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A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves

A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves

It seems as though no other substance occupies so much of the world’s land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar. According to the latest data, sugarcane is the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and occupies 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. Its main output – apart from commercial profits – is a global public health crisis, which has been centuries in the making.

The obesity epidemic – along with related diseases including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes – has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.

So at this time, it pays to step back and consider the ancient origins of sugar, to understand how it has grown to present an imminent threat to our landscapes, our societies and our health.

Stepping back

Human physiology evolved on a diet containing very little sugar and virtually no refined carbohydrate. In fact, sugar probably entered into our diets by accident. It is likely that sugarcane was primarily a “fodder” crop, used to fatten pigs, though humans may have chewed on the stalks from time to time.

Evidence from plant remnants and DNA suggests that sugarcane evolved in South East Asia. Researchers are currently hunting for early evidence of sugarcane cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea, where the domestication of related crops such as taro and banana dates back to approximately 8,000BC. The crop spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans around 3,500 years ago, carried by Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers.

The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became important centres for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.

The first place to cultivate sugarcane explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade was the Atlantic island of Madeira, during the late 15th century. Then, it was the Portuguese who realised that new and favourable conditions for sugar plantations existed in Brazil, where a slave-based plantation economy was established. When Brazilian sugarcane was introduced in the Caribbean, shortly before 1647, it led to the growth of the industry which came to feed the sugar craze of Western Europe.

Plantation of sugarcane in southeast Asia

Slave trade

This food – which nobody needed, but everyone craved – drove the formation of the modern of the world. There was a huge demand for labour to cultivate the massive sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. This need was met by a transatlantic slave trade , which resulted in around 12,570,000 human beings being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867. Mortality rates could reach as high as up to 25% on each voyage, and between 1m and 2m dead must have been thrown overboard.

And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Meanwhile, the slaves working the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated – not the slaves. Much of this money was used to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.

Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836, lithograph

Modern day scourges

In many ways, the story of sugar and tobacco are closely aligned. Both products were initially produced through slave labour, and were originally seen to be beneficial to health. And although both sugar and tobacco have ancient origins, it was their sudden, mass consumption from the mid-17th century onwards that created the health risks we associate with them today.

The idea of “industrial epidemics” of non-communicable diseases, being driven by the profit motives of major corporations, rings true for both. And while tobacco is widely acknowledged to be addictive, sugar can also drive behavioural responses that are indistinguishable from addiction.

But in the 21st century, the grip of sugar is stronger than comparable scourges like tobacco, or even alcohol. Sugar is not only ubiquitous – it is potentially responsible for approximately 20% of the caloric content of modern diets – but also central to the world’s economy and cultural heritage.

Heavy industry. Dirk Kirchner/Flickr , CC BY-NC-SA

Perhaps a better comparison is our reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not just a vice or bad habit, but central to the way we live, and to the geography and politics of the territories where it is sourced. Likewise, the rise of sugar has been key to global trade and socioeconomic development, slavery and the African Diaspora and modern cultural norms.

The evolutionary and historical origins of sugarcane may hold insights into why sugar dominates modern culture, and what we can do to mitigate its malign influence. Like many great challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, the science identifying the problem seems clear.

What’s lacking is the public and political will to address it, in ways such as the proposed sugar tax and prominently displayed health warnings . With sugar still deeply part of our food system – in 2013, sugar crops made up 6.2% of world’s agricultural yield and 9.4% of its total monetary value – such bold socio-economic measures are needed to make the necessary changes possible.

Featured image: Slaves cutting sugar cane. Island of Antigua (1823). ( Wikimedia Commons )

The article ‘ A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves’ by Mark Horton , Alexander Bentley , and Philip Langton was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.


The food nobody needs, but everyone craves: A history of sugar

It seems as though no other substance occupies so much of the world's land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar. According to the latest data, sugarcane is the world's third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and occupies 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. Its main output - apart from commercial profits - is a global public health crisis, which has been centuries in the making.

