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  • Sugar Hell December 28, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Nutritionists disagree on almost everything. However, if you go and visit several score one of the few points of consensus (along with ‘eat vegetables’) is that sugar is bad for us: in fact, there is far more agreement about sugar than about fat. Humanity’s dalliance with sugar dates back to the first time that a brave gatherer climbed a tree and put her hand in a wild bee hive. She had, we must hope, save a couple of stings, no reason to regret the sticky nectar that the clan licked off her fingers. Nor would humanity have suffered overly if we had restricted ourselves to honey. The problem is sugar cane (saccharum officinarum).

    Sugar cane was originally only available in south-eastern Asia but spread east and west (within the tropics) and was rapidly adopted by neighbouring cultures who grew or traded the sweet drug. It arrived in medieval Europe via the Arabs and then the Europeans used their first late medieval conquests outside the Continent: the Atlantic islands (Azores, Canaries, Madeira…) to grow sugar. And before tobacco and cotton were taken seriously Europeans had turned the Americas into a sugar playground: it was the sugar plantations that sparked the trans-Atlantic slave trade and that stamped ‘original sin’ on the United States. Sugar has a lot to answer for…

    Sugar had been a spice for Arab and European chefs in the middle ages. But it quickly became, let’s say a commodity, in the early modern period when it moved from the tables of the wealthy to humbler households. By the eighteenth century Europe began to experience the carbohydrate squeeze as poor populations relied increasingly on carb rich foods (corn, potatoes, rice, wheat…) to the exclusion of all else. Sugar had a role to play here, too. In the nineteenth century factories were able to tin sugar as ‘treacle’: a molasses paste which some still enjoy. This was the cheapest form of survival available and ‘Treacle Row’ in nineteenth-century Britain referred to the poorest street in a northern town or city.

    Europe, of course, moved on. Treacle became a tool in the arsenal of nannies and depressives. (Beach regularly wanders down to the kitchen when everyone is out just to prise open the golden tin. When the electric bulb catches the sun within… Well, it is like that rapturous light that comes from a fridge opened in the night.) Treacle was, then, replaced by the west’s next Biblical plague: soft drinks and corn syrup. Coca cola and Dr Peppers are wonderful things: but, then, so are cruise missiles and tear gas in the right hands. And that is the problem: these ‘wonderful things’ rarely appear in the right hands. Sugar affliction has gone from being a scourge of the wealthy to a scourge of the poor.

    We can measure humanity’s tragic dalliance with sugar through dental records. Not obviously the digital files kept in your dentist’s computer but the statistics based on skulls and jaws retrieved over the centuries from ancient cemeteries. Some of our best records come from ancient Egypt. Caries rarely appeared up until 1000 BC: from then on the number gradually mounted up until the Middle Ages. Indeed, c. 3000 B.C. perhaps 3% of individuals had caries: by 300 AD that number is closer to 20%. The general consensus is that the increasing use of sugar in Egypt led to this change: sugar was grown there in Hellenic times. Another leap forward in caries is seen in the Mediterranean world about 1000 AD as sugar becomes still more easily available, and today caries are practically universal in the west.

    Other thoughts on sugar: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com