Sweetness was meant to be irresistible.
We are born with a sweet tooth. Babies drink in sugar with their mother’s milk. Sweetness represents an instant energy boost, a fuel that kept our ancestors going in a harsher world where taste buds evolved to distinguish health-giving ripeness and freshness from the dangers of bitter, sour, toxic foods. Sugar gives us drug-like pleasures – lab rats deprived of their sugar-water fix exhibit classic signs of withdrawal. When things are going well, we blissfully say, “Life is sweet.”
And now sweetness is linked with death and disease. Sugars are themselves toxins, some researchers suggest, that cause obesity, diabetes, hyper- tension and Alzheimer’s disease. Sugar has joined salt and fat on the list of dietary evils. Governments and health experts are urging people to cut back their daily intake.
How did we get ourselves into this unhappy state? Anything sweet was once considered precious and exploited with the kind of ingenuity you’d expect when brute survival was elevated into pure pleasure – through sap from the maple tree and the date palm, cooked-down pulp from carrots and beets, pressed syrup from figs and sorghum, raisiny grapes, regurgitated flower nectar transposed from nature’s tree-stumps to the beekeeper’s hives and, of course, the processed juice from the reedy sugar cane.
Our modern moralizing about sugar’s destructive nutritional emptiness takes on meaning only in a culture where appetite has been disconnected from physical labour, most consumption is surplus to our needs, and sweetness is segregated into a separate world of danger, indulgence and anxiety.
Today, when we denounce sugar, we are defying our nature. Sex was once the classic example of the good thing gone wrong – a gift of the gods ruined by religion and psychiatry. Now the road to excess leads to the supermarket shelf and the fast-food drive-through: Sugar has become the forbidden fruit, the momentary pleasure infused with a lifetime of guilt.
Refined cane sugar has emerged as our dominant sweetener today, but only after long centuries of experimentation, exploration, imperialistic subjugation, industrialization and marketplace manipulation.
In the beginning, sweetness was unmistakably precious, combining properties regarded as both sacred and health-giving.
A 10,000-year-old Spanish cave painting depicts a risk-taking honey-gatherer plundering a remote crevice or stump as wild bees buzz about in all directions. This extreme pursuit of sweetness was obviously worth the effort, and the artist’s admiration.
The ancient Hindu preparation known as the five ambrosias, a dish fit for the gods, incorporated sugar along with milk, honey, yogurt and clarified butter. Its appeal knows no limits, as the medieval historian Albert of Aachen pointed out in his description of 11th-century European Crusaders when they first encountered sugar cane in the Holy Land: “They could scarcely get enough of it.”
Sugar slowly made its way from the inventive processors in India and the Middle East toward Europe, and for many centuries its scarcity defined its identity in the Western world: a rare spice used only in small quantities, a beguiling taste designed to make remedies more palatable, a luxury offered in strange new forms as proof of wealth.
In Le Viandier, a recipe collection from around 1300, almost half the dishes that incorporate sugar are designed to relieve illness. By the time of Maestro Martino’s The Art of Cooking (c. 1465), sugar is used in larger amounts for dishes that are intended to be sweet on the palate – apple tart, zabaglione, marzipan and various kinds of fritters, as well as more medieval-sounding dishes like candied capon. When Martino’s friend, Vatican librarian Bartolomeo Sacchi, wrote a treatise on gastronomy, he chided earlier culinary theorists for their fixation on sugar’s medicinal role. “They certainly missed out on a great delight since nothing that is given to us to eat can be so tasty.”
Even alchemists played with the ingredient’s properties and claimed to have uncovered its hidden secrets. In 1555, the seer Nostradamus published a little book about cosmetics and confections that paid tribute to sugar’s transformative power: Candied fruit became a kind of edible, man-made miracle.
Perhaps the story should have ended there. The delights of sugar were largely in control of the rich, it’s true, and their patronage of an exclusive ingredient meant that its identity was bent to their showy, needless ideas of extravagance. Instead of feeding the poor, the malleable carbohydrate was turned into a medium of edible and ornamental sculpture. Banquets were eaten off plates spun from sugar. Master confectioners perfected the art of sugar boiling and produced trees and elephants and even crackling tablecloths out of lowly cane syrup.
“Obviously it was overkill,” says Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History. “For the very rich who had money to waste, sugar was the perfect form of conspicuous consumption. And if a little was good, then more, more, more was really good.”
But where to get more of this precious thing? Most of Europe’s climate couldn’t support sugar cane, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 cut off trade routes to Asia – eventually prompting Christopher Columbus and his counterparts to sail west in pursuit of new routes and riches.
