February 20, 2014

sugarcane

Elizabeth Abbott explains how sugarcane makes the transformation from the stalk to the serving dish. Credit: irodman / Flickr Creative Commons

Guest:

Elizabeth Abbott, historian and author of "Sugar: A Bittersweet History," tells the story of how people first fell in love with sugar - despite the high human cost of producing it.

The sugar we dump into coffee and tea is worlds away from the product in its natural, raw form - thick, fibrous stalks. The process in between is long and arduous, and it involves transforming a thick, dark, gooey substance into the bright white, crystalline product we know today.

Because of the length and complexity of this process, sugar was initially a luxury product used only in the highest echelons of society. But eventually, sugar eventually sprinkled down into the diets of the patrician and then the working classes. 

During the Industrial Revolution, sugar became a staple food as workers used it in hot tea as a reprise from long shifts in front of machines. "It made them feel as that they had something substantial, and it did give them the energy that calories did give you," Abbott says. "They loved it. It became almost a necessity."

Indeed, sugar was so well-loved that people even believed it was good for health, using it to brush their teeth and rub onto wounds. That perception wasn't challenged until the 17th century, when British doctor Thomas Willis proposed a link between sugar consumption and diabetes (and few people believed him at the time).

But, belying its sparkling, clean appearance, sugar's popularity exacted an enormous cost.  The production of sugar was one of the major crops driving the brutal Atlantic slave trade, which devastated populations. "It pretty much wiped out native peoples of the Caribbean and sugar producing areas," Abbott says.

Sugar also took an environmental toll. Known as the "thirsty crop" for the amount of resources needed to sustain it, sugar is accused of having done more damage to wildlife than any other crop, making it one of the most influential - and destructive - products in all of history.

Elizabeth Abbott, world economy, history, sugar, Body and Mind, Culture, health

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