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Sugar’s disturbing history.

What sugarcane looks like as it grows. It is basically like a grass, but hard, similar to bamboo. It takes a great deal of work and processing to get it to the powdery white stuff that makes things sweet.

Now that many of you are aware of the dangers of sugar, and how addictive and toxic it is, from 60 minutes last Sunday featuring Robert Lustig, I wanted to share with you some of the very troubling history of this unique foodstuff…

When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue way back in 1492, he made a big mistake. Instead of getting to the Spice Islands of the Pacific and Indian, he hit the Caribbean instead and found nothing he really wanted (namely gold and spices).

But he did bring back a few things of note, and so did many others who traveled to the New World. The explorers who followed Columbus were also searching for gold and spices, and didn’t find as much as they wanted, but they did find a few things of note–things like potatoes and tobacco, hot peppers and corn.

Likewise, people who came from Europe also brought things to the Americas as well. Some of the things were well received–like horses, for instance–but others brought a load of misery on other people. The most egregious of these items was human slavery.

This is not a blogpost about slavery, though–at least not directly. It is about sugar, whose history most people don’t realize is intimately connected with the history of slavery. (And for that matter, sugar is also related to the history of piracy and the birth of the United States among many other things!**) In fact, the sugar industry could not have started out and become so profitable without slavery.

As you know, if you read my blog, if there is any one step I believe you can take to help  take back and nuture your health, it is to cut refined sugar out of your diet. Period. No compromise. No hemming and hawing, or saying well, a little is not so bad…Just cut it out completely. 

I will admit I have a sweet tooth at times. We all do, and to be fair, I think it’s probably okay to have dessert every once in awhile, and if you like, and can tolerate fruit, then go for it. But the fact is, people in America engorge on sugar, consuming between 150-200 pounds of it in the form of table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, which is sold as pop, vitamin drinks, candy bars, health bars, and just about everything processed. And if you think about it more (which I do), the average American eats about 375-400 grams of carbs per day, most which are simple in the form of both sugar and refined flour (which is equivalent to sugar in many ways). That’s 2.5 to 3.0 cups of sugar per day! Now you know why obesity and diabetes is an epidemic!

Sugar is a killer, and if you do nothing else in terms of diet except cut sugar out, you will take a huge leap in the direction a healthy life. (What’s also nice is if you cut out sugar you will also cut out a lot of wheat/flour out of your diet as well, which help you lose even more weight, and create a virtuous cycle).

But for many of you out there, you know this. Your mom kept telling you this growing up. And she was right!  But what she didn’t tell you is the dirty little secret about the production of sugar. That it not only depended on slavery for its success, but it was one of the driving forces behind West African Slavery, especially in the West Indies/Carribean.

Sugar is actually an Old World product. It is indigenous to South Asia, and it has been known since the time of the ancient Greeks and Persians as the ‘reed that produces honey without bees.’ (wikipedia). It was popularized as a sweetener of foods and beverages by the Arabs around the 8th century, or so but its mass production/consumption in Europe was limited due to the fact that it had to go through Arab hands to be exchanged, much like many spices.

This is one of the main reasons Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He wanted a back door to the spice trade that would ‘cut out the middle-man’ which is what the Arab traders essentially were. He screwed up big time, though. And as a result of Columbus’ failure to bring back spices (and gold), after several attempts, he was disgraced and died in poverty. We, to this day, don’t even know where he was buried.

But this doesn’t mean that Columbus’ voyages did not have a profound effect–quite the opposite. They changed the course of history. And one of the most important aspects of Columbus’ voyages, was the exchange of goods (and people) that occurred between the Old and the New World, which is generally referred to Columbian Exchange. One the important products that was exchanged, that had significant historical impact, was sugar.

To this day, although the process has been heavily mechanized, sugar cutting is a tedious and physically difficult.

Sugar growth, harvest, and processing, to this day is a taxing and tedious process which requires an enormous amount of manual labor. When Columbus discovered the islands of the Caribbean, subsequent explorers (and more importantly, investors and businessmen) realized that sugarcane could be easily grown there, as the tropical/subtopical climate was ideal. As a result, they set up plantations and processing facilities, but they needed labor, as the work was not only physically demanding, it was dangerous. Processing sugar by cooking it in a bath, boiling it down, then separating it, resulted in many burns and subsequently deaths.

You can’t really overemphasize how difficult and dangerous the conditions on a sugar plantation were. Harvesting the cane was difficult, as the the cane itself was sharp at the edges and could cut skin, and processing the cane, which was done by boiling it in a tub,

Initially, native populations were enslaved to do this work, but the fact was, (a) there weren’t that many and (b) they had not been exposed to the disease of the Old World, like smallpox, which Columbus, and subsequent explorers brought with them. So, the few that were available, often died of disease. And so, a new population of slaves was need, and they came from West Africa. Hence, the rise of West Africa Slavery.

The rise, and subsequent fall, of West African Slavery has had many profound implications in our history. You could write several volumes on this topic discussing its moral abomination to its impact on the Civil War and the Civil rights movement, as well as what we are talking about today, the development of the sugar industry, and the subsequent ‘sweet tooth’ that the world has had ever since, which has its own implications both on history and politics as well as our health. But I’ll leave that task to others, who have written excellent and informative books on the subject.

The point is that sugar is toxic to your body, and the politics of sugar, both in the past and even recently as Dr. Robert Lustig notes, are filled with very dark and disturbing facts, indeed.


**Not sugar directly, but rum specifically, which is not made from refined sugar, but its by-product, molasses. This made refined sugar, which was profitable already, doubly profitable. The birth of piracy is then, in essence, the birth of black market bootleggers who either bought and stole rum (among other things, of course, pirates were bad dudes, and stole, raped, pillaged, etc. whatever they wanted) and sold it. In the American colonies, especially up north around Boston, rum was the most popular hard liquor, and likely the most popular drink among people in general. What’s interesting to note, is that England, way before the Boston Tea Party, levied an excise tax on the sale, purchase, and production of rum which was highly unpopular, which lead to not only a black market, corruption, and dirty back-door dealings (many with pirates!), but it also lead to significant resent towards England because of taxation without representation. Many scholars suggest that England’s policies towards the American colonies towards rum (and not tea, as is suggested in the history books) is what lead to the groundswell of support for American Independence. If you want to read more about this, you can look into Tom Standage’s excellent book, The History Of the World in 6 Glasses. Many of the ideas I have discussed here are in that book, along with a lot more!






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