For many centuries the world has been replete with sweet references. Chaucer frequently used ‘sweet’ to denote affection and love. So, too, three centuries later, did Shakespeare. Today, sweetness represents many of life’s great pleasures and delights. Sweetening of food and drink has been part of human nutritional culture for millennia. Today, the taste of sweetness in food and drink is universal and when we think of sweetness, sugar comes to mind. But long before cane sugar made its seismic impact on human affairs, honey was mankind’s main source of sweetness in a multitude of ancient societies. Rock art dating back to 26,000 years, paintings from ancient Egypt and comparable evidence from ancient Indian societies, all portrayed honey as a source of local sweetness.
The world of classical antiquity provides vast references of the use of honey as a sweetener, as medicine and as a symbol. The Traditional Medicine of the Prophet claimed that the Prophet was fond of honey, and recommended the same for ailments.
In course of time, honey has been replaced by cane sugar, which is the household name for sucrose. Though sucrose is found in all plants, it is present in high concentrations in sugarcane (giant grass) and sugar beets (root crop). Varieties of the former are cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas. However, the major factor behind the rise of sugar’s popularity is sugarcane.
The first cultivated sugar crop was sugarcane, developed and domesticated from wild varieties in the East Indies, probably on the island of New Guinea around 10,000 years ago. People picked cane and ate it raw, chewed a stem until the taste hit their tongue. A kind of elixir, a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood, sugar featured prominently in ancient myths of New Guinea.
Cultivation of sugar crops was on the move slowly from island to island towards east across South-east Asia until it reached India, where sugar was first produced from extraction of sugarcane after the first century CE. For years sugar refinement remained a secret science, passed from master to apprentice. Sugar also moved slowly westwards from India to Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. As Islam spread, so too did the cultivation and consumption of sugarcane. Sugar was so popular and pleasant that it cropped up in literary works . In the book entitled In The Thousand and One Nights, a conversation between a poet and a slave described the sugarcane thus: ‘It is shaped like a spear. But has no head. / Everyone loves it./ We often chew on it after sunset during Romadan.’ In 1493, when Columbus set off on his second voyage to the New World, he too carried cane. He planted the New World’s first sugarcane in Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean archipelago known as the Great Antilles. A few hundred years later the site witnessed a great slave revolt.
However, within decades sugar mills marked the heights in Jamaica and Cuba, where rain forest had been clear and the native population eliminated by disease or war, or enslaved. The Portuguese created the most effective model, making Brazil into an early boom colony, with more than one lakh slaves churning out tons of sugar. By the 18th century the match between sugar and slavery was complete. Every few years, new islands were colonised, cleared and planted. When natives died, the planters replaced them with African slaves.
Sugar, or White Gold, as British colonists called it, was the engine of slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Americas in the beginning of the early 16th century. Most came from western Africa, where Portuguese colonies had already established trading outposts for ivory, pepper and other goods. The first slave ships arrived in 1505 and continued unabated for more than 300 years. Until the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1808 more than 11 million Africans were shipped to the New World ~ more than half ending up in sugar plantation. In the words of the renowned historian Eric Williams, ‘Slavery was not born of racism; rather racism was the consequences of slavery.’ Africans, in other words, were not enslaved because they were seen as inferior; they were seen as inferior to justify the enslavement required for the prosperity of the early sugar trade. The history every nation in the Caribbean, much of South America and parts of the southern United States was forever shaped by sugar cane plantations started as cash crops by European superpowers. Amazingly, profit from the sugar trade was so significant that it may have helped America achieve independence from Great Britain.
Sugar slavery was the key component of what historians call ‘The Trade Triangle’, a network whereby slaves were sent to work on New World plantations after the crop was harvested and milled, it was piled in the holds of ships and carried to London, Amsterdam, Paris and other European capitals to be sold and other goods were brought to the West Coast of Africa to purchase more slaves. The bloody side of this ‘triangular trade’ during which millions of Africans died, was known as the Middle Passage. In Sugar: A Bittersweet History Elizabeth Abbott quotes Quaker leader William Fox, who told a crowd that for every pound of sugar, ‘We may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.’ A slave in Voltaire’s Candide, missing both a hand and a leg, explained his mutilation thus: ‘When we work in sugar mills and we catch our finger in the millstone, they cut off our hand; when we try to run away, they cut off a leg; both things have happened to me. It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe.’ Yet there was no stopping the boon. Sugar was the oil of its day.
Historically, when the West acquired a sweet tooth millions were condemned to slavery to ensure the beverage mugs did not run out of sugar. The result was a bitter taste for generations to come. But that is one part of the story. The preserve of the elite during 16th century Europe, sugar is a staple of the mass now. In today’s world it is extremely difficult to avoid sugar. We are addicted to sugar. Indeed, experimentally, it has been established that an injection of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centres of the brain that respond to heroine and caffeine. Now this raises a pertinent question: why do our brains evolve to response pleasurably to a potentially toxic compound. The answer lies deep in our simian past, when a craving for fructose would be just the thing our ancestors needed to survive. Today, people the world over consume sugar in staggering volumes, with consumption highest in countries, which produce sugar.
Over the last decade, global sugar consumption has grown from about 130 to 178 million tons and is projected to grow at around 2 per cent per annum, slightly higher than in the previous decade. But part of the problem of consumption of sugar is that our bodies are not designed to consume large quantities of sugar. Now sugar is being blamed for a number of diseases. The recommended limit for the daily dose of sugar for improved health is around 11 grams, or roughly no more than 5 per cent of the intake of daily calories. According to WHO, this should not exceed 25 grams.
A sugar-heavy diet is linked to increased risk of heart problems, diabetes, poor dental health , high B,P. , high cholesterol and above all, obesity. In the 1960s the British nutrition expert John Yudkin conducted a series of experiments on animals and people showing that high amounts sugar in diets led to high levels of fat and insulin in blood ~ the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. If we eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, our liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides. This fat remains in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin.
To keep things in check the pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterised by obesity, especially around the waist; high Blood Pressure, and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can even lead to Type 2 diabetics, with a heightened danger of heart attacks. Sugar provides calories with no nutritional benefit. Excessive sugar can be toxic. Recently, the American Heart Association warned against too much added sugar in the diet. The solution lies on our determination to curb sugar consumption. The basic principle, as formulated by Paracelsus (1493-1541) runs thus: ‘ All substances are poisonous; there is none which is not a poison, the right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.’