The Bittersweet History of Sugar

There is a formula for sugar. But it’s not what you think.

It’s not twelve atoms of carbon, twenty two of hydrogen and eleven of oxygen, although at a molecular level this is perhaps the most unappetising way to describe the most appetising and addictive kitchen staple - sugar!  

With a history that rivals even the most notable historical characters, sugar remains a favourite serotonin-producing ingredient that we absolutely love to consume.

But the real formula for sugar, if you look at its history, has a darker list of ingredients: exploitation of colonised labour, slavery, the dirty hand of capitalism and addiction.  

A taste of celebration, and forgotten past

The Festival season in the Indian Subcontinent is a time for harvest, celebrations and eating. Nothing compares to our love for sweets over any other food, during this season. The months from October to February are usually times of celebrations across most cultures in the world. From Diwali to Christmas, if there’s one food ingredient that gets consumed in massive quantities (in various forms) it is sugar. I reckon there are very few kitchens in the world that do not use this widely (and cheaply) available pantry staple.

Not all that is sweet is good. Photo credit Karolina Grabowska

However, for all the happy hormones and rushes that it causes in the body, sugar has a history that is not very well acknowledged. A history where the choices of consumers in a continent, led to a surge in demand of sugar and to the the subjugation of nations, the dark phases of human slave trade and the painful separation of communities and families. 

Sugar remains perhaps the most memorable taste in anyone’s life, but perhaps we can no longer taste the historic ills connected to it. 

I am narrating this bittersweet story because it highlights the power of ‘consumer choice’ and the need to be a ‘conscious consumer’. It’s important to know these facts, and this contribution is a small but important story of a huge product that changed the world. 

The history of sarkara, the honey reed, the sweet salt

Sugar (cane sugar) derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘sarkara’. 

The commercially available sugar is derived from sugarcane or sugar beets. The ‘refined’ sugar is actually sucrose, which is a molecule that is formed by glucose and fructose. 

At its origins, sugar was far from the refined, free flowing cheap commodity that we have come to recognise today. In India, most ancient references to sugarcane cultivation can be dated back to 1500-500 BC. The generals in the army of Alexander the Great were noted down saying, “A reed in India brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made though the plant bears no fruit.” 

Used as a fresh sweet juice, or boiled and formed into ‘guda’ or 'jaggery' (crude sugar), it was only during the ‘Golden Age’ of the Indian Subcontinent about 2000 years ago, during the rule  of the Gupta Dynasty that Indians discovered the method to produce crystalized sugar. 

The word ‘candy’ is possibly derived from the Sanskrit word ‘khanda’, as this was a form of candied sugar popular in Indian Subcontinent. 

In my birthplace Kashmir there’s a tradition of offering ‘khand’ a candied ball or cylinder of crystalline sugar, to the Deity (Goddess) at the ‘Tulmulla’ or ‘Kheer Bhawani’ Shrine in Kashmir. In a way, this shows the significance of sugar as a worthy food for Gods.

During the middle ages, sugar was traded between India and the world mainly by the Arab traders. They took the knowledge of cultivation from India to their parts of the world. They also took sugar to Europe via trade. At the time of the Arab rule in Sicily (Southern Europe), sugar was extensively grown there. 

During the crusades, the returning crusaders came back with “sweet salt”, the name they gave to sugar. The Europeans also discovered the Arab sugar plantations and that, in part, led to taking the sugarcane plantations to Europe. After the crusades, Venice bought a few villages near Tyre to produce sugarcane and send refined sugar into Europe. 

In the middle ages, cane sugar remained a pricey commodity, due to the limited cultivation and refining capabilities. 

Things changed as the seafaring Europeans sought new trading routes to India and the East. In that process during the 1500s and, with the ‘discovery’ of ‘New World’, sugarcane cultivation was taken to the South Americas by the Europeans. From 1480 to 1540, the Portugese brought sugar cane cultivation into Brazil and by 1770, it was about 20% of all European imports. 

From an expensive and lightly used commodity, to a widely popular kitchen staple sugar slowly became a form of non-required nutrition that everyone desired.

This led to rapid growth in the cultivation of sugar cane fields, and with farm labour in Europe being hard to procure, the easiest way to fulfil his need was to import labour which was cheaper and often brought to work by force: slave labour.

Slavery and the touch of sugar

Backbreaking labour was an aspect of the sugar industry that remained constant and was continuously required for the growth, harvesting and processing of sugarcane. In order to satisfy demand for sugar and keep the labour costs low, slave labour became the preferred choice. 

