Killing Us Sweetly! Part Two

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Killing Us Sweetly! Part Two

29th Dec 2013

A Brief History of Sugar

When we consider the general health of the World’s population, it cannot be argued that things are on the decline. Obesity is rampant as are most metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. The reason I make this point is that we seem to get into arguments about what has caused this. The readily available nature of food or the amount of food we eat is one example. If we use common sense, we would not have been able to process food like we do today until very recently. From this point on, think about human beings and what we would have eaten through the ages.

I am not going to preach a particular style of diet here, I am going to offer the theory that man would have eaten the food that was available at the time. This was even up to and including the agricultural revolution. Sugar, in particular refined sugar, was not a staple in the human diet until the 1800’s. Prior to this, it was mainly a luxury and a condiment. It did not form the basis of the majority of the food we eat. This is just a fact.

When Did Sugar Refining Start?

Sugar cane, which is the plant that refined sucrose (table sugar) comes from, was probably first cultivated in New Guinea in 8000 BC. It is then assumed that sugar cane cultivation stayed in the South East Asia area until it reached Persia in about 600 BC. It is thought that the refining of the juices into crystals first started in India.

In the early days people had to chew sugar cane to extract the sweetness. As mentioned, it was the Indians that started the refining process as they discovered how to crystallize sugar cane through a process of boiling or drying the juices to form gravel like crystals.

Sugar in the United Kingdom

Now we need to fast forward to the time of the crusades in the 12th Century. This is where European knights brought back sugar from the holy land. Sugar made its way to England in the 13th century and was seen as both a delicacy and a condiment. The price of sugar was incredibly high at this point in time. This is important. Sugar reached these shores in the 13th century, in terms of human dietary evolution, that isn’t very long at all.

After 1600 and then the subsequent colonisation of the Americas by the British empire, the Caribbean became the largest producer of sugar in the World. This is important because the apparent number of deaths of slaves on British sugar plantations was 3.6 million people!

The Sugar Explosion

Sugar started to become really popular in the 18th Century. Between 1710 and 1770 in the UK, sugar consumption increased five times. The explosion in sugar consumption went hand in hand with the dietary changes in Europeans. It was around this time that jams and candy began to become popular. With advances in sugar production and expanding demand, sugar prices began to fall, especially in Britain. The average consumption rose from 18 pounds per head per year in 1800 to over 100 pounds in the 20th Century.


As you can see, sugar didn’t take long to go from a condiment to a staple in the English diet. In the space of 200 years the demand for this particular “sweet salt” went through the roof. Is it a surprise that this sweet addictive substance became so popular? I would wager not. I will discussing the refining process and how sugar is addictive in later articles.