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White Gold: The Complicated Past — and Present — of Sugar

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the decadent delight, Wild Figs, we take a closer look at the sweet — and sometimes sour — world of sugar. Plus a treat at the end: A few of the Keap team’s favorite (and lesser known) holiday desserts.

Here’s a riddle for you: What cleans your blood, strengthens body and mind, improves your eyesight, helps wounds heal faster, and cures the common cold?

The answer, according to the 16th century physician Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, is “nice white sugar.”1

Yes, sugar — the very same sugar we stir into piping hot cups of coffee and sprinkle over fresh donuts. The very same sugar that can be found in roughly 80 percent of the food items for sale in American stores today.2 The very same sugar that we now know has contributed to rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and a slew of other health woes.

So, Tabernaemontanus may have been wrong — but he wasn’t the only person touting the curative power of sugar. For much of history, at least in the West, sugar was regarded more like an edible miracle and less like something to jazz up your bowl of cornflakes. In De Materia Medica, widely considered a forerunner to modern medical texts, the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides writes in almost wide-eyed awe of “a kind of coalesced honey called ‘sugar’ found in reeds in India and Arabia, similar in consistency to salt and brittle enough to be broken between the teeth like salt. It is good dissolved in water for the intestines and stomach, and taken as a drink to help a painful bladder and kidneys.”3

It’s easier to understand this fascination with sugar when you consider how comparatively late it arrived to the Western world. The sugarcane plant is native to New Guinea, where it was first cultivated around 8,000 B.C., but sugar didn’t appear in the West until about 300 B.C., when the Greeks and Romans learned about it from India.4

The introduction of sugar was something of a revelation. The Greeks and Romans had always relied on honey as a sweetener, but here was, as the Greek military officer Nearchus put it, "a reed … that brings forth honey without the help of bees.”5 From the moment of its debut, sugar was poised to become a sensation.

Prior to the arrival of sugar in the West, honey was the go-to sweetener for Greeks and Romans; Source: Arwin Neil Baichoo on Unsplash

A Tasty Treat With a Dark Side

It’s now hard to imagine the landscape of modern American cuisine without sugar — but it wasn’t always like this. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the average American only ate two pounds of sugar a year. Today, it’s 152 pounds.6

The story of how sugar made the leap from rare medicine to all-too-abundant additive is a tumultuous and, frankly, brutal one. That said, to understand how we have arrived at where we are, it’s important to honestly examine the history, no matter how unsavory.

“[Columbus] discovered the [sugar cane] plant flourished in the Carribbean clime, setting off a chain reaction that would change the face of the world.”

Sugar journeyed into Europe beyond Greece and Rome primarily through war and conquest. During the First Crusade (1096-1099 A.D.), Christian military forces captured Jerusalem, where the Muslim occupants had established a booming sugar production industry. Christian soldiers brought sugar back to their home countries, igniting a widespread surge in demand.7

Things only grew grimmer from there. Sugarcane didn’t grow well in the European climate, so it remained in relatively low supply — until Christopher Columbus brought some to the Dominican Republic during his 1492 expedition. He discovered the plant flourished in the Carribbean clime, setting off a chain reaction that would change the face of the world.8

The departure of Christopher Columbus, the first person to bring sugarcane to the Americas; Source: Library of Congress

Other colonizers followed Columbus’s lead, planting their own sugar fields, and soon Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch colonists were running sugar plantations throughout the Southwestern Hemisphere.9

Called “white gold” by the British, sugar was big business. It came to account for 20 percent of all European imports by the 18th century, and those who owned plantations and processing factories amassed vast fortunes.10

Sugar producers weren’t making all this money simply by selling sugar — they were also using slaves to run their operations. Sugar was a key force in the transatlantic slave trade: It was grown by slaves in the Americas, then sent to Europe and sold, and the money from those sales was used to buy more slaves in Africa. This vicious cycle and the ill-gotten wealth it spawned was, in some historians’ opinions, one deciding factor in the outcome of the American Revolution. According to this line of thought, the British lost because they were unwilling to divert more resources from their sugar-producing colonies to the war effort in North America.11

Map of the transatlantic slave trade; Source: Wikimedia

Even following the abolition of slavery, sugar production has not often been a sweet affair. Sugarcane is a land-intensive crop, meaning it requires a lot of space to grow properly. Because of this, the sugar industry has a track record of land grabs in which powerful, unscrupulous organizations illegally seize land from communities, small-scale farmers, and indigenous peoples for their own use. In the process, people often lose their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives.12

“Sugar can be cultivated sustainably and ethically, and a wave of advocates dedicated to the cause has arisen in recent years.”

Sugar production can also have a brutal impact on the environment. The World Wildlife Fund estimates “The production of sugarcane has probably caused a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop” due to the sheer amount of land used to cultivate sugar. Sugarcane also requires a lot of water, and inefficient irrigation practices regularly lead to unnecessarily high consumption and soil erosion. It is common practice to burn sugarcane fields before harvesting, in order to separate the tough outer leaves of the plant from the stalks where the sugar resides. Unfortunately, this burning leads to elevated carbon monoxide and ozone levels in the areas surrounding sugarcane fields.13

But sugar can be cultivated sustainably and ethically, and a wave of advocates dedicated to the cause has arisen in recent years. Consider the example of Bonsucro, a nonprofit that promotes a set of sustainable sugar production standards ranging from compliance with land and water use laws and respect for labor rights to more environmentally friendly growing practices. While the standards are completely voluntary, they are gaining steam, and 25 percent of global sugarcane land is under Bonsucro membership.14 So far, the results suggest Bonsucro is onto something: One report found that Bonsucro-certified mills use half as much fertilizer, a third less pesticide, and 58 percent less water than the industry standard.15

Sugarcane fields are often burned to make harvesting the tough stalks easier; Source: Sun-Sentinel

Go Ahead, Indulge Your (Naturally) Sweet Tooth

As advocates have led the charge on more sustainable ways to grow sugar, so have health experts offered a look at more sustainable ways to enjoy this delicious treat.