The obesity epidemic - along with related diseases including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes - has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.

So at this time, it pays to step back and consider the ancient origins of sugar, to understand how it has grown to present an imminent threat to our landscapes, our societies and our health.


Stepping back

Human physiology evolved on a diet containing very little sugar and virtually no refined carbohydrate. In fact, sugar probably entered into our diets by accident. It is likely that sugarcane was primarily a “fodder” crop, used to fatten pigs, though humans may have chewed on the stalks from time to time.

Nom. from www.shutterstock.com

Evidence from plant remnants and DNA suggests that sugarcane evolved in South East Asia. Researchers are currently hunting for early evidence of sugarcane cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea, where the domestication of related crops such as taro and banana dates back to approximately 8,000BC. The crop spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans around 3,500 years ago, carried by Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers.

The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became important centres for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.

The first place to cultivate sugarcane explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade was the Atlantic island of Madeira, during the late 15th century. Then, it was the Portuguese who realised that new and favourable conditions for sugar plantations existed in Brazil, where a slave-based plantation economy was established. When Brazilian sugarcane was introduced in the Caribbean, shortly before 1647, it led to the growth of the industry which came to feed the sugar craze of Western Europe.


A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves

It seems as though no other substance occupies so much of the world’s land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar. According to the latest data, sugarcane is the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and occupies 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. Its main output – apart from commercial profits – is a global public health crisis, which has been centuries in the making.

The obesity epidemic – along with related diseases including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes – has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.

So at this time, it pays to step back and consider the ancient origins of sugar, to understand how it has grown to present an imminent threat to our landscapes, our societies and our health.

Stepping back

Human physiology evolved on a diet containing very little sugar and virtually no refined carbohydrate. In fact, sugar probably entered into our diets by accident. It is likely that sugarcane was primarily a “fodder” crop, used to fatten pigs, though humans may have chewed on the stalks from time to time.

Nom. from www.shutterstock.com

Evidence from plant remnants and DNA suggests that sugarcane evolved in South East Asia. Researchers are currently hunting for early evidence of sugarcane cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea, where the domestication of related crops such as taro and banana dates back to approximately 8,000BC. The crop spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans around 3,500 years ago, carried by Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers.

The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became important centres for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.

The first place to cultivate sugarcane explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade was the Atlantic island of Madeira, during the late 15th century. Then, it was the Portuguese who realised that new and favourable conditions for sugar plantations existed in Brazil, where a slave-based plantation economy was established. When Brazilian sugarcane was introduced in the Caribbean, shortly before 1647, it led to the growth of the industry which came to feed the sugar craze of Western Europe.

Slave trade

This food – which nobody needed, but everyone craved – drove the formation of the modern of the world. There was a huge demand for labour to cultivate the massive sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. This need was met by a transatlantic slave trade, which resulted in around 12,570,000 human beings being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867. Mortality rates could reach as high as up to 25% on each voyage, and between 1m and 2m dead must have been thrown overboard.

And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Slaves driven to work in the cane fields. Mark Horton, Author provided

Meanwhile, the slaves working the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated – not the slaves. Much of this money was used to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.

Modern day scourges

In many ways, the story of sugar and tobacco are closely aligned. Both products were initially produced through slave labour, and were originally seen to be beneficial to health. And although both sugar and tobacco have ancient origins, it was their sudden, mass consumption from the mid-17th century onwards that created the health risks we associate with them today.

The idea of “industrial epidemics” of non-communicable diseases, being driven by the profit motives of major corporations, rings true for both. And while tobacco is widely acknowledged to be addictive, sugar can also drive behavioural responses that are indistinguishable from addiction.

But in the 21st century, the grip of sugar is stronger than comparable scourges like tobacco, or even alcohol. Sugar is not only ubiquitous – it is potentially responsible for approximately 20% of the caloric content of modern diets – but also central to the world’s economy and cultural heritage.

