The New Gastronome
Is it worth it?
by William Farr
by William Farr
Let us start with a bold statement: everyone loves sugar. I love sugar; you love sugar; we all love sugar. Surely there is no one out there who dislikes sugar taste? People dislike the effect of sugar, maybe yes, but not the taste. It’s the perfect food for our survivalist caveman brains. It is delicious. It brings us joy and happiness: “Give me something sweet, and you have the key to my heart.”
It is no wonder, then, that sugar plays such an integral role within so many different foods, dishes, traditions and cuisines across the globe, particularly in Europe. The food of France, the food of Spain, of Italy and Germany, or pretty much any other nation without sugar would be simply unrecognizable. Imagine France without pain au chocolat, or mille-feuille, or éclairs, or tarte au citron, or macarons, or croissants, or tarte tatin, or crème brûlée, or crème caramel, or souffle, or clafoutis, or crepes or profiteroles or, for that matter, any patisserie or viennoiserie or French dessert you can think of. Removing all these would utterly devastate French culinary culture and, consequently, patisserie and pastry of fine dining around the world. Sacré bleu!
Even somewhere like the UK, my home, which does not hold the same reputation of culinary nous as France, would be naked without sugar. No high teas, no jams, no cakes and biscuits, no scones, no muffins, no tarts and pies, no fools, no trifles, no puddings and custards; no Great British Bake Off.
And the same goes for the rest of Europe – and the rest of the world. Step into any bakery, and delicious sugary goods will meet you. Sugar is everywhere, and without it, life would suck. Fruit and stevia? No, thank you. I want sugar! It sits at the heart of the culinary identities of so many people and places that modern culinary culture would be a shell without this central sugary vein. For that is the place where we are today. It is embedded within almost all the food we eat, from traditional to convenience, sweet or savory. It is a cornerstone of gastronomy and a cornerstone of human happiness. But its presence in our food – beyond being delicious – is problematic.
As unlocal as it comes
Sugar is not native to Europe or European diets. Historically, our primary sources of sugar have been fruit, honey and tree saps, not cane sugar or sugar beet. As a result, sweetness never played as central a role in our diets as it does today.
Sugarcane is native to South-East Asia, where it was domesticated around 4000 BC before it slowly made its way westward. By the 9th and 10th Century AD, sugarcane could be found growing in Sicily and Southern Spain under Islamic Aghlabid and Umayyad rule, and then on Portuguese Maderia and the Canary Islands in the 15th Century AD. However, it was not until the 16th Century AD, when sugar first reached South America, that it commenced on its journey from a luxury product to a staple of 181.1 million tonnes grown each year around the world.
“Sugarcane is native to South-East Asia, where it was domesticated around 4000 BC before it slowly made its way westward.”
Sugar cane has become a global commodity that, despite being grown in the hot, wet tropics of the world, is one of the most familiar ingredients in the cooking and cupboards of Europeans. This prohibits food sovereignty – the ability for people to control their local food economies – and encourages opaque systems where it is a struggle to understand and appreciate food’s provenance. We eat vast quantities of this thing but don’t know much about its life before it arrives on our plates. This system means millions of tonnes of sugar must be annually shipped across the globe to satisfy demand. You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the potential environmental damages or understand that cane production prospers within the same climatic conditions as our precious rainforests.
Its proliferation has homogenized and monopolized food while simultaneously eradicating the sweet stuff that came before. What did people eat before sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth? What culinary novelties, innovations, traditions, and recipes have we lost in the mists of time?
Drowning in sugar
We may not all know where sugar comes from, but almost all of us certainly know that sugar is bad for us. Sugar overconsumption is one of the main driving factors behind weight gain and obesity, mainly due to its high-calorie content and moreishness. In turn, it is overweight causes the deaths of 2.8 million people annually. Sugary drinks alone are potentially responsible for 184,000 deaths per year. These are vast and disturbing numbers. Sugar isn’t even nutritious; it’s just empty calories. Each year a person on average consumes (as of 2018) 20.4kg of sugar, or 80,000 calories, of sweet nothingness. If you’re Belgian, dear reader, that’s 193,200 calories. Put simply, people are dying from consuming a substance inessential to life.
