I was just a little boy. I have a distinct memory of my Daddy taking me with him out in the country one day where we stopped in a place I’d never been. There were a number of folks around busily working at something. I didn’t quite understand. I had never seen a horse. And, there was a large horse-like animal covered with sweat (what I now know was a mule) hitched up to contraption in to which one of the folks was pushing a long green stalk to be crushed (I now know this was a sugarcane press). Daddy went over and talked to the folks running the press, gave them some money (to buy some molasses), and came back cutting something with his knife. Then, he handed me what looked like a thick, green piece of bamboo and encouraged me to “Chew on this, Johnnie.” I did. It was hard and stringy, but sweet juice gushed out into my mouth. It was my first taste of sugarcane. I was not the first human to chew sugarcane or to crave its sweet, addictive properties.
A Brief History of Sugar
More than 5,000 years ago our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew that this sweet juicy grass provided them energy for hunting and gathering nourishment for their families. It is thought that this sweet grass that produced “honey without bees” was first cultivated in the islands of Southeast Asia, particularly in New Guinea.
Over the following centuries the cultivation of sugarcane spread throughout Southeast Asia and eventually to India where the refinement of sugarcane juice into sugar crystals was enhanced.
During the first millennium BC, the Persians, and then the Greeks, discovered the Indian sugar and brought it to the Middle East and Southeastern Mediterranean where the process of sugar refinement was further improved. Later, sugarcane farming spread throughout Northern Africa and Southern Europe.
Sugarcane could not be grown in the cooler climate of most of Europe and British Isles, and thus, sugar remained a delicacy until the ability to produce sugar from beets in colder climate of Europe evolved at a much later date.
In one of his trips to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane to the Americas where the ample sunlight, rich soil and consistent rainfall were perfect for the crop. This successful cash crop was quickly introduced throughout the New World by various European explorers and colonists.
The labor-intensive process of extracting sugar crystals from cane juice exceeded the capacity of the local labor supply in the Americas resulting in the importation of African slave labor to make sugar plantations in the colonies feasible. As such, the human price paid to produce this delicacy is not measurable on any scale.
Nonetheless, the European colonies in the Caribbean and South America soon became the source of “white gold” as sugar became known in merchant circles. The wealth created by the sugar industry funded many of the epic wars and misadventures of the Europeans during the ensuing centuries.
Ultimately, sugar became abundant and available to all classes of people. Sugar is now ubiquitous in the human diet in one form or another. Sugarcane remains the world’s largest crop.
What has the overabundance of sugar wrought for us?
Let’s face it; the taste for sugar is practically insatiable. That’s because sugar is an extremely addictive biochemical that leads to both mental and physical addiction. It’s just that simple. This dependence is real and has real world consequences – bad ones.
The current ubiquity of sugar in the human diet is no accident. Food manufacturers found that the introduction of massive amounts of sugars into processed foods makes them appealing and potentially addictive. The use of sugars and corn syrup in processed foods has reached a crescendo. Yet, there is a curse.
The upshot of our communal addiction to sugars is a population rife with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, systemic inflammation, metabolic syndrome, adverse hormonal and insulin responses, and autoimmune disease, not to mention the obvious health risks associated with tooth decay and gum disease.
In their best selling book, It Starts with Food, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig of Whole 30 fame speak to the addictiveness of sugar:
“When thinking of foods that provoke an unhealthy psychological response (including cravings), sugar comes to mind first. Because the sweetness of sugar is addictive, eating an excess amount is easy. The more we eat, the more we get acclimated to high levels, and the more we want.
Added sugars are one of the quickest and easiest foods to provoke an unhealthy hormonal response, causing disruptions in leptin and insulin levels, primary reliance on sugar as fuel, and accumulation of lipids in the liver, bloodstream, and on the body (as body fat). This drives systemic inflammation, a major risk factor for many lifestyle diseases and conditions. In addition, these sugars are calorie-dense, but nutritionally barren — the very definition of ‘empty calories.’ ”
Have you figured it out yet? Sugar is not necessarily your friend, but it may not be your worst enemy if (big if) you can handle it. Each of us must self-assess the amount of sugar that is right for us. Paleo guru Chris Kresser sums it up by saying that it is vitally:
“ . . . important to be aware of your own blood sugar control, and don’t consume more sugar (or carbs in general) than you can effectively metabolize. After all, you will always have glucose in your blood as long as you’re alive, so the goal is to avoid having high blood glucose over a prolonged period of time, not to eliminate glucose entirely.
But while there’s plenty of evidence that excess sugar or HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) can be harmful to health, there’s actually no evidence that small amounts of refined sugar in the context of a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet (and active lifestyle) is harmful. The problem is that limiting yourself to small amounts of sugar is often easier said than done.
. . .
Whether sugar is addictive or not, from a practical standpoint, it’s often easy to eat more sugar than you mean to. Certain people are going to be far more sensitive to these effects than others, so it’s really a matter of being familiar with your own eating behavior when it comes to potentially addictive foods.”
And therein lies the problem.
What about Artificial Sweeteners?
We’ll explore artificial sweeteners next. You may want to check this post on sweeteners from Mark’s Daily Apple out in the meantime.