Perhaps a better comparison is our reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not just a vice or bad habit, but central to the way we live, and to the geography and politics of the territories where it is sourced. Likewise, the rise of sugar has been key to global trade and socioeconomic development, slavery and the African Diaspora and modern cultural norms.

The evolutionary and historical origins of sugarcane may hold insights into why sugar dominates modern culture, and what we can do to mitigate its malign influence. Like many great challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, the science identifying the problem seems clear.

What’s lacking is the public and political will to address it, in ways such as the proposed sugar tax and prominently displayed health warnings. With sugar still deeply part of our food system – in 2013, sugar crops made up 6.2% of world’s agricultural yield and 9.4% of its total monetary value – such bold socio-economic measures are needed to make the necessary changes possible.

Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology, University of Bristol Alexander Bentley, Professor and Chair of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston, and Philip Langton, Senior Teaching Fellow in Physiology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Meanwhile, the slaves working on the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated - not the slaves. Much of this money was used to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.

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Slave trade

This food – which nobody needed, but everyone craved – drove the formation of the modern of the world. There was a huge demand for labour to cultivate the massive sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. This need was met by a transatlantic slave trade, which resulted in around 12,570,000 human beings being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867. Mortality rates could reach as high as up to 25% on each voyage, and between 1m and 2m dead must have been thrown overboard.

And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Meanwhile, the slaves working the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated – not the slaves. Much of this money was used to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.


A history of sugar – the food nobody needs, but everyone craves - History

It seems as though no other substance occupies so much of the world’s land, for so little benefit to humanity, as sugar.

According to the latest data, sugarcane is the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and occupies 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. Its main output – apart from commercial profits – is a global public health crisis, which has been centuries in the making.

The obesity epidemic – along with related diseases including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes – has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.

So at this time, it pays to step back and consider the ancient origins of sugar, to understand how it has grown to present an imminent threat to our landscapes, our societies and our health.

Stepping back

Human physiology evolved on a diet containing very little sugar and virtually no refined carbohydrate. In fact, sugar probably entered into our diets by accident. It is likely that sugarcane was primarily a “fodder” crop, used to fatten pigs, though humans may have chewed on the stalks from time to time.

Evidence from plant remnants and DNA suggests that sugarcane evolved in South East Asia. Researchers are currently hunting for early evidence of sugarcane cultivation at the Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea, where the domestication of related crops such as taro and banana dates back to approximately 8,000BC. The crop spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans around 3,500 years ago, carried by Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers.

The first chemically refined sugar appeared on the scene in India about 2,500 years ago. From there, the technique spread east towards China, and west towards Persia and the early Islamic worlds, eventually reaching the Mediterranean in the 13th century. Cyprus and Sicily became important centres for sugar production. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was considered a rare and expensive spice, rather than an everyday condiment.

The first place to cultivate sugarcane explicitly for large-scale refinement and trade was the Atlantic island of Madeira, during the late 15th century. Then, it was the Portuguese who realised that new and favourable conditions for sugar plantations existed in Brazil, where a slave-based plantation economy was established. When Brazilian sugarcane was introduced in the Caribbean, shortly before 1647, it led to the growth of the industry which came to feed the sugar craze of Western Europe.

Slave trade

This food – which nobody needed, but everyone craved – drove the formation of the modern of the world. There was a huge demand for labour to cultivate the massive sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. This need was met by a transatlantic slave trade, which resulted in around 12,570,000 human beings being shipped from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and 1867. Mortality rates could reach as high as up to 25% on each voyage, and between 1m and 2m dead must have been thrown overboard.

And of course, goods such as copper and brass, rum, cloth, tobacco and guns were needed to purchase slaves from the African elites. These were secured through the expansion of industrial production, particularly in the English Midlands and South West. Modern-day banking and insurance can trace its origins to the 18th century Atlantic economy.