There are other symptoms of too much sugar consumption. It can cause acne; it can accelerate cell and skin aging; it can cause dental cavities; it can promote fatty liver; you might get gout; the blood vessels to your kidneys might be damaged by your dangerously high blood sugar levels, which can also cause swings of depression. Overconsumption promotes dangerous visceral fat, which surrounds the organs and causes illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. The insulin resistance developed from excessive blood sugar can increase your cancer risk. Your cognitive abilities could decline, and you’re at a higher risk of dementia. Maybe you’ll develop an eating disorder.
“Each year, a person on average consumes (as of 2018) 20.4kg of sugar, or 80,000 calories, of sweet nothingness. If you’re Belgian, dear reader, that’s 193,200 calories.”
You might be doing all of this, consuming too much sugar, because you are addicted. There is a growing belief within the scientific community that sugar is an addictive substance: like a drug. The dopamine release associated with consuming sugar leads to compulsive behavior as we crave and consume sugar repeatedly in increasing increments, despite being aware of the negative consequences. The more sugar you eat, the more hardwired your brain, and the higher your tolerance level. That’s the description of addiction.
Sugar consumption is normalized by society as it is integral to the very fabric of our identities. Eating sugar is normal. Not eating sugar is weird. Avoiding sugar is nigh on impossible in the modern world. We live in an era where sugar-based products have never been more abundant or instantaneously accessible. And products that were once a treat because of their rarity have become common. People can now purchase anything literally, anytime. The world is obesogenic. Everywhere we look, we see the temptation. Sugar is on our phones, social media, online, TVs, billboards, and shops. It is inescapable. Obesity exists today because our hunter-gatherer brains cannot mentally cope with the overbearing prominence and availability of high-calorie sugary foods that affront us all day, every day, everywhere. And because sugar is food, the same tactics of tackling addiction associated with drugs or alcohol are considerably more challenging for fear of eating disorder development. We are drowning in sugar, and it is slowly killing us.
Twelve million people were abducted, enslaved, and subsequently transported from the shores of the African continent to work on colonial plantations. 12 MILLION. Each of these people made the Middle Passage, the 6-11 week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The enslaved were kept in shallow 1.5-meter-tall holds, lay chained together on the ground in their hundreds, packed as tight as books on a shelf. They were frequently beaten and abused. They had to defecate where they lay. Sickness was rife. If they died, the bodies might be left for hours, festering in the unbearable heat and unbreathable putrid air. Many enslaved people committed suicide during these crossings, while the ill might be thrown overboard for insurance claim purposes. About 15% of the enslaved died on these crossings.
Untold millions died before they were even taken onto the boats in West Africa during capture and internment. On arrival in the “New World,” some enslaved peoples were sent to seasoning camps for “discipline training,” and as many as 50% could have died in these camps. In the Caribbean, 1/3 of all the enslaved people who traveled there died within three years of arrival. The death toll of enslaved African peoples was vast, but they were not alone. In Brazil, for example, bandeiras would ride out into the jungles and capture local and indigenous people to enslave and work the plantations.
“Twelve million people were abducted, enslaved and subsequently transported from the shores of the African continent to work on colonial plantations.”
Why is this relevant? Historians believe that 70% of all the enslaved who were transported across the Atlantic ended up working on sugar plantations. Sugar was the driving factor for the majority of slavery. Without forced labor, sugar would not have been financially viable, as, without mechanization, it is very labor-intensive to grow. It was not uncommon for people to work 18 hours a day at harvest, macheting down canes and loading them onto carts. Children as young as four joined them, carrying water or weeding. Whipping was regular, work was unimaginably exhausting, and the humid heat was overbearing. Enslaved people could be worked to death because they were a mere commodity, the depreciation of their health like equipment depreciation. You could always buy another. And when they did pass away, their bone char might be used to whiten the very sugar they had been killed growing. Without the commitment to these atrocities, many culinary cultures, especially European ones, with their heavy reliance on sugar, would simply not be. They would have been prohibitively expensive. Sugar might have remained a luxury.