The New World version of sugar changed everything. Columbus planted sugar on his second voyage of 1493, and an ever-cheaper, more accessible pleasure became bound up with slavery, colonialism and environmental degradation. While a sweetener like honey could always claim to be a found pleasure, local and natural and bucolic in its ancient purity, sugar was turned into the kind of food that now makes us so nervous: globalized, industrial, completely transformed from its agricultural origins, cheap almost beyond belief, but with a huge human cost.
Millions of slaves were required to cut the colonists’ cane in unspeakably harsh conditions and work the horrible wood-fired mills that began the process of sugar’s refinement from impure brown “muscovado” into a dainty treat. They might be fed on scraps of salt cod from Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, all part of a worldwide network designed to generate wealth on a vast scale – even sailors in the Royal Navy were granted a daily ration of rum made from sugar’s dregs and by-products.
Abolitionists railed against sugar as the source of vast misery. In a poem that was written to support a boycott movement early in the 19th century, a Quaker writer laments:
"And can I then a sweet enjoy / That tempts me only to destroy? / No – I abhor thee, tempting food, / Purchased by many a brother’s blood."
Sugar’s apparent uselessness, its trivial seduction of our guilty appetites, became the compelling critique of its human cost. If our ancient forefathers didn’t have sugar, then it’s not a food we should want – though allowance was made for the hopelessly sweet-toothed who sourced their early-1800s version of fair-trade sugar and displayed it in custom-made bowls bearing the defiant words, “East India sugar not made by slaves.”
Similar arguments against sugar were marshalled by the moral purity movement of nutritionists who dismissed it as an idle pleasure that was merely delicious and not earnest enough to be good for you.
“They understood it to be seductive,” says Ms. Abbott, “and this prompted moral outrage: When you ate it, you kept wanting to have more.” (Modern science offers support to the moralists’ observation: Along with the tests on lab rats, other studies have shown that fructose – the sugar extracted from fruits and corn and used in nearly everything – may promote obesity by overriding the brain’s sense of satiety.) The abolitionists’ argument prevailed, even if slavery withered away as much through the development of more scientific economies in the 19th century – voluntary labour in an urbanizing society was ultimately more productive and efficient.
But the vast mills of the Industrial Revolution needed a labour force with a boundless work ethic. So where was the workers’ energy going to come from? Sugar’s democratic moment had arrived.
The invention of dessert
These days, we’re concerned about overeating. In the Victorian area and the decades after, the greater worry was the shortage of food that fuelled the labour that produced the goods that earned the profits. Sugar became cheap and plentiful, thanks to the development of sophisticated refineries and the reduction of taxes and tariffs that had hindered global trade. Facing naval blockades and an uprising in France’s sugar colony of Haiti, Napoleon fostered the growth of the sugar-beet industry – a temperate-climate alternative to cane sugar that now accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s production.
Eaten as jam slathered on factory-made bread or added as a sweetener to tea and coffee – the break-time beverages that remade a former extravagance into a daily necessity – sugar was a gift to capitalism: As a shortcut to instant energy, it allowed men and women to work harder than they were able to do in a sugar-free world.
“For the first 100 years after the discovery of the calorie, every calorie was good,” says Harvey Levenstein, emeritus professor of history at McMaster University and the author of Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat.
“Calories existed to give you energy. The theory was that the human body was like a machine and calories were the fuel shovelled into the stomach, the coal that kept us going. And the working class couldn’t get enough food.”
Working women had less time to cook for their families, and the industrial production of sugary foods like jams, ketchup and other bottled sauces and pickles offered quick shortcuts. It’s hard to make the case that nutrition suffered at first, since lifespans increased. But the easy availability of sugar changed its place in our lives, beginning the process that rebranded a necessity into the modern world’s “empty calories.”
For Ms. Abbot, the great turning point came in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. “It stretched the role of sugar into a convenience by popularizing Jell-O, soft drinks and portable ice cream in a waffle cone. It became socially acceptable to chew on food while you walked around, wherever you wanted to go. Public eating was now the norm.”
Sugar consumption becomes festive, fast and omnipresent: The source of energy for the working class was remade into the agent of universal happiness. Children were lured in by the brilliant colours and designs of penny candy. Every celebration had its cake, and ordinary occasions more became meaningful when a box of chocolates or an over-the-top bit of pastry was thrown in. Birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, graduation, the endless Christmas season that Coca-Cola targeted for its Santa Claus ad campaign – all became excuses for a sugar binge.
Sugary desserts went from being the exception (as they still are in many countries outside North America) to the norm. “Sugar producers wanted to develop new markets and needs you didn’t already have,” Ms. Abbot says. “And so they invented the idea that every meal had to be followed by something sweet, and the good wife – what we’d call the ‘domestic goddess’ – if she loved her family, would produce a sugary treat at the end of the meal.”
