Sugar: the spice that changed history–part four

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; I don’t even play one on TV. I am not qualified to give advice about nutrition or other medical matters. The following is historical information for educational purposes only.

For most of history, nutritional problems have been caused by deficiencies, not by excess. The number of wealthy people capable of overeating has always been far smaller than the number of people facing starvation or malnutrition.

The human body is designed to crave certain necessary foods that are rare in nature. The body needs a certain amount of salt to maintain good health–a completely salt-free diet can lead to difficulty thinking, nausea, muscular cramps or weakness, fainting, and even seizures and coma. Carbohydrates are necessary to fuel the cells of the body. Therefore, most people crave salty foods and sweet foods. In a land in which most sugars are contained in fruits and honey, overdosing on sugar is difficult to accomplish.

The food industry has changed all that. Now sweet foods and salty foods are easily obtainable for meals and for snacks. Makers of our food have no nefarious schemes to damage people’s health. They merely want to make money by giving people what we want. Since we want sweet food, many companies exist for the sole purpose of making sweet food and selling it to us. Control over what we eat belongs to each of us (and, in the case of children, to their parents). Expecting corporations (or the government) to exercise that control on our behalf is just silly.

After the middle of the twentieth century, doctors and nutritionists began recommending a decrease of the consumption of sugar. The only disease directly caused by sugar is tooth decay–even diabetes is a fault in the body making it unable to process sugar; diabetes is not caused by sugar. Yet people who regularly consume more calories than they burn are prone to a number of health problems, and reducing the use of sugar is one of the easiest ways to reduce calories in a person’s diet.

Corporate inventors created several artificial sweeteners during the twentieth century. These sweeteners have no calories, but they still make food taste sweeter. No artificial sweetener is made available to the public before it is thoroughly tested to ensure that it will not cause health problems. However, replacing sugar with a calorie-free chemical does not, by itself, mitigate all the problems that are blamed on sugar.

Recent studies demonstrate that sugar is an addictive drug. It stimulates the same portion of the brain that is stimulated by addictive behavior–gambling, for example. Sugar quickly enters the bloodstream when it is consumed, giving the brain a happy stimulation; four hours later, the brain wants another jolt. People with personalities prone to addiction find sugar far easier to acquire than controlled or banned drugs. Artificial sweeteners stimulate the brain the same way sugar does, producing the same results.

Given the power sugar has over individuals, the power it has exercised over politics and government is unsurprising. Sugar motivated explorers and investors five hundred years ago. Sugar persuaded people to buy and sell other people as slaves. Sugar remains heavily involved in the world economy today. Sweet foods and beverages are constantly advertised on every form of media. Sugary products are packaged in bright, attractive boxes and bags. What would television be like without Tony the Tiger, Cap’n Crunch, the Trix rabbit, or the Lucky Charms leprechaun? What if Santa Claus did not always wear a red suit (inspired by Coca Cola)? For that matter, who would teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?

Like it or hate it, sugar is too much with us. Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! J.

Advertisements

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part three

Long ago, sugar became the most popular Asian spice in Europe. During the 1400s, Portuguese investors built large sugar plantations on islands near Africa. Work on these plantations was done by slaves from Africa. When the lands of the western hemisphere were discovered by Europeans, sugar farming was the first industry to be transported to the New World. Millions of Africans were brought to work on sugar plantations (as well as tobacco farms, cotton farms, and so forth) between 1500 and 1800.

Slavery has existed since ancient times. Slavery was considered natural in all parts of the world. Conditions of slavery were regulated by governments; in most places, slaves maintained certain rights under the law. Slavery is mentioned in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. It is not specifically condemned in the Bible, although the Law of Moses forbids one Israelite from owning another Israelite as a slave.

Plantation slavery was harsher and crueler than most previous forms of slavery. Early death was expected of slaves, and plantation owners figured on an average of five years of work from a slave before he had to be replaced. Treatment of slaves was different on different plantations, but brutal beatings, separation of families, and other abusive treatments were common. Some slave owners did not want their slaves to learn about Christianity, because the owners knew that Christian slaves would merit better treatment as human beings. Most slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read and write, because illiteracy made them easier to control.

Opposition to slavery existed before the nineteenth century, but at first it had little success. By no coincidence, abolition first took hold in Great Britain, the country where the Industrial Revolution began. Slavery was not opposed successfully until machines were designed that could replace the work of slaves. Only then did European and American societies begin to recognize the human rights of workers. Slave trading from Africa was banned at first, and eventually slavery was entirely abolished. In the United States, a four year Civil War was needed to bring slavery to an end. Other countries, such as Brazil and Cuba, continued to allow slavery for years after the United States ended the practice. In some places, slavery continued to be practiced legally until the 1960s.

Industrialization made abolition possible. Industrialization also found new ways to process sugar. What had once been a spice now became an essential ingredient in many factory-produced foods and beverages. Sodas, breakfast cereals, candy bars, salad dressings, barbecue sauces—all of these contain high amounts of sugar, and during the twentieth century, they became increasingly large parts of people’s diets. Sugar is highly addictive, and the more sugar people consume, the more they want. Businesses succeed by giving people what they want, and over the past several generations, people have wanted a lot of sugar.

The politics of sugar turned a corner on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and, therefore, “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Castro overthrew a government that was allied with the United States, so the Eisenhower administration assumed that he was a communist. Getting no help from the United States to set up a new government, Castro decided to agree that he was a communist, and he turned to the Soviet Union for help. The United States placed an embargo on Cuban exports, including cigars, rum, and sugar. These products became popular in the Soviet Union and its allies, while the United States and its allies needed to find a new supply of sugar.

While some sugar was available from other Caribbean islands, not enough cane sugar was being grown to meet the desires of the Western world. Therefore, American factories began to produce sugar from beets and from corn. Much of the sweet stuff Americans eat today is sweetened by high fructose corn syrup. We pour it on our pancakes and waffles, we spread it on our sandwiches and burgers, and we pour it on our salads. Our desserts and snacks are filled with sugar, much of it made from corn.

The medical reaction to sugar in the modern diet will be covered in part four. J.

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.