Our love and appreciation of sugar has an extremely long history. Even before the discovery of sugar, dates and wild honey were used as sweeteners. Honey was used in baking, mead production, and sanitizing wounds as demonstrated by cave drawings found in Spain 12,000 years ago. With all of the controversy surrounding sugar and how it affects our health, I thought it would interesting to learn the history of sugar.
Sugar cane is a tall grass that was found in Polynesia and some other islands in the Pacific Ocean. Around 10,000 years ago, natives would pick the cane, chewing the stem raw until they got to the sweet liquid. In New Guinea, sugar cane was used as medicine and in their religious practice. From there, sugar cane spread throughout the islands until it reached the coastal region of India around 1000 BC. In 510 BC, Emperor Darius of Persia discovered sugar cane when he invaded India. Until then, Persia and other countries outside of India used honey produced from bee hives as a sweetener. The Persians began to call sugar cane, ‘the reed which gives honey without bees’. Around 300 BC, after invading India, Alexander the Great’s admiral, Nearchos, brought the sugar cane or what he referred to as the ‘sacred reed’ back to Greece and later Rome.
In 500 AD, people in India were processing the sugar cane into a powder to use for medicinal purposes in order to cure headaches, stomach aches, and impotence. The process to create a powder from the sugar cane was a guarded one and only taught to apprentices, until, in 600 AD, people in Persia learned the process of refining sugar. In the mid 600’s, Arabs invaded Persia and also discovered the pleasure of sugar cane. The Arabs had a big role in the spread of sugar in two ways. One, through trade and wars, they brought sugar to wherever they travelled. Second, the Arabs discovered a better way to process and refine sugar and developed the sugar industry.
In the 11th Century, the British and French learned about sugar during the Crusades. Sugar was first documented in England in 1099. It is thought that in 1264, Henry III and his residence had access to sugar and then in the 1300s, sugar became available to the wealthy of England who could enjoy this rare and expensive luxury item. During the Middle Ages, some sugar cane was grown in southern Spain and Sicily but most was exported from India to Venice, where it was processed and further exported throughout Europe. However, as the Ottoman Empire grew, the ability to trade started diminishing and Europe had to find another way to obtain sugar. Spain and Portugal were two countries that searched for lands where they could grow these sweet and profitable crops, later to be known as ‘White Gold’. In the 1400s, Henry the Navigator from Portugal and Christopher Columbus from Spain traveled to Madeira and the Caribbean, respectively, to plant sugar cane. Over the years, Portugal and Spain spread into new areas where they grew this tropical plant and other European countries searched for or conquered lands where they could become part of the sugar industry. The sugar cane that grew in these climates that were warm and had plenty of rainfall were shipped back to Europe where they were processed at sugar refineries located in Lisbon, England, France, and Germany. Sugar production grew so much that in 1750, there were 120 refineries in England alone.
Around the 17th century, sugar stopped being a luxury item and became something the middle class and eventually the poor could afford due to the large amount of sugar being grown and processed and tariffs being removed. Sugar was used in sweets, teas, coffee, and cocoa and from there sugar consumption grew. To give you a sense of by how much, in 1700 the average man ate 4 pounds per year, 18 pounds in the 1800s, 100 pounds in the 1900s, and today 150-170 pounds.
Things changed during the Napoleonic Wars when the import of sugar was blocked. Unable to live without sugar, Europeans had to find another source for sugar other than sugar cane. They took advantage of the work done by German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, who in 1747 developed a technique to extract sugar from the sugar beet. However, sugar became rare again because they were not able to extract very large amounts of sugar from the sugar beet. Over time, they learned how to extract more sugar and with the end of the Napoleonic Wars and with trade routes reopening, sugar became readily available again. However, even with our access to sugar cane again, we still to this day, use sugar beets as a source of sugar.
With food processing techniques developing in the 1900s, sugar became an even bigger part of our diet. A new type of sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) was introduced in the 1970s. HFCS is another type of sucrose made up of fructose and glucose. Food manufacturers like to use HFCS because it is sweeter than sucrose so they need to use less, which is cheaper for them; it is easy to use because it is a syrup; and it is more stable that sucrose. HFCS was developed from corn between the 1950s and 1960s due to prices rising, and politics, trade restrictions, and climate issues in areas that grew sugar cane and sugar beets. The same way Europe looked to sugar beets during the Napoleonic Wars, food manufacturers looked to corn to develop High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Our love of and dependence on sugar began around 10,000 years ago and it continues to grow. What used to be simple sweeteners like honey, dates, and sugar cane have developed into beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, aspartame, stevia, xylitol, and more. Maybe knowing how sugar became part of our lives will help us understand why it is so hard to say no.