Meanwhile, the slaves working the plantations suffered miserable lives. When they were finally emancipated in 1834 in the British Empire, it was the slave owners who were fully compensated – not the slaves. Much of this money was used to build Victorian infrastructure, such as railways and factories.

Modern day scourges

In many ways, the story of sugar and tobacco are closely aligned. Both products were initially produced through slave labour, and were originally seen to be beneficial to health. And although both sugar and tobacco have ancient origins, it was their sudden, mass consumption from the mid-17th century onwards that created the health risks we associate with them today.

The idea of “industrial epidemics” of non-communicable diseases, being driven by the profit motives of major corporations, rings true for both. And while tobacco is widely acknowledged to be addictive, sugar can also drive behavioural responses that are indistinguishable from addiction.

But in the 21st century, the grip of sugar is stronger than comparable scourges like tobacco, or even alcohol. Sugar is not only ubiquitous – it is potentially responsible for approximately 20% of the caloric content of modern diets – but also central to the world’s economy and cultural heritage.

Perhaps a better comparison is our reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not just a vice or bad habit, but central to the way we live, and to the geography and politics of the territories where it is sourced. Likewise, the rise of sugar has been key to global trade and socioeconomic development, slavery and the African Diaspora and modern cultural norms.

The evolutionary and historical origins of sugarcane may hold insights into why sugar dominates modern culture, and what we can do to mitigate its malign influence. Like many great challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, the science identifying the problem seems clear.

What’s lacking is the public and political will to address it, in ways such as the proposed sugar tax and prominently displayed health warnings. With sugar still deeply part of our food system – in 2013, sugar crops made up 6.2% of world’s agricultural yield and 9.4% of its total monetary value – such bold socio-economic measures are needed to make the necessary changes possible.

Source: The Conversation, authored by Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology, University of Bristol Alexander Bentley, Professor and Chair of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston Philip Langto, Senior Teaching Fellow in Physiology, University of Bristol


Is A Candida Infection Driving Your Sugar Cravings?

Are you one of the millions of people who know they should cut down on sugar and carbs but find it impossible because of intense sugar cravings?

You probably know that excess sugar is bad for you and you feel so much better when you stay off it but, for some reason, you keep going back to it. There are many reasons why a person craves sugar: hormone imbalance, insulin resistance, depression, stress and poor quality sleep are just a few.

Have you ever considered the fact that having too many bad bugs in your bowel can drive sugar cravings? Candida overgrowth in your intestines can make you feel tired, irritable and give you a foggy head and poor concentration. It can also cause intense carbohydrate cravings.

It’s a Catch 22 - eating sugar promotes the growth of intestinal yeast and having too much yeast in your gut makes you crave sugar. Candida is a type of yeast that is naturally present in everyone’s digestive tract however if your immune system is weak and your digestion is poor, Candida levels can get out of control. Because it is a yeast, it needs sugar in order to grow. Treating Candida overgrowth can be tough because many different foods we eat are digested into sugar eventually, and can potentially feed this yeast.

I am not in favor of extremely strict anti Candida diets because I think it’s more important to address the digestive problems and immune system problems that encouraged Candida overgrowth in the first place.

What are the symptoms of excess Candida growth?

Everyone has small amounts of Candida growing in their digestive tract, on their skin, in the mouth and women have some growing in their vagina. In low levels, this yeast does not cause any health problems. Overgrowth of Candida in the gastrointestinal tract is very common, especially after a course of antibiotics. Steroid medication and the oral contraceptive pill also encourage Candida growth.

Symptoms of excess Candida in the digestive tract include digestive discomfort (gas, bloating, diarrhea), fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain, blocked sinuses, sugar cravings, recurrent vaginal yeast infections, recurrent urinary tract infections, depression, foggy head and poor concentration, food and chemical sensitivities and sleep problems. This is quite a long list.

