Sugar : Food or Drug ?

    Part 1 . History and use of sugar

         Imagine a chemical substance that can intoxicate us, can infuse us with energy, and can do so when taken by mouth. It doesn’t have to be injected, smoked, or snorted for us to experience its sublime and soothing effects. Imagine that it mixes well with virtually every food and particularly liquids, and that when given to infants it provokes a feeling of pleasure so profound and intense that its pursuit becomes a driving force throughout their lives. Overconsumption of this substance may have long-term side effects, but there are none in the short term—no staggering or dizziness, no slurring of speech, no passing out or drifting away, no heart palpitations or respiratory distress. When it is given to children, its effects may be only more extreme variations of the apparently natural emotional roller coaster of childhood, from the initial intoxication to the tantrums and whining of what may or may not be withdrawal a few hours later. More than anything, our imaginary substance makes children happy, at least for the period during which they’re consuming it. It calms their distress, eases their pain, focuses their attention, and then leaves them excited and full of joy until the dose wears off. The only downside is that children will come to expect another dose, perhaps to demand it, on a regular basis, so more or less works like a drug. Well, this substance exists and is called sugar!
        Biochemically, the term “sugar” refers to a group of carbohydrate molecules consisting, as the word “carbohydrate” implies, of atoms of carbon and hydrogen. The names of these carbohydrates all end in “-ose”—glucose, galactose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, sucrose, etc. and all of them will dissolve in water and they all taste sweet to us to a greater or lesser extent. When physicians or researchers refer to “blood sugar,” they’re talking about glucose, because it constitutes virtually all of the sugar circulating in our blood.    However, the more common usage of “sugar” refers to sucrose, the white crystalline variety that we put in our coffee or tea or sprinkle on our morning cereal. Sucrose in turn is composed of equal parts glucose and fructose, the two smaller sugars (monosaccharides, in the chemical lingo) bonded together to make the larger one (a disaccharide). Fructose, found naturally in fruits and honey, is the sweetest of all these sugars, and it’s the fructose that makes sucrose particularly sweet. Although sugars like fructose, glucose, and sucrose are found naturally in foods that humans have always eaten, modern foods often contain refined, processed sugars that are anything but natural.
        Without refining, the juice of sugarcane is for local consumption only. Within a day of cutting, the sugarcane stalks will begin to ferment and then rot. But the juice can be squeezed or crushed or pounded out of the cane, and that, in turn, as farmers in northern India discovered by around 500 B.C., can be transformed into a raw sugar by cycles of heating and cooling—a “series of liquid-solid operations.” The sugar crystallizes as the liquid evaporates. One end product is molasses, a thick brown viscous liquid; another, requiring greater expenditures of time and effort, is dry crystalline sugar of colors ranging from brown to white. The greater the refining effort, the whiter and more pure is the end product. When cultivated with the instruments of modern technology, sugarcane can produce (as the sugar industry and nutritionists would state in its defence repeatedly in the twentieth century) more calories per acre to feed a population than any other animal or plant. It can survive years of storage; it travels well; it can be consumed on arrival unheated and uncooked. And, unlike honey or maple syrup, it has no distinctive taste or aftertaste. Refined sugar is colourless and odourless. It is nothing more than the crystallised essence of sweet. Other than salt, it is the only pure chemical substance that humans consume. And it provides four calories of energy per gram.

