglades is Orlando, for example, which is the home of Walt Disney World Resort. There the standard portion of a soda is 750 millilitres (20 fluid ounces). In the 1950s a bottle of Coke was 184ml (6.5 fl oz). For only another 10 cents you can "go large" and have 1.25 litres (44 fl oz). Some places offers a "double gulp" of 1.8l (64 fl oz).

The average American consumes 39 teaspoons a day. On the "addicted to Coke" website (http:c2.comcgiwiki?AddictedToCoke), you can read about people who drink several gallons a day. We are, says the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, "drowning in sugar". It makes the Archies' hit from 35 years ago seem very innocent:


Fast Food Nation By Eric Schlosser Penguin, pound;7.99

Michael Jacobson's report "Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans' Health", is at www.cspinet.orgsodapopliquid_candy.htm

The World Health Organisation's International Obesity Task Force report is at

The Bee, the Reed, the Root - The History of Sugar www2.gasou.edugsuflsugarsugar-b.htm

American Sugar Alliance

Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Silver Spoon

British Sugar

Oxfam information on globalisation: Comhl mh: Development Workers in Global Solidarity www.comhlamh.orgcampaigns158)

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