The modern working woman continues to need a huge array of sweets in her culinary repertoire, even if they’re frosted cupcakes and biscotti rather than the cobblers and Jell-O moulds of the sugar-centric Coronation Cookbook produced in 1953 by the ladies of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont. Seventy-two of its 108 pages were devoted to sweets in those more innocent days, when the arrival of a new monarch made people think of pie fillings.
We gasp, looking at other generation’s consumption levels, forgetting how much better placed they were at generating the need for sugar’s energy and regulating its flow. In Food that Really Schmecks, journalist Edna Staebler’s 1968 portrait of a Mennonite farm family near Waterloo, Ont., the sweet tooth demands constant attention.
“We were taught we’d be sick if we didn’t eat jam-bread at the front part of every meal,” says matriarch Bevvy Martin.
Lunches and dinners began with bread, butter and jam, and dependably concluded with cooked fruit, cookies or cake, pudding and pie. When Ms. Staebler teased Mrs. Martin about the sheer number of desserts, she replied in her serene Germanic lilt, “Canned peaches are not dessert, they are chust fruit. Pudding is not dessert either, it is only for filling the corners, and cookies and pies are chust natural for anybody to have.”
So it’s possible to be at peace with sugar. Canadian food writer Naomi Duguid describes her initial astonishment at the amount of sugar she saw being spooned out during a recent research trip to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Everybody has at least two teaspoons of sugar in their tea and drinks two glasses of tea at a sitting and has a tea-drinking episode four times a day. It seems incredible.
But there’s no sugar anywhere else in their diet. They’re not in a money economy, the only food they eat is what they make at home, and the only sugar they eat is what they put in their tea. So, as a result, they look forward to their four-times-a-day hit.”
The fear of sugar
But in a society where the production of food, drinks and snacks is outsourced, large amounts of hidden sugars permeate our ready-made meals from start to finish as sweeteners, preservatives and flavour enhancers. Once a medicine, sugar is now a pervasive dietary placebo.
Our fear of sugar is as much a fear of the unknown – we’ve lost control, and it’s easy to trace our real and imagined nutritional terrors to bigger forces that prey on our appetites and desires.
Someone else must be responsible for our dietary ennui – governments and multinational corporations are the preferred targets of sugar’s modern critics, who know there’s nothing to be gained by blaming the friendly co-worker who shares a daily box of Timbits or the celebrity chef who plies the young and hip with retro scoops of soft-serve ice cream flavoured with sugary cereal milk.
Our awareness of sugar’s ills has been heightened, our anxieties now find their targets, but our sense of pleasure is badly compromised – it all sounds so recognizably modern. “Normally in human history, taste told you what was bad for you by being bitter and inedible,” Prof. Levenstein says. “But now with modern nutritional science, there’s almost a glee in exposing the pleasurable things as bad.”
And yet the remaking of human pleasure has to be brought into the equation before history can put sugar in its place. It’s worth remembering that the rise in the consumption of sugar coincided with the arrival of tea, coffee and chocolate as North American daily essentials – sugar not only sweetened bitterness but universalized tastes that were once local and particular and not for everyone. Coffee and tea breaks humanized the working day, and sugar was a key component in daily acts of collegial self-gratification that were much more than empty or calorific.
Sugar changes our relationship with time – as does alcohol, as does tobacco, those other compromised pleasures. Of course, a treat is no longer a treat when it’s available nonstop, which is omnipresent sugar’s current problem. But in a small carved-out moment of the segmented day, it can reliably promise instant satisfaction.
When the French sociologist Claude Fischler and American psychologist Paul Rozin studied culturally determined attitudes to food, they discovered that Americans prized health above all: When asked to free-associate with the phrase “chocolate cake,” they responded with negatives such as “fattening” and “guilt.” The French, meanwhile, thought of celebrations and happiness. Who are the healthier people in the end?
The idea that sugars are evil and empty and lurking everywhere like homegrown jihadis or communist infiltrators is effectively scary but it doesn’t entirely fit with human history and probably isn’t good for us in the long run. Guilt breeds unhealthy eating and compromises our readily available pleasures. And people won’t become healthier and happier if the anti-sugar message doesn’t fit the bigger issue of their lives – the shortage of time that can be easily, if imperfectly, resolved by the biological imperative of sugar’s quick hit.
“Sugar is our great shortcut,” Ms. Duguid says. “To calories, to corporate profits, to immediate satisfaction.”
It’s always a balance. But just because we’ve got it wrong now doesn’t mean we can’t start to get it right.