(London Magazine, December 2011)
So many tears have been shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness.
The English palate, especially the working class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.
Type: ‘Haiti’; ‘Dominican Republic’; and ‘border’, into an image search on Google. A split-second-cyber-miracle-later a startling aerial photograph of a portion of the island of Hispaniola shared by those countries appears. The Dominican side is blanketed in verdant forest with occasional yellow patches, but to the east in Haiti green has given way to arid yellow.
The stark contrast reveals the environmental devastation that sugarcane agriculture has wrought, dissolving forests as if enamel from teeth. According to the World Wildlife Fund it has ‘caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop’. This is compounded by over-population, a legacy of sugarcane’s labour-intensive agriculture, which leaves Haiti with a mere 1% of forest cover. Next door, the Dominican Republic retains 28%.
By the end of the 18th century Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, was the cash cow of the French Empire, accounting for two-thirds of its overseas trade. A plantation system based on slave-labour brought fantastic wealth to its ruling class: ‘rich as a Creole’ entered popular parlance.
The Haitian Revolution 1791-1804 ended that iniquitous system, and former slaves came to power for the first time. But sugarcane’s scars fester on the body politic, as on the landscape, and Haiti was crippled by huge debts from its inception after France compelled its former colony to pay massive compensation to dispossessed plantation owners. Outside interference continued, latterly emanating from the United States. The ills of a system that generated Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoute originate not in the frailty of the Haitian people but the after effects of the insatiable (mainly) European appetite for sugar.
Sugarcane originates in Papua New Guinea but is now cultivated in many tropical countries that enjoy hot and wet conditions. It even reached far-flung Easter Island where archaeologists have discovered the highest incidence of cavities and tooth decay of any known prehistoric people. First processed into solid sugar in India around 350 AD, cultivation and consumption then moved steadily westwards. It is said that sugar followed the Koran.
First treated as a spice it was rarely encountered in Europe prior to 1000 AD, but became a fixture in aristocratic cookery during the Crusades. After the fall of Acre (1291) cultivation moved to Cyprus and soon spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
Desserts were not a feature of medieval banquets with pricey refined sugar used sparingly in otherwise savoury dishes. Only after Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henry II of France in 1533 did the idea of climaxing a meal with a sweet conclusion become de rigeur for the few who could afford it. Most Europeans would not have encountered it prior to the 18th century, but by 1900 it had become a staple, especially in England. According to anthropologist Sidney Mintz: ‘the diet of a whole species was gradually being re-made’.
Colonisation of the New World serviced Europe’s growing addiction. Settlers, beginning with Christopher Columbus, grew it and more than elusive gold, sugarcane offered a real El Dorado. But production was dependent on slavery, a pernicious system that first exhausted and then extinguished the native Arawak population before Africans were resorted to: approximately 13 million endured the murderous indignities of the Atlantic crossing, and of the 11 million that survived 6 million were destined for sugarcane plantations, in which ‘the deadliest form of slavery’ prevailed. In those appalling conditions a new species of racism emerged where Africans, ‘the sons of Ham’, were often treated worse than livestock. The racist language of the plantation survives to the present day, co-opted by successive political movements that relegate fellow-humanity to the status of inferior animals. Eric Williams argues that ‘slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’.
According to Elizabeth Abbot: ‘Whites relied on blacks to produce their sugar, counted them as their biggest capital investment, enslaved and mistreated them, vilified their race, sexually assaulted and fell in love with them, and lived dependent on and surrounded by them.’ The cruelty catalogued in Abbot’s book: Sugar A Bittersweet History, is shocking and its legacy is the continued instability of post-plantation societies. With the demise of most of the French West Indies the British West Indies dominated the market, although countries such as Brazil gained increasing market share in the era of free trade that followed the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
The Slave Trade was prohibited in 1807, but full emancipation only arrived in the British Empire in 1833. Slavery on sugarcane plantations endured until 1888 when it was finally stamped out in Brazil. Europeans and Americans continued to consume slave-produced sugarcane until that point. Abolition was the fruition of a long and worthy campaign, but the system that replaced it, indentured labour, involving the transport and virtual incarceration of coolie labourers from India and China, was almost as bad. It has left a further legacy of racial tension in the West Indies and places further afield like Fiji.
Humans have a natural inclination towards sweet food and refined sugar (sucrose) is a pure expression of this. In sweetness our bodies recognise easily-digestible caloric value. But as adults we rarely enjoy food that is purely sweet, usually preferring a balance of tastes. It is important, however, for us to be wary of the bitter taste as this may indicate indigestibility or even poison; a child’s aversion to coffee or beer is quite understandable. Over time most of us acquire a taste for strong-tasting bitter substances, often for the stimulation and even intoxication they impart as much as any nutritional benefit.
