Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sugar: Bad History and Bad for You

Sugar has to go from my diet, I decided after reading the National Geographic story on why we can't resist it.

I already know this. I've already done this. I've been reading about it for years and have quit it before but, as Tony Soprano's consigliere Sil always says, "Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in again."

We're not meant to eat it in anything near the quantity we do, and the fructose that makes up half or more of the stuff we generally eat is part of what causes metabolic syndrome. The average American eats 22.7 teaspoons of added sugar a day, not counting what naturally occurs in the foods we consume. It's made up of:
  • 11.6 teaspoons of sucrose (50 percent fructose, 50 percent glucose)
  • 8.2 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup (55 percent fructose, 45 percent glucose)
  • 3 teaspoons of other sweeteners, including honey, maple syrup, or molasses
That's 25 percent more than we ate in 1970 and almost four times as much as the recommended daily limit of six teaspoons. In that time span, the diabetes incidence rate has gone from 2 percent to 7 percent of the population.

Time to stop for good.

The thing I didn't know about sugar until recently was its history. Sugar cane is native to New Guinea, where it was domesticated 10,000 years ago. It reached mainland Asia in 1000 BCE and by 500 CE was being made into a powder in India. It reached Persia soon after, and when Arab armies conquered Persia, sugar spread throughout the Islamic world, which reached a lot of places.

That process of making a powder from the cane was refined by the Arabs as well.
The work was brutally difficult. The heat of the fields, the flash of the scythes, the smoke of the boiling rooms, the crush of the mills. By 1500, with the demand for sugar surging, the work was considered suitable only for the lowest of laborers.
The lowest laborers = slaves or prisoners, of course.

And then Europe, with its increasingly wealthy economy -- drawn largely from exploiting natural resources in colonized lands -- got ahold of the sweet treat and demand skyrocketed. Columbus wasn't so much looking for the "spice islands," as we think of that term, as he was for the "sugar islands" (sugar was considered a spice at the time).

Unfortunately for the peoples of the Caribbean and Brazil, their land, with its perpetual warmth and drenching rains, is perfect for farming sugar cane. The increased supply of sugar killed the price, which stoked demand all the more, which fed production.
By the 18th century the marriage of sugar and slavery was complete. Every few years a new island—Puerto Rico, Trinidad—was colonized, cleared, and planted. When the natives died, the planters replaced them with African slaves. After the crop was harvested and milled, it was piled in the holds of ships and carried to London, Amsterdam, Paris, where it was traded for finished goods, which were brought to the west coast of Africa and traded for more slaves. The bloody side of this “triangular trade,” during which millions of Africans died, was known as the Middle Passage.

Until the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1807, more than 11 million Africans were shipped to the New World—more than half ending up on sugar plantations. According to Trinidadian politician and historian Eric Williams, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Africans, in other words, were not enslaved because they were seen as inferior; they were seen as inferior to justify the enslavement required for the prosperity of the early sugar trade.

The original British sugar island was Barbados. Deserted when a British captain found it on May 14, 1625, the island was soon filled with grinding mills, plantation houses, and shanties. Tobacco and cotton were grown in the early years, but cane quickly overtook the island, as it did wherever it was planted in the Caribbean. Within a century the fields were depleted, the water table sapped. By then the most ambitious planters had left Barbados in search of the next island to exploit. By 1720 Jamaica had captured the sugar crown.

For an African, life on these islands was hell. Throughout the Caribbean millions died in the fields and pressing houses or while trying to escape.
I know I learned about triangular trade in high school, but no one made it this real. (Remember, after those British enslavers wiped out Barbados, they moved on to places like South Carolina and reestablished their slaveocracy growing tobacco and cotton.)

By coincidence, I also recently read Tom Reiss's book The Black Count, about the father of novelist Alexandre Dumas. Dumas Pere's pere was the child of an African slave in Haiti, fathered by a French nobleman. The book mostly focuses on Dumas's life in France during the French Revolution, but it also provides the context for his birth and early years.

As Reiss writes about sugar and Haiti:
[It was] the most valuable colony in the world. And its staggering wealth was supported by staggering brutality. The "pearl of the West Indies" was a vast infernal factory where slaves regularly worked from sunup to past sundown in conditions rivaling the concentration camps and gulags of the twentieth century. One-third of all French slaves died after only a few years on the plantation.... The cheapness of slave life brushed against the exorbitant value of the crop they produced. Even as the armies of slaves were underfed and dying from hunger, some were forced to wear bizarre tin-plate masks, in hundred-degree heat, to keep them from gaining the slightest nourishment from chewing the cane (page 29).
Obviously, mechanization has replaced slavery for the most part, and sugar beets, grown in cooler climates like Minnesota, make up more of our sucrose sources, not to mention the Iowa corn that goes into HFCs. Industrial agriculture has changed shape because of cheap fuel and human innovation.

But the white crystals continue to make us sick, even if where they come from isn't sickening.

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