Sugar has been linked to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and to health risks like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.16 A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the CDC found that people who get a higher percentage of their calories (17-21 percent) from added sugars have a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.17

There are also concerns about sugar’s addictive properties, though the topic is hotly debated. In a 2017 paper, a group of cardiovascular health researchers compared sugar to cocaine, noting that sugar consumption is capable of “altering mood, possibly through its ability to induce reward and pleasure, leading to the seeking out of sugar.” The researchers pointed to a study which purported to show that mice become more easily addicted to sugar than to cocaine, and that being deprived of sugar can lead to withdrawal-like symptoms in rodents. However, other researchers aren’t so sure. They argue it’s no surprise rodents would seek out sugar over cocaine because most animals are programmed to look for sweet things.18

“Our love of sugar goes all the way back to our primate ancestors.”

And that gets to the crux of the matter: Sugar is not, inherently, a bad thing. It makes sense that people crave sweets. Biologists posit our love of sugar goes all the way back to our primate ancestors. In the days before supermarkets, we had to find our food in the wild. Fruits are much higher in caloric energy than vegetables — and much richer in sugar. Thus, it was easier to sustain life on a diet high in sweet fruits. Sugar’s tendency to turn into fat also wasn’t a problem back then: It was good to have some extra meat on your bones as an insurance policy when times got tough.19 Sugar may have also been integral to the course of human evolution. As we covered in a previous Ignite story, ecologist Mike Shanahan posits that calorie-dense fruit — and figs in particular — “may have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains.”

Humans may crave sugar because it’s found in fruit, one of the most calorically dense food sources available to our early ancestors; Source: Ian Baldwin Unsplash

The problem is not sugar itself, but our relationship with sugar in the modern era. Sugar occurs naturally in high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and fiber regulates your digestive system. The natural sugars found in whole foods are typically processed much more slowly by the body, and the sugar offers a long-term supply of energy. Fiber also makes you feel fuller, so you’re likely to eat less sugar overall.20

Conversely, the added sugars found in soda, sweets, and processed foods don’t usually come with all that fiber. Therefore, this sugar is digested much more quickly, providing much less energy. Added sugars are rapidly converted into fat, and you aren’t left feeling full.21 Think about it: It’s a lot easier to demolish a sleeve of Oreos in one go than it is to eat an entire sack of apples!

Beyond Pumpkin Pie

Which is not to say you shouldn’t ever reach for a cookie. We’d never be so heartless — especially not with the holiday season upon us. With sugar, as with most things in life, moderation is key.

But why, exactly, are the holidays synonymous with sweets? It’s tough to say for sure, but it probably has something to do with the fact that dessert, unlike the other courses of a meal, doesn’t exist primarily to nourish. As the food historian Michael Krondl puts it, dessert is more a cultural expression than a purely culinary one: “Dessert is fundamentally completely unnecessary from a nutritional standpoint. When you remove the nutritional necessity, then you have to wonder, why is it necessary? Presumably, on some level it is, otherwise we wouldn't spend so much treasure and time developing all these wonderful desserts. So you get away from our animal needs and you look at our cultural needs.”22

In Krondl’s view, dessert is akin to an artform — it’s a means of expression as much as a dish to be eaten. It makes sense, then, that our various holidays and cultural traditions would all seem to gather their own sets of seasonally appropriate desserts in the same way they accrue specific decorations, songs, and stories.

Clootie dumpling with clotted cream; Source: BBC

But perhaps you’ve grown tired of serving up the same old winter-season desserts year after year. If you’re looking for a change, the Keap team has compiled some of our favorite underappreciated holiday sweets. Why not bring something new to the table this time around?

  1. Stephen's Mom's Clootie dumplings: A traditional Scottish Christmas dessert — or “pudding” in the local parlance — a clootie dumpling is a moist, cake-like confection with dried fruit and spices. Around the holidays at Stephen's house there are regularly 6 pans on the boil, as his mom makes Clooties for family and friends.

  2. Harry's Mom's Swiss Colony’s Christmas fruitcake: In pop culture, the humble fruitcake is often the butt of the joke. This particular version, studded with cherries, pineapples, pecans, and walnuts, lives up to the reputation with multicolor-glamour. In Harry's family they used theirs more as home décor than to be eaten (some unsuspecting guests were forced to ingest it in the past).

  3. Yasmine's Chocolate cloud cake: Intense but not overwhelming, this flourless chocolate cake is a favorite of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson’s, so you know it’s good. Yasmine vouches, "Nigella's Cloud Cake is soooo good!"

The fruitcake: holiday trick or treat?; Source: Swiss Colony

As you consider your sweet tooth this holiday, another option is to look into some of the more sustainably and ethically sourced and grown sugar options. (Look for organic, fair-trade, and B Corp certifications on the packaging.) Date sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, and locally sourced honey are our favorite options. These alternative sugars are not only ethical, but they also help from a dietary perspective, as they are the kinds of natural sugars that support the slower, healthier release of glucose to your body, as outlined above.

In the cold of winter, there’s nothing quite like the warmth of an oven to stave off the chill. Even better if that oven is cooking up something delicious to share with friends and family.

— The Keap Team

The Ignite Series

We select a scent of the month to send to our seasonal candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to uncover a facet of that scent through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition art label and art card in their monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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