According to Sidney Mintz: ‘sweet-tasting substances appear to insinuate themselves more quickly into the preferences of new consumers while bitter substances are “bitter-specific”’. Thus, ‘liking watercress has nothing to do with liking eggplant [aubergine] for instance.’ A sweet tooth is not discerning: the taste of sucrose derived from cane or beet is virtually identical, and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has much the same character – witness Coca-Cola’s successful substitution of cheaper HFCS for sucrose in 1984. Trying to substitute the bitter flavour of root beer for bitter cola would be another matter.
The increased sucrose consumption which began at the end of the 18th century at all social levels was predicated on low price but also on a seductive combination with chocolate, coffee, and tea. These bitter drug-foods became cheap and plentiful for Europeans at precisely the same time: the end of the 18th century. Sucrose took the edge off the bitter taste which balanced excessive sweetness. Coffee, tea and chocolate consumption would not have taken off in isolation, but equally sucrose alone would not have had the same appeal.
Mintz says that in England tea ‘triumphed over the other bitter caffeine carriers because it could be used more economically without losing its taste altogether’. In reaction to the heady days of the gin-soaked 18th century the temperance movement lauded it as ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’. For impoverished workers of the Industrial Revolution, tea in combination with sucrose provided calories, as well as stimulation and an enduring social ritual. Mintz argues, persuasively, that cheap sucrose was an important fuel for workers in the Industrial Revolution. Over-worked and under-paid, they now had access to fast food that would get them through the day.
Horrendous slave-labour in the West Indies was providing energy for harsh wage-labour in Britain. Moreover, Eric Williams argues that huge profits generated from sugarcane ‘fertilized the entire productive system of the country’. It also provided jobs directly, manufacturing items required by plantations including iron-collars, handcuffs and shackles, tongue depressors, and ball-and-chains originally designed for medieval torture.
Voltaire’s (d. 1778) dictum that England has 42 religions but only 2 sauces contrasts that society’s piety with its lack of enthusiasm for cooking. Bernard Kaufmann argues that such a hotbed of Puritanism was unusually predisposed to sucrose: ‘religious asceticism is suspicious of anything that is fatty or bloody, but is defenceless against things that are sweet’. At a time when an all-pervading spirit of ‘thou shalt not’ held sway, sucrose, dissolved in water or used to preserve, did not seem a gluttonous indulgence. It could also replace the sweetness of frowned-upon alcohol.
Writing about his countrymen from the vantage of the late 1940s the historian C. R. Fay asserts: ‘Tea which refreshes and quietens, is the natural beverage of a taciturn people, and being easy to prepare it came as a godsend to the world’s worst cooks’. But arguably the very popularity of tea contributed to the decline of English cookery. A pot of tea with sucrose, only commonly accompanied by milk by the start of the twentieth century with the advent of refrigeration, was the urban answer to the cauldron of soup that traditionally sustained rural communities. Its simple preparation, warm re-assurance and even slight suppression of appetite removed the need for hot food in a hard-working society where time was increasingly short. Also, the failure to provide infrastructure to cope with mass urbanization in 19th century England made it necessary to boil water to make it safe until improvements in sanitation arrived in the 1890s. Tea made water potable and palatable.
In many poor urban families an expensive piece of meat was reserved for the male bread-winner while the rest of the family subsisted on sweet tea, ballasted with shop-bought bread and butter or margarine and jam, composed of over 50% sucrose. This under-nourishment of children and babies in utero had long term health consequences. According to Floud et al in The Changing Body, over the course of the 19th century average final heights of men (an important nutritional indicator) in England actually declined slightly from the average at the start of the century (168.6cm to 168.0cm).
Tea, while a diuretic, has some health benefits (particularly if it is green tea) but sucrose is considered nutritionally ‘empty’, apart from as a short-term source of energy. The effects of over-consumption, now defined very conservatively by the NHS in their dietary guidelines as above 10% of daily caloric intake, can be extremely damaging. Henry Hobhouse describes the process: ‘the body becomes used to a feast/famine syndrome in the blood sugar, and this produces an addiction which is chemical, not psychological’. Thus, ‘a vicious circle is created in which the victim becomes hooked on a constant flow of industrial sugar to the bloodstream and cuts down on fibre… as sugar consumption inhibits the production of starch and fibre-converting enzymes’. A preference for less nutritious white bread is coupled with and reinforces a sucrose addiction as the enzymes required to digest whole grains are ‘killed by industrial sugar’. Furthermore, consumption of refined sugar does not trigger the release of the hormone leptin which informs the brain that we are sated. This explains why it is possible to drink highly caloric soft drinks during and after meals without feeling full.
In 1900 sucrose was supplying a whopping near one-fifth of the calories in the English diet, almost double on average the maximum limit recommended today. Despite the virtual end to sustained food shortages, and certainly famines, a series of nutritional surveys conducted among working class families across Britain at that time suggested that not only the urban poor, but also ‘the bulk of the semi-skilled workers, the routine clerical workers, and even those of the skilled artisan class’, were likely to be undernourished. Sucrose was the food of the poor it would seem.