        Anthropologists believe that sugarcane itself was first domesticated in New Guinea about ten thousand years ago. As evidence that it was revered even then, creation myths in New Guinea have the human race emerging from the sexual congress of the first man and a stalk of sugarcane. The plant is technically a grass, growing to heights of twelve to fifteen feet, with juicy stalks that can be six inches around. In tropical soils, sugarcane will grow from cuttings of the stem, and will ripen or mature in a year to a year and a half. The juice or sap from the cane, at least the modern variety, is mostly water and as much as 17% sugar. This makes the cane, sweet to chew but not intensely so. Anthropologists assume that early farmers domesticated the cane for the sweetness to be derived from chewing the stalks and the energy it provided. Well before the art of refining came along, sugarcane domestication had already spread to India, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
        It’s a safe bet that humans have tried to extract sugar, at one time or another, from pretty much every substance or plant that was noticeably sweet and held the promise of offering its sugar up in quantity. Honey was consumed throughout Europe and Asia before sugar displaced it, and when European colonists arrived in the New World and found no honey, they introduced honeybees, which Native Americans took to calling the “English Man’s Fly.” Native Americans were using maple syrup as a sweetener before the Europeans arrived, and they introduced the colonists to the taste. (Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of maple syrup because it rendered slave labor unnecessary. The sugar maple, he wrote, “yields a sugar equal to the best from the cane, yields it in great quantity, with no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow….What a blessing.”) But neither maple syrup nor honey can be used to sweeten cold beverages, and neither mixes well with coffee. Neither could be produced in the quantities necessary to compete with sugar. We still consume them, but in limited quantities and for limited uses.
        Crusaders brought sugar home with them to Europe after their campaigns in the Holy Land, where they encountered caravans carrying "sweet salt”. Early in the 12th century, Venice acquired some villages near Tyre and set up estates to produce sugar for export to Europe, where it supplemented honey as the only other available sweetener. Crusade chronicler William of Tyre, writing in the late 12th century, described sugar as "a most precious product, very necessary for the use and health of mankind". The first record of sugar in English is in the late 13th century.  Known worldwide by the end of the medieval period, sugar was very expensive and was considered a "fine spice", but from about the year 1500, technological improvements and New World sources began turning it into a much cheaper bulk commodity.    
        Contemporaries often compared the worth of sugar with valuable commodities including musk, pearls, and spices. Sugar prices declined slowly as its production became multi-sourced throughout the European colonies in the Americas. Once an indulgence only of the rich, the consumption of sugar also became increasingly common among the poor as well. Sugar production increased in the mainland North American colonies, in Cuba, and in Brazil. The labour force at first included European indentured servants and local Native American enslaved people. However, European diseases such as smallpox and African ones such as malaria and yellow fever soon reduced the numbers of local Native Americans. Europeans were also very susceptible to malaria and yellow fever, and the supply of indentured servants was limited. African slaves became the dominant source of plantation workers, because they were more resistant to malaria and yellow fever, and because the supply of enslaved people was abundant on the African coast. In the process of whitening sugar, the charred bones of dead enslaved people were commonly substituted for the traditionally used animal bones. During the 18th century, sugar became enormously popular. Great Britain, for example, consumed five times as much sugar in 1770 as in 1710. By 1750, sugar surpassed grain as "the most valuable commodity in European trade — it made up a fifth of all European imports and in the last decades of the century four-fifths of the sugar came from the British and French colonies in the West Indies. From the 1740s until the 1820s, sugar was Britain's most valuable import.

