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Sugar High: The Dark History and Nasty Methods Used to Feed Our Sweet Tooth

Sugar is now 20 percent of the American diet, but it's not just our health that suffers from its pervasiveness.

Americans think an awful lot about sucrose -- table sugar -- but only in certain ways. We crave it and dream up novel ways to combine it with other ingredients to produce delectable foods; and we worry that we eat too much of it and that it is making us unhealthy or fat. But how often do Americans think about where sugar actually comes from or the people who produce it? As a tropical crop, sugarcane cannot grow in most U.S. states. Most of us do not smell the foul odors coming from sugar refineries, look out over vast expanses of nothing but sugarcane, or speak to those who perform the hard labor required to grow and harvest sugarcane.

Of course, sugar can be made from beets, a temperate crop, and more than half of sugar produced in the United States is. But globally, most of the story of sugar, past and present, centers around sugarcane, not beets, and as biofuels become more common, it is sugarcane that is cultivated for ethanol. What's more, some conscious eaters avoid beet sugar as most of it is now made from genetically modified sugar beets.

While I do not fool myself that sugar is "healthy," if I am going to satisfy my sweet tooth, I prefer cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, or honey over the other choices: beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. Of the bunch, most Americans can find only honey and perhaps maple syrup sustainably and locally produced, but cane sugar is often the most versatile product for baking.

As a major consumer of cane sugar, I was disturbed to learn the realities of cane sugar production when I visited a sugarcane-producing area in Bolivia.

Sugarcane grew as far as the eye could see on the degraded soils of the deforested industrial agricultural area in Bolivia's lowlands. At one point, the van I was riding in got stuck in a traffic jam of enormous trucks, each full of sugarcane, delivering their loads to a refinery. The area around the refinery smelled terrible, and the locals told us the smell came from oxidizing ponds that hold the refinery's wastewater. When the refineries are washed out, typically once a year, the wastewater is dumped into local waterways, resulting in fish kills. This spurred me to learn more about how sugar is made, both in the U.S. and around the world, and how it impacts the land and the people who produce it. Sadly, the story of sugar is also the story of the African slave trade. Today, sugar production still uses exploitative labor practices and can cause serious environmental problems.

Sugar's Rotten History

Nobody alive today remembers a day when sugar was not a cheap, ubiquitous food in our diets, but historically speaking, it's actually a relatively recent addition to the European diet, one very tightly intertwined with the African slave trade. As Sidney W. Mintz chronicles in his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, when cane sugar first appeared in England in the 12th century, only royalty could afford it, and even then, only in small quantities. This is hardly surprising, considering the journey sugar made to reach England.

Sugarcane, a fast-growing tropical grass that reaches 12 to 15 feet high at maturity, was domesticated around 8000 B.C.E. in New Guinea and was carried to India, the Philippines, and perhaps Indonesia some 2,000 years later. By 500 C.E., Indians were making sugar, a process that involves pressing the two-inch-thick cane to extract a dark green juice, rich with nutrients as well as sucrose, then boiling it down to remove liquid and crystalize the sugar. Various processes can be used to refine the sugar so that it is anywhere from a brown color to the chemically pure, white crystal we know today. Of course, until relatively recently, sugar refiners were never able to achieve a mass-produced commodity product so pure that it was completely white.

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