Greater diversity entered the diet after World War I which brought better nutrition (and led to increased average heights and life expectancy) but the English sweet tooth endured. By the 1930s George Orwell still observes an unhealthy addiction in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk – even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and cornflour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters’.
Refinement of sugarbeet into sucrose commenced at the start of the 19th century, especially gaining ground during the Napoleonic Wars when France was denied access to the West Indies. By 1880 beet production nearly equalled that of sugarcane. Although it is not environmentally hazardous, the end product is equally unhealthy. From the late 1970s, especially in America, sucrose was joined by another refined sugar derived from maize: HFCS. Farm subsidies, introduced by Richard Nixon in the 1970s maintain its low price. It is even sweeter than sucrose and has identical harmful effects. Sucrose consumption has not declined in the United States, but HFSC consumption now exceeds it. Consumption is disproportionately high among the poor, many of whom subsist on HFSC-laden fast foods in which it forms an unhealthy trinity with saturated fat and salt. Its use is rising inexorably elsewhere. It was recently calculated that of an estimated 47 billion beverage servings humans consume daily, 1 billion of these are in Coca-Cola.
The success of HFSC can also be attributed to the emergence of nutritional advice in the US and elsewhere in the 1970s promoting ‘low fat’ diets. A product could be advertised as ‘low fat’ but still contain vast quantities of cheap HFCS. Big Food has maintained this nutritional confusion through powerful lobbies.
The consequence of large-scale addiction is the public health crisis of obesity. We may now live longer than ever but our potential to live still longer and in good health is threatened. Refined sugar seems to be the greatest culprit. According to nutritionist Patrick Holford: ‘There is no question in my mind that increased sugar consumption is driving not only obesity and diabetes but heart disease and breast cancer’.
Obesity is the plague of our time with most developed countries converging with the US rate of over 50% of the population. The concomitant rise in type 2 diabetes is afflicting children at increasingly young ages. One wonders why governments, medical professionals, chefs and gastronomes have been so slow to address the issue. A zero-tolerance approach should be adopted that advocates a near-total exclusion of refined sugar in view of its addictive quality. The present NHS guideline seems inadequate. According to Floud et al the ‘evidence suggests that the rise in obesity represents one of the major challenges which needs to be faced if European populations are to build on the advantages which a century of economic and social progress have bequeathed.’
Sweetness can be derived from safe sources in which fibre is present. As Dr. Robert Lustig whose lecture ‘Sugar: the Bitter Truth’ (which has been viewed almost two million times on Youtube) says: ‘When God created the poison he packaged it with the antidote’. Natural sugars are accompanied by fibre. The problem arises when the antidote is removed, i.e. when a plant is refined into a slow-acting poison.
Not only is refined sugar responsible for expanding waistlines and a range of preventable diseases, according to Holford: ‘adolescents consuming sugary drinks become ‘more disruptive and less able to concentrate in school’. A variety of mental health problems have been associated with over-consumption of refined sugar.
Refined sugar has always had its apologists. In 1715 Dr Frederick Slare wrote an encomium to it as a tooth-cleaning powder, a hand lotion, a healing powder for minor wounds and, above all, an essential treat for babies and ‘the ladies’ to whom his treatise was dedicated.
Even the iconic Che Guevara was seduced: ‘The entire economic history of Cuba has demonstrated that no other agricultural activity, would give such returns as those yielded by the cultivation of sugarcane. At the outset of the Revolution many of us were not aware of this basic economic fact because a fetishistic idea connected sugar with our dependence on imperialism and with the misery of the rural areas, without analysing the real causes: the relation to the unequal balance of trade.’ After the fall of its main trading partner the Soviet Union, Cuba discovered the cost of its dependence on that monoculture and has only belatedly turned to mixed agriculture to address its needs. Moreover, the requirements of sugarcane sustain an autocratic mode of agriculture that exacts a terrible price on the natural environment, as well as workers. Finally, the end product is nutritionally empty.
Most surprisingly, Margaret Abbot in the closing chapter of Sugar: A Bittersweet History opines that the successful conversion of sugarcane into biofuel in Brazil has ‘a redemptive quality’ in ‘the narrative of sugar’s story’. Here she departs from the thrust of her argument, perhaps wishing to end on a positive note after telling such a harrowing tale. She disregards her own findings about Brazilian sugarcane agriculture’s continued encroachment on ‘former pastureland and ecologically-sensitive wetlands’, as well as the unequivocal findings of the WWF. The siren-sound of refined sugar has no limit it would seem.
It seems quite appropriate that refined sugar and the motor car in which that biofuel is used should join in an unholy alliance. Both were once the preserve of aristocrats but now access is near universal. As the prevalence of each increases any initial benefits decline: cities become thronged with traffic; and energy-dips, or even hypoglycaemia, occur after refined sugar’s brief high. Mechanized locomotion and instant energy are coiled in a warm, corpulent embrace; 19% of American meals, mostly fast food, are eaten in a car.