Sugar and slavery are intertwined, and this entwinement, this unbreakable bond, is evident in European food culture today. It could not be what it is today without sugar, and therefore it could not be what it is today without slavery. As we mindlessly consume sugar every day, we consume something that was the beneficiary of and built upon enslaved peoples’ blood and toil.
“Peccato di Gola”
Sugar is an integral part of the globalist culture, but so is the distancing of ourselves from its origins, history, and bloodshed. Modern food systems are built upon abstinence from context. Look at factory farming, deforestation, and climate change, all caused by our food. If we knew, we wouldn’t eat what we eat. And sugar is no different. It is a part of our everyday lives, something beloved by all, delicious, responsible for the delectability of so many wonderful foods, from stroopwafels to cinnamon rolls and churros to tiramisu, yet sugar is…well…evil?
Sugar holds a siren’s call over humans. We crave it, we require its comfort, it brings us happiness, brings people together and is a symbol of celebration, yet it slowly kills us and has driven people to the most inhumane actions to acquire its sweet taste. Some might say the course of history and the sacrifices made were worth it for the widespread abundance of sugar we have today: “The past is the past; let what has been rest, my friend. We can only change the present”. But I beg to differ.
You unintentionally benefit from ill-gotten gains by simply enjoying a pastéis de nata or a Schaumrolle. You become complicit. That is why it is paramount that people simply stop, think, and consider their actions. Sugar is terrible for our health, sugar has a tainted and murderous past, and our love of it is simply unsustainable. The only thing it brings us is a short-lived pleasure. Are there not other sources of happiness that we can turn to when the going gets tough or when we want to celebrate or indulge ourselves? Other foods, other culinary delights? Is it not time that we retire sugar from our lives out of respect for our bodies and the bodies of those who suffered at its hands? Can we reconnect with that less sugary world that came before? Can food remain enjoyable without generous lashings of sucrose?
So, next time you are about to tuck into a buttery pain au chocolat or some creamy tiramisu, just stop and think: is this worth it?
Noël Derr, The History of Sugar: Volume One (London; Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1949)
The Sugar Association, “History of Sugar”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
Clive Ponting, World History: A New Perspective (London; Chatto and Windus, 2000), 482.
Ben Eastick, “Global Sugar Market Report 2020/21”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
World Health Organization, “Obesity”, 2021. Accessed 1 January 2022
NBC News, “Sugary Drinks May Kill 184,000 People Each Year, Says Study”, 2015. Accessed 1 January 2022
Telegraph, “Sugary Drinks Kill 184,000 A Year Through Diabetes, Heart Disease and Cancer”, 2015. Accessed 1 January 2022
FAOSTAT, “Sugar Consumption Per Capita in World”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
FAOSTAT, “Sugar Consumption Per Capita in Belgium”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
Healthline, “11 Reasons Why Too Much Sugar Is Bad For You”, 2018. Accessed 1 January 2022
James DiNicolantonio, James H O’Keefe and William L Wilson, “Sugar Addiction: is it real? A Narrative Review”, 2017 , British Journal of Sports Medicine; Healthline, “Is Sugar An Addictive Drug?”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
Paul Lovejoy, “The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature”, Journal of African History, 30, 191; David Eltis, “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database“, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
BBC Bitesize, “The Triangular Trade”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2000), 156-157.
Statista, “Annual Share of Slaves Who Died During the Middle Passage 1501-1866”, 2020. Accessed 1 January 2022
James Stephen, The Slavery of the British West India Colonies Delineated, 2010 (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press), 74.
BBC Bitesize, “Britain and the Caribbean”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
Wikipedia, “Slavery in Brazil”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
BBC Bitesize, “Slave Trade and the British Economy”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
National Museums Liverpool, “Slavery in the Caribbean”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
BBC Bitesize, “Life on the Plantation”, 2022. Accessed 1 January 2022
Peter Von Sivers, Charles Desnoyers, George B. Stow and Jonathan Scott Perry, Patterns of World History, Vol. 2, 2018 (New York; Oxford University Press), 574.
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.
Photos ©Aarón Gómez Figueroa.