        Sugar was “an ideal substance,” says Sidney Mintz in his book “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”.  “It served to make a busy life seem less so; in the pause that refreshes, it eased, or seemed to ease the changes back and forth from work to rest; it provided swifter sensations of fullness or satisfaction than complex carbohydrates did; it combined easily with many other foods, in some of which it was also used (tea and biscuit, coffee and bun, chocolate and jam-smeared bread). No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.Unlike alcohol, which was the only commonly available psychoactive substance in the Old World until sugar, nicotine, and caffeine arrived on the scene, the latter three had at least some stimulating properties, and so offered a very different experience, one that was more conducive to the labor of everyday life. These were the “eighteenth-century equivalent of uppers,” writes the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson. “Taken together, the new drugs gave English society an almighty hit; the Empire, it might be said, was built on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine rush—a rush nearly everyone could experience.
        Sugar is extraordinarily useful in food preparation, even when sweetness is not necessarily the desired result, and this is one reason why sugar in all its various names and forms is now ubiquitous in modern processed foods. Sugar allows for the preservation of fruits and berries by inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms that would otherwise cause spoiling. As such, inexpensive sugar made possible the revolution in jams and jellies that began in the mid nineteenth century . It inhibits mold and bacteria in condensed milk and other liquids by increasing what’s called the osmotic pressure of the liquid. It reduces the harshness of the salt that’s used for curing and preserving meat (and the salt increases the sweetness of the sugar). Sugar is an ideal fuel for yeast, and thus the rising and leavening of bread. The caramelisation of sugar provides the light-brown colours in the crust of bread. Dissolve sugar in water and it adds not only sweetness but viscosity, and thus creates the body and what food scientists call the “mouth feel” of a soda or juice. As a seasoning or a spice, it enhances flavours already present in the food, decreases bitterness, and improves texture.
        Mintz has argued as well, that a primary reason that helped sugar through the centuries to escape religious-based criticisms, of the kind pronounced on tea, coffee, rum, and even chocolate, is that, whatever conspicuous behavioural changes may occur when infants consume sugar, it did not cause the kind of “flushing, staggering, dizziness, euphoria, changes in the pitch of the voice, slurring of speech, visibly intensified physical activity, or any of the other cues associated with the ingestion” of these other substances. Sugar appears to be a substance that causes pleasure with a price that is difficult to discern immediately and paid in full only years or decades later. With no visible, directly noticeable consequences, as Mintz says, questions of “long-term nutritive or medical consequences went unasked and unanswered.Most of us today will never know if we suffer even subtle withdrawal symptoms from sugar, because we’ll never go long enough without sugar to find out.
        Mintz and other sugar historians consider the drug comparison to be so fitting in part because sugar is one of a handful of “drug foods,” to use Mintz’s term, that came out of the tropics, and on which European empires were built from the sixteenth century onward, the others being, tea, coffee, chocolate, rum, and tobacco. Its history is intimately linked to that of these other “drugs”. Rum is distilled, of course, from sugarcane, whereas tea, coffee, and chocolate were not consumed with sweeteners in their regions of origin. In the seventeenth century, however, once sugar was added as a sweetener and prices allowed it, the consumption of these substances in Europe exploded. Sugar was used to sweeten liquors and wine in Europe as early as the fourteenth century; even cannabis preparations in India and opium-based wines and syrups included sugar as a major ingredient.
        The common tendency is to think of this explosion in the use of sugar by humans,  as driven by the mere fact that sugars and sweets taste good. We can call it the “pause that refreshes” hypothesis of sugar history. The alternative way to think about this is that sugar took over our diets because the first taste, whether for an infant today or for an adult centuries ago, is literally, as Michael Pollan put it, an astonishment, a kind of intoxication; “it’s the kindling of a lifelong craving, not identical but analogous to that of other drugs of abuse”. Because it is a nutrient, and because the conspicuous results of its consumption are relatively benign compared with those of nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol—at least in the short term and in small doses—it remained, as Sidney Mintz says, nearly invulnerable to moral, ethical, or religious attacks.
        A second factor in the transformation of sugar into a dietary staple—one of life’s necessities—was technology. The industrial revolution, inaugurated by Watt’s steam engine in 1765, transformed sugar production and refining just as it did virtually every other existing industry in the nineteenth century. By the 1920s, sugar refineries were producing as much sugar in a single day—millions of pounds—as would have taken refineries in the 1820s an entire decade. With sugar becoming so cheap that everyone could afford it, the manner in which we consumed it would change as well. Not only did we add sugar to hot beverages and bake it into wheat products or spread it on top—jams and jellies were two foods that cheap, available sugar made ubiquitous, since fruit could now be preserved at the end of the growing season and provide nutrition (sweetened, of course) all year round—but the concept of a dessert course emerged for the first time in history in the mid-nineteenth century, the expectation of a serving of sweets to finish off a lunch or dinner. The industrial work break also emerged, as a new era of factory workers learned to partake of some combination of nicotine, caffeine, and sugar; cigarettes, coffee and tea, and sweetened biscuits or candy could all be purchased inexpensively.

          Lastly, it is worth mentioning how sugar and sweets became, after thousands years of use, a synonymous to love and affection and the language with which we communicate them—“sweets,” “sweetie,” “sweetheart,” “sweetie pie,” “honey,” “honeybun,” “sugar,” and all manner of combinations and variations. Sugar and sweets became a primary contribution to our celebrations of holidays and accomplishments, both major and minor. For some people sugar and sweets have become the tools they used to reward their children’s accomplishments, to demonstrate the love and pride in them, to motivate them, to entice them. Sweets have become the currency of childhood and parenting.



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    Mintz, S. W. (1985) ; Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

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    Sugar Association, Inc. (SAI). (1978);  Sugar Association, Inc., winter meeting of the board of directors, Chicago, Ill., Feb. 9, 1978. Research projects report, Washington, D.C. Sugar Association, Inc., Records of the Great Western Sugar Company, Colorado Agricultural Archive, Colorado State

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