Sugar – The sweet angelic demon

Sugar is one of the world’s oldest documented commodities, with the first indications of its creation around 8000 BCE. It was once a rare commodity but became widely known by the end of the medieval period.  

It was considered a ‘fine spice’, but with technological advancements in its processing and production, it then became a cheaper and more accessible product to many more people. Today sugarcane is the third most valuable crop after cereals and rice. It covers 26,942,686 hectares worldwide across 110 countries, producing sugar from cane and beets.  

Between 2019-2020 alone 166.18 million tonnes of sugar was produced, with a dozen countries using at least 25% of their farmland to grow it. The stalky green sugar cane plant is used to produce as much as 80% of the sugar we eat. 

Throughout history, sugar has had a key economic and social influence in helping to drive the expansion of European empires, and more broadly was referred to as ‘white gold’, as it strongly fuelled the Atlantic World with economic prosperity.  

However, it is a food substance with a dark history, as it has deep-seated roots associated with slave labour, perpetuated by the huge demand for cultivation in Brazil and on Caribbean plantations. As a result, over twelve million black Africans were shipped from Africa to the Americas in appalling conditions between 1501 and 1867. In this way, some historic parallels can be drawn with the tobacco industry at the time, as similarly both products heavily relied on slave labour for their mass production and ironically were seen as beneficial to human health. 

However, with modern day advancements in medical research over a sustained period, we now know that high levels of consumption of them have huge health and knock-on economic impacts on society. Sugar has been described by some expert commentators as an ‘industrial epidemic’, citing its addictive nature to be as potent as cocaine.  

In fact, in the 1960s documents suggested that a trade group called Sugar Research paid Harvard scientists the equivalent of $50,000 in money today to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and instead focus on saturated fat as the problem.  

The lack of promotional transparency of the sugar industry was a deliberate and strategic approach in order to protect their core marketplace and continue to capitalise on the huge associated profits generated by sugar. 

Even today, there is evidence of the sugar industry still influencing nutrition science. A good example of this is Coca-Cola being seen to fund millions of dollars into marketing which supported the downplaying of the link between sugary drinks and obesity. This sort of intervention by major global brands influencing views about their sugary products is a major health risk for societies around the world, particularly as they also target younger age groups. Leading cardiologists such as Dr Robert Lustig state that, ‘added sugar is 11 times more potent at causing diabetes than general calories‘, but unfortunately, he doesn’t have the same marketing budget reach that a global brand might have with their conflicting messaging.   

On the other hand, sugar is a carbohydrate that provides us with energy and the natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables provide people with some important fibres and antioxidants. The other side of this are the unhealthy added sugars which provide no nutrients and are often overconsumed, leading to obesity. The recommended daily amount is 25g, but the average American has 125g or 17 teaspoons a day. This is in line with data of rising global sugar consumption and the increased yearly intake with 20 million tonnes more since 2009. The impacts of this are devasting on both the environment and society at large, with increased obesity and health risks putting pressure on healthcare systems around the world. For example, in the US, 2020 estimates of the medical cost of obesity ranges from $147 USD billion to nearly $210 USD billion per year.  

Not only is it negatively impacting on the health and economies of countries globally, but the environmental impact with sugar being a highly water-intensive crop is massive. Sugar is one of the world’s thirstiest crops, using 10 gallons of water to produce a 1lb bag of refined cane sugar. This is the equivalent of nine gallons per teaspoon. The greater the global demand for sugar, the worse the environmental impacts become. The high water consumption, air and water pollution and soil degradation created by the intensive farming of sugar all severely impact the environment. Moreover, it is estimated that 10% of soil is lost during the harvest of sugarcane, which is impacting natural habitats. 

Sugarcane farming has contributed to deforestation in the world’s most threatened ecosystems. For instance, Brazil’s Atlantic Forest which has seen a huge rise in the spread of sugar cane fields, has sadly been reduced to 7% of its original size. Furthermore, with the continually increasing demand for sugar, and based on these statistical growth trends, the world will need to cultivate 50% more land by 2050 to deliver the production levels required to meet this demand.  

Sugar is celebratory. Sugar is something that we used to enjoy. Now, it basically has coated our tongues. It’s turned into a diet staple, and it’s killing us.’ – Robert Lustig. 

Everything in moderation, including moderation.’  – Oscar Wilde 

……and in my mind especially sugar! 

Some of the key sources used: 
https://theconversation.com/a-history-of-sugar-the-food-nobody-needs-but-everyone-craves-9823
https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/summer-2015/articles/sugarcane-farming-s-toll-on-the-environment

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/sugar-slave-trade-slavery.html

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/02/is-sugar-really-that-bad-for-you/

By Clemmie, LVI (Year 12)

Photo Credit:
USDA/Science Source / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group
Rights Managed / For Education Use Only