The Not-So-Sweet History of Sugar

That teaspoon of sugar in your morning coffee may seem fairly innocent, but sugar has fueled many sinister chapters in human history. Read on to find out the bitter truth behind this sweet commodity.

8000 BC

Sugarcane (Saccharum species) was first domesticated in New Guinea from wild plants that are native to tropical South and Southeast Asia.

800 BC

The cultivation of sugarcane spread throughout Southeast Asia, southern China and India.

4th Century AD

Indian farmers developed the first method of turning sugarcane juice into granulated crystals. Before this, people used to chew raw sugarcane to extract the sweetness.

The earliest sugar production involved grinding or pounding the cane to extract the juice, then boiling or drying the juice in the sun to get sugary crystals.

8th to 13th Century

This was a time of great agricultural and social advancements in Islamic regions of the world. During what’s now known as the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, farmers learned the art of producing crystalized sugar and transformed it into a large-scale industry.

These farmers set up some of the first sugar mills, refineries, factories and plantations. Arab traders then started bringing refined sugar to Western Europe and Eastern Africa.

Sugar started to replace honey, which was the only other sweetener available at the time.

14th Century

A better press was developed to extract juice from the cane, which spurred sugar production even more.

Sugar’s popularity was skyrocketing in Europe, and it soon became equal in value to gold, pearls and precious spices.

15th Century

Sugar plantations were set up throughout the Mediterranean for export to Europe.

By the end of the century, African slaves had started working on sugarcane plantations in the Kingdom of Castile around Valencia.

1492 – Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Americas for the first time, and plantations soon followed.

16th Century

1501 – The first sugar was produced from Hispaniola, the island that today is divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Eager to cash in on the market for sugar, European colonizers established sugarcane plantations throughout the Caribbean islands as well as mainland South America. At the time, British colonists called sugar “white gold.”

The early European settlers soon realized that planting, harvesting and processing sugarcane was very labor-intensive.

Hence, in 1505 the first slave ships arrived in the colonies. Most came from Western Africa, where Portuguese colonies had already established trading outposts for other goods. To most European merchants, the African people they brought across the Atlantic were little more than another commodity.

The slave trade continued unabated for the next 300 years. By the time the last slave ship arrived in 1866, more than 10 million Africans had been forcibly removed to the New World to work on sugar plantations.

Cutting_Sugar_Cane_in_Trinidad,_1836,_lithograph
Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836, lithograph / Photo credit: Richard Bridgens, via Wikimedia Commons

17th to 19th Centuries

Throughout the world, countries were abolishing slavery as the abolitionist movement grew.

In the late 1700s, the abolitionists in England and America spearheaded a boycott of slave-grown sugar to pressure the sugar industry to stop using slave labor. They described sugar as being symbolically mixed with the blood, sweat and tears of the slaves.

Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888, most likely due to the fact their massive sugarcane plantations ran on slave labor. To this day, Brazil is the largest sugar producer in the world, supplying 25 percent of sugar globally.

1747 – A German chemist developed a way to make crystallized sugar from sugar beets. This was a significant discovery because beets do not require a tropical climate like sugarcane. They can be grown in colder, temperate regions like northern Europe and Canada.

1801 – The first European beet sugar factory was built by Franz Achard in present-day Poland, which enabled Europe to produce large quantities of sugar on their own soil.

The price of sugar dropped as production increased. It became more of a commonplace commodity, rather than a precious spice for the wealthy.

By the end of the 19th century, sugar was viewed as a necessary food ingredient in tea, coffee, candies and processed foods.

20th Century

2007 – Genetically modified (GM) sugar beets were approved and grown for the first time in the United States. By 2010, 95 percent of sugar beets grown in the US were genetically modified.

Today, 80 percent of sugar worldwide is made from sugar cane, and 20 percent is from sugar beets. Over 120 countries produce approximately 180 million tons of sugar per year. Sugar may no longer run on the slave trade, but it remains an extremely large and powerful industry in the world.

Centuries ago, sugar was promoted as a medicine. Today, we know better. Processed sugar has been linked to over 100 health symptoms or conditions, such as allergies, depression, heart disease, weight gain and tooth decay.

The challenge for the 21st century may be to find healthier ways to replace processed sugar and start a new page in history.

Related
5 Health Hazards of Excess Sugar
A Guide to Cutting Sugar Out of Your Diet
Big Sugar Takes on The World Health Organization

 

65 comments

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