The Story of Sugar Is the Story of Us

We’re hardwired to seek out sweets. For millions of years, our diet was filled with the most colorful, richest fruit from the tops of the tree canopy in the rain forest. When climates changed and our traditional sources of energy dwindled, many species died along with that disappearing bounty, but those with the ability to process sugar survived.

Sugar-WP
For the full interactive graphic, visit natgeoeat.com

About 10,000 years ago, somewhere in Asia, sugar cane was first farmed. Later, in India, these sweet stalks were pressed, their juices boiled and refined and made into KHANDA, or candy. This white powder was then carried along the silk trading routes from India along the Silk Road to China, the Middle East, and Europe.

For the most part, only the ultra-rich and royals got to indulge. Clearly, Europe needed to find its own sources. It was the quest for sugar and spices that launched the age of exploration. Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean–where the plant thrived.

But ultimately, this important discovery will reveal the dark side of sugar: the slave trade.

Triangular Trade

Sugar from the colonies became the ultimate status symbol of the era, and lavish feasts featuring enormous, life-size dining room decorations made out of the sweet stuff became de rigueur for competitive royals looking to out-do each other. And so chocolate from the new world moves to Europe along with sugar.

People began to consume sugar voraciously in Europe’s three newly-discovered drug beverages… chocolate from the New World, coffee from the Middle East, and tea from the Far East. The desire for sugar expanded the slave trade, but the harsh treatment of slaves brought about a sugar boycott, the first of its kind,  aimed at ending slavery.

Industrialization created new ways to produce more refined sugar than ever before and penny candy was invented. The golden age of the candy bar followed soon after. Sugar became a staple in the kitchen.

The industrial food chain brought us sugary cereals and Hershey’s chocolates, both fueled by the sweet stuff. Sugar consumption reflects both our fears about who we are, and our fantasies about who we might become. The story of sugar is the story of us.

The three-night miniseries event continues tonight. For more on the fascinating history of food and how it has made us who we are today, tune in tonight at 9/8c to EAT: The Story of Food: Sugar Rushes.