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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.

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Europeans have the Arabs to thank for their introduction to sugar. Although the Spanish had nothing nice to say about the Moorish occupation of their land, it was the Arabs who introduced sugar production to the European mainland in the seventh and eighth centuries. Arab sugar production likely involved some slave labor, but never on the scale that European sugar production did. European crusaders discovered and took over Arab sugar plantations in the Middle Ages, and from that point forward, sugar production was a job done mostly by slaves.

As Europeans figured out more cost-effective ways to mass-produce sugar and transport it to their countries, sugar became within reach of the nobility and then later, within reach of the common people. Mintz tells how three bitter stimulants, each consumed with sugar, reached England at roughly the same time, in the third quarter of the 17th century: tea from Asia, coffee from Africa, and cacao from the Americas. "The success of tea... was also the success of sugar," writes Mintz, "That it was a bitter stimulant, that it was taken hot, and that it was capable of carrying large quantities of palatable sweet calories told importantly in its success."

On the production side, the sugar industry briefly moved to the Atlantic islands of Spain and Portugal, and it was here that the use of African slaves was firmly integrated into the business model. In the two decades before Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean, sugarcane production grew by a factor of more than 1,000 on the island of Madeira. There, sugar was produced with slaves.

But it was on the island of Sao Tome off the Western coast of central Africa, which harbors mosquitoes carrying both malaria and yellow fever, that resulted in the use of specifically African slaves (as opposed to slaves of other origins). Europeans who came to Sao Tome usually died quickly. And the land was divided into large plantations instead of small parcels. This solidified the model for sugar plantations that was then transferred in the New World and applied to other crops.

Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean in 1493, and it was not long before Caribbean islands and Brazil produced sugarcane for export back to Europe -- with African slaves, of course. In 1619, the British brought both slaves and sugarcane to their colony in Jamestown, but sugarcane would not grow in Virginia. Determined to satisfy their sweet tooth with their own colony for sugar, the British took over Barbados soon thereafter.

These were also the years of England's industrial revolution, when much of the population transitioned from a peasant diet of eating what they grew to an urban diet of eating what was convenient and cheap, namely bread, accompanied by tea with sugar. Sugar dropped in price during the 18th century and lost its status as a luxury good. Sugar was eaten in tea or in pastries. And, by the 1870s, jam became an important food for the working classes. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, desserts were first introduced to the nobility and then gradually became standard as a sweet course at the end of the meal.

All in all, cane sugar consumption grew from an estimated 2 percent of the British diet in 1800 to an estimated 14 percent a century later. Sugar now makes up 20 percent of the American diet. Today most Americans see sugar as a necessity, but most of our ancestors lived entirely without it.

Legalized slavery is now long in the past, but sugarcane is still almost universally produced with unjust labor conditions, including modern-day slavery. In Brazil, a study found that, "Modern-day slavery ... is short in duration; the victims are treated as though they were commodities; total power is exercised over the victim, although only temporarily." In 2007, half of Brazil's 5,877 workers freed from slavery -- many of them indigenous -- worked in sugarcane cultivation. Harvesting sugarcane is so arduous that workers can become physically broken after just 10 or 12 years.

 
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