The average European consumer, importing most of their ‘sweet salt’ from the new world, was in fact now contributing to this rapidly growing humanitarian crisis. 

Although my article is from a South Asian perspective, it’s noteworthy to acknowledge the impact of this industry on the many families and communities it has destroyed. 

It is estimated that in this period, from the start of the sugar plantations to the mid-19th century, nearly ten million people from the African continent were traded as slaves to work in the sugar plantations, brough in horrific conditions cramped in cargo ships, often some of which never made it to the shore.

Sugar cane harvest in Jamaica, 1880. Image credit: WikiImages

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century about two million people from the Indian subcontinent were traded as ‘workers’ . The British sent these ‘workers’ to around 19 of their colonies, to work in the sugar plantations. About 400,000 people were taken to Mauritius and Malaysia, besides the Pacific and the Caribbean Islands. Some prominent sporting legends can trace their ancestry to this period of human history.

Our bondage of sweet addiction

The colonising powers may have since faded into history books, yet the enslavement to sugar continues in the form of addiction to it. 

With the onset of newer technology, growth in agricultural techniques and popularity of sugar-based drinks, a new age of issues have dawned upon us. An industry that began with the enslavement of people for forced labour has evolved into one linked to our current-day over dependence on the sweet white powder, with its consequential health troubles.

It is estimated that the median consumption of sugar (through various forms) in Australia is about 107 grams a day per person. 

This means we consume about three kilos of sugar every month and about 36 kilos every year, more than twice the recommended intake of ‘free sugars’ that the World Health Organisation prescribes for healthy living and good dental hygiene⁶. 

One of the biggest contributors to this excessive intake is the nutritionally-poor, but high-sugar beverage selection found in supermarkets. As per the information available on the official websites of the two largest cola drinks manufacturers, the average percentage of sugar in their main brands is about 11% of the volume of the drink. This equates to about two tablespoons (approximately) of sugar in a standard can of that favourite sweet fizzy drink. 

From a cost comparison perspective, industrial systems have made sugar an inexpensive commodity to buy. As a result, sugar seems to be one of the cheapest addictions available to us.

Having said that, not all is dark and bitter about this incredible ingredient. I think it is not the ingredient itself, but our excessive desire for consuming it that has made it bitter. So, perhaps the question that remains is not about the commodity itself but  about the choices we must make in how we can find a sweeter balance in our sugar consumption. 

Since antiquity, sugar was favoured as a medicine (rather than food) and from ages it has been a constant companion of human civilization. In this light, it is essential that we recognise we are not going to absolve ourselves of sugar, but instead need to find our own ways to mindfully use this ingredient. 

Sugar still remains the reason for a child’s smile, the ingredient that is symbolic to festivities and celebrations. It makes the bitter medication sweet and makes moments sweeter. In Hindi there is a phrase which states “muh meetha kar lo”, which loosely translates to “please have a sweet”, and this phrase is always said when sharing positive news with loved ones, at weddings or blessings, and is also a very popular Haryanvi song from Harayana. Sugar has had a profound impact on the world, and as an Indian and a chef, I’m proud that it is a culinary gift from the Subcontinent to the world. 

I love using raw cane sugar or jaggery in making simple sweets, such as my Carrot, Jaggery and Coconut Pudding, but I know that not all I can make should be overloaded with sweet salt. 

 Carrot, Jaggery and Coconut Pudding. Image credit Sandeep Pandit

Choose your consumption, with knowledge

The aim of writing this article is not to rub on the wounds of the past and point out the darker aspects of human history. 

The intention is that it is vital for us to know our history, and try to become better in the future, than what we were in the past. It is just as important to know the limits of our consumption. 

We must know or try to know about the origins of the things we consume. If that consumption comes at a heavy price to us or someone else, perhaps it is not worth consuming. The abolition of whale hunting (across most of the world, except a few nations) is a fine example of what humanity can accomplish when it considers broader ethics and  if it wishes to pursue a broader goal tied to conscious consumption. 

Being a ‘conscious consumer’ will not only help us in limiting our impact on the world but will also help in ensuring that everyone gets what they need. Conservation is not only a global endeavour; for me it starts with the self and my own choices.

I hope that this article does NOT dissuade you from going for that sweet delicacy available at the local sweet shop. Instead, I hope it just makes you conscious that we ought to appreciate what we consume, and make an attempt to know everything we can about where products like sugar come from so we can unwrap the truth in what we eat.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 


Sandeep Pandit is a chef and food writer. You can find him at The Spice Angel, or on Instagram

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