The worst consequence of the development of Candida infection is leaky gut syndrome. If there are high levels of Candida growing in your digestive tract, they compromise the structural integrity of your gut lining. This means your gut becomes more permeable than it should be allowing high levels of toxins naturally present in the bowel to gain access to your bloodstream. Leaky gut syndrome is a forerunner to allergies, food intolerance, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disease. Not everyone with a leaky gut will develop one of these problems some people just feel sick and tired their entire life but never develop one of these illnesses.

If you have high levels of Candida growing in your digestive tract, you are prone to developing Candida infections elsewhere in your body. The most common spots include the skin, particularly the feet (tinea or athlete’s foot), fungal nail infections, vaginal yeast infections (thrush), yeast diaper rash in infants or oral thrush. Treating the yeast overgrowth in the bowel is the key to overcoming each of these infections.

My recommendations for overcoming Candida

Diet suggestions

Because Candida thrives on sugar, it is very important to avoid consuming foods that contain added sugar, as well as refined carbohydrates that are quickly broken down into sugar. It is also important to avoid consuming gluten and dairy products because they promote the development of leaky gut in all people not just the ones with allergies to these foods. Please also avoid consuming foods that contain yeast (such as bread and some alcohol), and limit fruit to one or two serves per day. Therefore it is best to base your diet on protein, vegetables and good fats, as outlined in my book "I Can't Lose Weight. And I Don't Know Why. Whether you are overweight or not, the diet guidelines in this book help to overcome Candida infection.

Diabetics are more prone to yeast infections than the average person because they have elevated blood sugar, and yeast loves sugar. If you are a diabetic and struggling to achieve good blood sugar control, I recommend the eating plan in my book Diabetes Type 2: You Can Reverse It.

Recommended supplements for fighting Candida infection

    . These capsules contain a combination of powerful herbs that help to kill Candida and other parasites in the bowel. Pau D’arco tree bark has a long history of use as an anti-fungal remedy in South American countries. Garlic and cloves help to kill pathogenic microbes in the intestinal tract. Black walnut was traditionally used by North American Indians for helping to overcome infections of the digestive tract. Wormwood helps to improve digestive function, reduces bloating and gas. is an essential remedy for helping to overcome leaky gut syndrome because it literally helps to heal and seal the gut lining. Glutamine is a type of protein which is used as fuel by the cells lining your entire digestive system. Therefore it has healing and soothing properties and is very valuable for an irritated or inflamed digestive tract. . Constipation is a major barrier to overcoming Candida infection. If you are not having between one and three thorough bowel movements each day, it means you are constipated. Your colon is full of wastes that your body wants to eliminate. If you are not getting rid of these wastes quickly enough, you will reabsorb a significant amount back into your body. That can make you tired and cranky and prone to headaches. Also, if you are not getting rid of wastes quickly enough, you are providing food for all sorts of bad bacteria, yeast and fungi in your intestines. Constipated people have must higher levels of all the wrong bugs in their bowel. Colon Detox is an all natural formula designed to help you have thorough and regular bowel motions. The ingredients help to cleanse your bowel and get rid of harmful wastes and microbes. is a good bacteria supplement and will help to restore levels of beneficial bacteria in your intestines. Once you have overcome a Candida infection, it is good to include foods high in good bugs, for maintenance of good health. Examples of suitable foods include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso.

By cleaning up the environment in your intestines and restoring a healthy balance of good bacteria, you will be less likely to develop a Candida infection. Getting rid of excess Candida can give you a dramatic improvement in energy and overall well being. If you have been suffering with low energy, low mood, sugar cravings and digestive discomfort for some time, I urge you to try my anti Candida recommendations.

The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.


Drink a Seltzer

It’s good to know you’re not alone, right? If you’re reading this article you probably love soda water, and you may even be drinking one right now. You and tens of millions of other Americans.

So if the seltzer bug has really got you, I’ve got you covered. If you want to dig deeper into this subject, check out this amazing video on seltzer by Quartz:

By the way, I’m totally drinking a soda water right now. Can you guess what flavor? Comment below with your answer or with your favorite type or brand of soda water.