Once Upon A Time…

Sugar, the wicked stepmother of the food industry, has an interesting history—playing such starring roles as a political power, a royal delicacy, and, most recently, a billion dollar industry. Ever wonder how sugar came to be in everything? When did it become so popular? How did it become a staple of the American diet? Here is a short history of the white crystal that I have condensed from the book, “Sugar Blues” by William Duffy. While it is obviously biased against sugar, and you might roll your eyes at some of his claims, it’s interesting to consider the beginning of something as pedestrian as sugar and the waves that it made when it first entered the history books.

The History of Sugar, according to William Duffy

Part 1

From the Garden of Eden through thousands of years, what we call sugar was unknown to man. He evolved and survived without it. Simply falling asleep and never waking up was the normal way to die—many of the diseases we have today did not exist. When sugar does make an appearance in the history books, no one knew what to call it. “Sweet cane,” “a kind of honey” growing in canes or reeds, “Indian salt,” or “honey without bees.” It was used like honey, as a medicine. It was a Roman writer of Nero’s time that recorded its Latin name, saccharum.

The Persian Empire’s school of medicine and pharmacology is credited with developing the process for solidifying and refining the juice of the cane into solid form sometime after 600 A.D. A piece of saccharum, or khanda (the Sanskrit word that later became the English “candy”), was considered a rare and precious miracle drug.

When Islam conquered the Persian Empire, and set out to subjugate the whole world, they took sugar cane with them—it was easier to bring cuttings of the plants and grow them in their new territories than to import the end product. These Arabs are probably the first conquerors in history to have produced enough sugar to furnish both courts and troops with candy and sugared drinks.

One European botanist of the time, Leonhard Rauwolf, said this of them:

“The Turks and Moors cut off one piece [of sugar] after another and so chew and eat them openly everywhere in the street without shame… in this way [they] accustom themselves to gluttony and are no longer the intrepid fighters they had formerly been…. [They] are no more so free and courageous to go against their enemies to fight as they had been in former ages.”

Personal aside: Did this “gluttony” of sugar contribute to the decline of the Arab Empire? They had made great strides in science, math, astronomy, and manufacturing. Then it all seemed to fail. It is interesting to see that this Empire, the first to be able to give sugar to the masses, was also the first to make huge strides in medicine and surgery. Could it be because they were the first group who needed such strides due to their sugar consumption?

During the Crusades, Europeans discovered their sweet tooth on the way to wrest the Holy Land from the infidels. Sugar became the stuff of politics. Men would sell their very souls for it. A century after the last Crusade, appeals were made to fight the Arabs again. Pope Clement V sent a position paper, outlining his sugar strategy to bring the Saracens to heel.

“In the land of the Sultan, sugar grows in great quantities and from it the Sultans draw large incomes and taxes. If the Christians could seize these lands, great injury would be inflicted on the Sultan and at the same time, Christendom would be wholly supplied from Cyprus. Sugar is also grown in the Morea, Malta, and Sicily, and it would grow in other Christian lands if cultivated there. As regards [to] Christendom no harm would follow.”

What followed, instead, was seven centuries in which the seven deadly sins flourished across the seven seas, leaving a trail of slavery, genocide, and organized crime. British Historian, Noel Deerr, says flatly: “It will be no exaggeration to put the tale and toll of the Slave Trade at 20 million Africans, of which two-thirds are to be charged against sugar.”

We’ll leave the history of sugar here for now—just as the Europeans got their hands on the sticky stuff. I’ll cover more in Part 2 sometime in the future. For now, stay strong.

Week 3, out!

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