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How sugar coated the world

We all know what sugar is - that granulated stuff in the bowl on the counter. But where does it come from? I bet you didn't know that the story of sugar takes you around the world, that sugar was once considered a spice as precious as gold, and that sugar was at the center of an infamous trade route for nearly 300 years.

The story of sugar begins about 8,000 years ago on the remote island of Papua, New Guinea, north of Australia. Sugar cane, which can grow up to 15 feet high, is a member of the grass family. So is bamboo. And like bamboo, sugar cane has segmented joints. At some point, islanders found that if you cut off a piece of cane and sucked on it, it tasted sweet. They also figured out that sugar cane could be cultivated by planting segments of the cane. New shoots grow out of the joints.

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Slowly, sugar cane made its way westward until it reached northern India. About 500 BC, the Indians discovered a way to produce crude sugar, and taught the Chinese. A hundred years later, the Chinese were boiling sugar cane juice to make "stone honey."

Arab traders brought sugar cane to the Middle East. Muslims spread it from Persia to Egypt, then to North Africa, southern Spain, and Italy. Sugar cane grows best in subtropical or tropical climates.

After the cane is cut, the stalks are pressed, chopped, or ground up to extract the sweet sap. The sap is about 75 percent water and 15 percent sucrose. The sap is boiled to remove the water until it becomes a thick liquid called massecuite, in which the sugar crystals form.

Modern sugar-refining operations separate the sugar from the blackstrap molasses by whirling the massecuite in a centrifuge at high speed. In earlier times, the liquid was put into cone-shaped pots and allowed to drain for days. At this point, the sugar crystals are brownish in color and require further refining (more boiling and cooling) before it looks like the white sugar you're used to.

Our word "sugar" is probably related to the Sanskrit (Indian) word "sarkar" ("grain"). The East Indian word for it was "shekar"; in Arabic, it was "al zucar," adopted in Spanish as "azucar." In French it became "sucre"; Germans say "Zucker."

Producing sugar is very labor intensive. Cane fields need to be prepared, the cane planted, and then tended and watered for 15 months until the first crop can be harvested. The cane must be cut, crushed, and boiled. The large evaporating pans had to be tended constantly to make sure the sugar crystals didn't burn.

At first, sugar was considered a rare spice. During the crusades (about AD 1000-1300), when European soldiers tried to "reclaim" the Holy Land from Muslim settlers, crusaders brought knowledge of sugar to England from the markets of Baghdad. For years, all the sugar trading from the Middle East was then funneled through merchants in Venice. They had figured out a way to further refine the sugar.

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For decades, sugar was available only to royalty. It was so rare that a teaspoon of it might cost the equivalent of $5 today. (It costs less than a penny now.) The demand for sugar began to grow, and merchants looked for ways to increase the supply of it to sell more.

Christopher Columbus carried sugar cane to the West Indies on his second voyage to the New World. Sugar plantations soon spread throughout the New World, notably in the Caribbean and Brazil.

The climate was perfect for growing sugar cane, but the large plantations needed laborers. Thus began the notorious "triangle trade," which brought slaves from Africa to the Americas. The slaves were traded for molasses and sugar, which were shipped to Britain. Profits from the sale of these goods were used to buy hardware and textiles. Then the merchants sailed to Africa, where the manufactured goods were traded for slaves.

Sugar became so lucrative that control of Caribbean sugar-producing islands produced wars and land deals. In the Treaty of Paris of 1763 that ended the Seven Years' War, France ceded all of Canada to Britain. In return, Britain gave back to France the tiny sugar-growing islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique it had captured. (At the time, knowledgeable people thought the British were crazy to make such a deal.)

Britain and its colonies were introduced to tea, coffee, chocolate, and sugar at about the same time in the 17th century. Sugar was the perfect accompaniment, especially for chocolate. Demand for these commodities rose.

In the 1800s, the slave trade ended. But new technology kept the sugar trade expanding. Sugar was now rapidly separated from the massecuite by centrifuge. New, improved varieties of sugar cane were developed. And sugar beets were found to be an alternate source of sugar that could be grown in cooler climates. Sugar production spread to more places throughout the world.

Within two centuries, sugar went from being a luxury item to something so common that nearly everyone could afford it. It was further discovered that fruit, when mixed with sugar, made jam. The new spread became commonplace among working-class people.

Our taste for sugar - in spite of warnings from experts that sugar represents "empty calories" and is poor nutrition - has not diminished. In 1884 the average person in the United States consumed 38 pounds of sucrose per year - well ahead of all the other major world sugar consumers at the time except Britain. By 2001 the figure for the US was an astounding 147 pounds.

The high sucrose content of many prepared and processed foods accounts for much of the increase. Deep-fried foods, condiments, soft drinks, baked goods, snack foods, desserts - you name it: They all may contain sweeteners that help to preserve them and improve their consistency. Above all, they satisfy our sweet tooth to get us coming back for more.

Sugar, sugar everywhere

Check out the "Nutrition Facts" label next time you look at a box of cereal or a candy-bar wrapper. Find the line that says "Total Carbohydrates," and look just under it for "sugars." There will be a number after it followed by a "g" (for "grams"). One gram weighs as much as a paper clip.

This category - sugars - includes all the "nutritive sweeteners" the cereal or candy bar contains. "Nutritive" sweeteners are the ones with calories.

Compare the number of grams of "sugars" to the weight of the "serving size." Does that comparison tell you anything? Now check the ingredients, which are listed in descending order according to weight. Where is "sugar" in that lineup?

You may also see a number of ingredients with strange names that end in "ose." Those are sugars, too. You might see high- fructose corn syrup, glucose, dextrose (made from corn or grapes), lactose (milk sugar), or maltose (made from starch).

Other nutritive sweeteners include honey, maple sugar, molasses, and concentrated fruit juice. The reduced-calorie sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (whew!) are also in this category.

Many processed foods contain sugar for the simple reason that most people like sweet things, though scientists say that too much sugar is unhealthy. Processed foods may contain nonnutritive sweeteners instead. These sweeteners can be hundreds of times as sweet as table sugar and include saccharin (Sweet'N Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal), and acesulfame-K (Sunett). Even so, the United States Department of Agriculture says that consumption of various sweeteners has risen in the US from an estimated 113 pounds per person in 1966 to 147 pounds per person in 2001.

A glossary, short and sweet

Blackstrap molasses - Unlike 'fancy' molasses that humans eat, it contains little sucrose. It's often used as animal feed.

Demerara sugar - Today, it's a mostly British term for brown or yellow sugar, both of which are actually refined (white) sugar that's been colored and flavored. Demerara was an administrative division of British Guiana. In the 1800s, factories there deliberately produced less-refined sugar still colored and flavored by molasses.

Massecuite -This syrup is created by boiling down sugar-cane juice. In modern mills, it is spun in a centrifuge and separated into sugar crystals and blackstrap molasses.

Sucrose - This chemical occurs naturally in plants, although it is most concentrated in sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar from cane or beets tastes the same, as both are 99.9 percent pure sucrose. Sucrose can be turned into sugar crystals, molasses, rum, and even fuel for cars and trucks.

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