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Bittersweet

A history of sugar

By Betsey Miller

How often do you think about that spoonful of sugar in your morning cup of coffee? The highly refined sweetener is anything but fresh, and it certainly doesn’t come from around here. The story behind how it got here is convoluted and surprisingly bitter. 

Humans love sweet tastes. Tens of thousands of years ago people ate foods like honey and dates to appease the sweet tooth. Today, 70 percent of the world’s sugar supply comes from sugar cane, a grass in the genus Saccharum. Comprised of a complex of species, sugar cane’s origins lie in India and New Guinea, and it was from India that sugar first became widely known. In fact, the word “sugar” is thought to come from the Sanskrit word “sharkara.” Although it grows in a wide range of climates, the most productive of canes, Saccharum offincinarum, is best suited for tropical regions.

Our love affair with sugar goes back at least 2,000 years. The first known reference is in the Atharvaveda, a sacred text of Hinduism (circa 1500-800 BC). Called “ishku,” it was seen as a symbol of sweet attractiveness and offered as a sacrificial rite. Although some believe sugar to have originated in China, where candy-making is an ancient art, it is most likely to have been brought there around 110 BC for the development of exotic botanical gardens. Food historians postulate that sugar was first consumed as a medicine for digestive troubles. In the first century AD, ancient pharmacologist Dioscorides described sugar as “a honey called sakkharon collected from reeds in India and Arabia Felix with the consistency of salt and which could be crunched between the teeth” which was dissolved in water as medicine for the intestines, stomach, bladder and kidneys.

Food historians postulate that sugar was first consumed as a medicine for digestive troubles.

In the beginning, sugar cane was enjoyed as a liquid chewed or sucked from the stem of the cane. The first processed sugar was made from boiled cane juice and came from the Indus Valley around 600 BC. It would have resembled raw sugar, or what Indians know as gur or jiggery. It was made without separating the molasses from the crystals, making it a dark brown color. Gur is still used today, especially on the Asian continent, and comes in many forms, ranging from soft crumbs to a rock-solid lump.

 As with many foods and spices, sugar’s spread around the world was largely driven by military conquest. In 325 AD, Alexander the Great and his army returned to Greece with sugar cane from their Indian war campaigns. Mountains and deserts surrounding India served as geographical barriers that slowed the spread of sugar cane for centuries until it finally reached Persia in the 6th century AD. It was the Arabs who first raised cane in plantations and adapted the Indian methods of sugar extraction and production to an industrial scale, building the first mills, refineries and factories. Through Arab conquests, sugar moved rapidly to Egypt, Syria, Cyprus and Crete, and then to Spain in 714. The Spaniards were very successful at growing sugar cane and by 1150 had expanded their production to 30,000 hectares. Early in the 12th century, crusaders brought sugar cane home from their campaigns in the Holy Land and the European love of sugar was born. 

Transporting sugar as a food-grade product was difficult, so it was shipped from the colonies as a raw product and refined in Europe. In the beginning stages of the sugar trade, it was very much a luxury, being sold for as much as $100 per kilo in London. Often called “white gold,” it was available to only the wealthiest of people and was even stored as a form of savings.

The 15th century saw the movement of sugar through Portuguese exploration to Madeira, the Canary Islands, Azores and West Africa. In 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed to the island of Hispaniola, now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with sugar cane aboard. As the story goes, the cuttings he brought to the new world were a gift from his lover in the Canary Islands. Despite its sweet beginnings, it is here that the story of sugar takes on a bitter flavor. 

From the Dominican Republic, production of sugar cane spread quickly around Brazil and the Caribbean as a potential source of income for settling colonies. The eastern colonies were enjoying great success with sugar trade to Europe, and it was selling at very high prices. Harvesting and processing of sugar cane was backbreaking work. Once cut, the heavy canes had to be crushed and the juice extracted and boiled into a concentrate in a series of labor-intensive operations. It wasn’t long before the settlers were looking for more manpower. In 1505 the first slave ships arrived from West Africa. A triangular trade rout was established which brought raw materials produced by slave labor to trade for European-produced goods, which were then brought to Africa to purchase more slaves. Slaves were kidnapped from their villages and brought to the sugar plantations via the infamous Middle Passage. The one-to six-month journey was responsible for the death of an estimated two million Africans over the 300-year slave trade. 

In 1516, the first New World sugar mill was established in the Dominican Republic. By 1550, as many as 3,000 sugar mills were operating in the Americas. The Caribbean became the world’s largest supplier of sugar. The economies of these islands became based on the sugar trade as their histories were shaped by the sweet obsession. The boon in production in the colonies spurred an industrial revolution in Europe as demand for iron machinery increased.

Eating habits were changing as Western Europeans were consuming more sweetened foods such as candies and jams. 

By the 18th century, Europeans were consuming an enormous amount of sugar. No longer known as a “fine spice,” it had been transformed into a bulk commodity. In 1750, sugar surpassed grain as the most valuable European trade commodity, and Britain alone was home to 120 refineries. Eating habits were changing as Western Europeans were consuming more sweetened foods such as candies and jams. The British were eating an average of four pounds of sugar per person every year. In response to this increased demand, the colonies ramped up production until they were supplying up to 90 percent of the sugar consumed by Europe. Planters were using better varieties of cane and improving irrigation and fertilizing techniques, and mills were moving toward water-powered machinery to keep up with the western world’s insatiable sweet tooth. As production increased, prices fell and sugar became available to even the poorest of people. 

Meanwhile, German chemists were developing techniques to extract sugar from beets. Again, the sweet substance was subject to military influence. The Napoleonic Wars led to a ban on imports of sugar from British merchants, and as a consequence, the sugar beet industry grew to provide 30 percent of the world’s sugar supply. As the British were sending more and more of their military power to the Caribbean to protect their sugar interests, American colonists were campaigning for independence. Indeed, some historians argue that this was a major factor in the American victory in the Revolutionary War. During the 19th century, as high-yielding sugar cane plantations exhausted the soil, planters pushed onward toward larger islands and further into South America. Cuba became the richest nation in the Caribbean, with sugar cane as its dominant crop. Demand continued to rise. The average British citizen was now consuming 18 to 36 pounds of sugar each year. Sugar production was expanding to newer European colonies. Fiji, Hawaii, Mauritius and Queensland, Australia, were now home to sugar cane plantations. No longer based on slave labor, these burgeoning industries imported indentured servants from India, China, Japan and the Pacific islands to work in the production of this increasingly popular commodity. In the second half of the century, nearly half a million people were transferred to sugar-producing regions. In many of these nations, the majority of the current population is comprised of descendants of these indentured servants.

Today, the average American consumes over 100 pounds of sugar every year. This is equivalent to 25 teaspoons a day! Sugar cane is now grown in over 110 countries and is used for production of not only food but also ethanol for fuel. In 2009, an estimated 1,683 million metric tons of sugar were produced worldwide. By weight, this amounts to 22.4 percent of the total world agricultural production. Together, Brazil and India supply 50 percent of the world’s sugar.

Although slavery and indentured servitude are no longer driving sugar production, the industry retains a controversial association with workers earning low wages and living in extreme poverty. 

From its origins as a sacred offering through its tenuous associations with war and suffering to its present day ubiquity, sugar has been enjoyed and adored by the sweet tooth in us all. As you stir your next teaspoon into your steaming mug, take a moment to think of the long and arduous path it took to arrive at your table. 

Betsey Miller works in IPM research at Oregon State University and as a freelance writer on all things agricultural.

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