Yesterday, for me, marked the true end of the Easter festivities as I solemnly finished the last of my Easter eggs. I now have cupboards stocked with useful things like beetroots and bread, radishes and rice, but there is a sad sparsity of sugary snacks.
I read an interesting book about sugar recently (Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott), which has forced me to evaluate my attitudes towards it. I wonder whether it could be considered an example of a Paracelsian poison (where the dose of a substance determines whether it is a toxin or a medicine). In the past, sugar was considered a medicinal agent, known for altering ‘the humours’ and for its soothing properties. I remain somewhat unconvinced of the medicinal benefits of sugar, but certainly it has a role in treating hypoglycaemia, and is used widely to make medicines palatable, especially for children.
The toxic value of sugar is now well established, as a major cause of dental caries, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes mellitus. However, it has taken many centuries of sugar consumption for society to begin to acknowledge its dangers. Although sugar was available in small quantities in Europe from the 13th century, consumption began in earnest in the 15th and 16th centuries. This followed the discovery and cultivation of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) in the New World by European explorers such as Christopher Columbus. At home, affluent Europeans developed a taste for this luxury import and soon lucrative trade routes were established between Europe and the Caribbean sugar islands. In time, much of the agricultural land in the new territories was used for growing sugar cane alone. This crop was demanding on soil nutrients and the harvesting of the sugar was tedious, painful and often dangerous. Slavery was introduced, providing the labour source to supply Europe’s greed for sugar, but it also fractured societies and families, causing incalculable hardship and innumerable loss of life. North American populations also developed a love of sugar and began to import and cultivate ‘the noble cane’.
In Europe, sugar consumption was initially restricted to the rich.
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I reputedly had poor dentition due to her love of sugar. Over time however, prices fell and the normal working classes also had some access to sugar. At this time, the health consequences of sugar were hotly debated. A few voices raised concerns about the risks of sugar over-consumption, but these voices were often silenced by others who had strong financial interests in maintaining the demand for sugar. Slavery also became a topic of dispute and gradually public opinion turned against it, culminating in the abolition of slavery in England in 1833, and throughout the British Empire in 1834.
Now, most European populations source sugar from locally-grown sugar beet, with fewer adverse consequences on the agricultural, ecological and societal aspects of our world. However, the cost of ignoring health concerns due to financial gain is a lesson which holds true for every generation. Despite the evidence of the dangers of excessive sugar, we give sweets and chocolates to children and enjoy them ourselves as adults. Perhaps we need to develop a more sober attitude to this, the most tempting of toxins.
Abbott E. Sugar: a bittersweet history. Duckworth & Overlook, 2009. This is a fascinating book.