Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #204: A Modern History of Cane Sugar

“In August 1492, Christopher Columbus stopped at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for wine and water, intending to stay only four days. He became romantically involved with the governor of the island, Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, and stayed a month. When he finally sailed, she gave him cuttings of sugarcane, which became the first to reach the New World.” This juicy tidbit from Wikipedia gives a source in the Spanish language but no hyperlink. Too bad. I read Spanish.

But I digress. “Sugarcane is a giant grass and has been cultivated in tropical climates in the Far East since ancient times. In the 1500’s British women blackened their teeth to appear wealthy. The truly wealthy hosted sugar banquets.  A great expansion in sugar production took place in the 18th century with sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the common people who previously relied on honey to sweeten foods.” Sugar then became popular and by the 19th century, sugar became considered a necessity.” (a/c to Wiki)

And that’s the point of this post. Until the manufacture of sugar became economically viable, cane sugar was rare and expensive. Honey, a commodity in much shorter supply, was the sweetener of choice. Wiki explains that “This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. It drove, in part, colonization of tropical islands and nations where labor-intensive sugarcane plantations and sugar manufacturing could thrive. The demand for cheap labor to perform the hard work involved in its cultivation and processing increased the demand for the slave trade from Africa (in particular West Africa). After slavery was abolished, there was high demand for indentured laborers from South Asia (in particular India). The demand for sugar had a profound influence on our civilization.

“Until the late nineteenth century, sugar was purchased in ‘loaves,’ locked in sugar chests and cut using sugar nips. In later years, granulated sugar was generally bagged. Sugar cubes were first produced in the nineteenth century.” Check out those two Wiki links; they have good images of a sugar loaf and the sugar nips in a box made to hold them.

The production or manufacture of sugar is a complex process. I suspect the Wikipedia version is “sanitized” as bone char is sometimes used.  The canes are cut and transported to a factory and there “milled” (squeezed under great pressure) to extract the juice; the juice is then “clarified with lime and heated to kill enzymes.” The thin juice is then “concentrated” [boiled] in “evaporators.” It is then seeded with sugar crystals to make “raw sugar.” These crystals can be “used as they are, or they can be bleached by sulphur dioxide or they can be treated in a carbonization process to produce a whiter product.”

Cane sugar then requires further processing to provide the free-flowing white table sugar “required by the consumer.” The process starts all over again. The brown sticky crystals are immersed in a “syrup” that “softens and removes the sticky brown coating without dissolving them.” They are then separated from the liquor, dissolved in water, and treated either by a carbonization or a phosphatation process. Then the color is removed by another chemical process, the crystals are then dissolved by boiling again, cooled, seeded and spun in a centrifuge, and then hot-air dried. And then the sugar is bagged.

Brazil was the largest producer of sugar in the world in 2011. After that, India, the European Union, China and Thailand. The U.S. comes in sixth. We produce barely one-fifth as much as Brazil and one-fourth as much as India. Consumption is a different story.  India leads the way, followed by the EU, China, Brazil and then the U.S. in fifth place (2012). But the spread is much closer; India’s use, while very high, is just 2.5 times as much as the U.S. Of course, the U.S. population (320 million) is barely a quarter that of India (1.236 billion). In 2008 American per capita consumption of sugar and other sweeteners, principally high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), was 136 pounds per year, about equally divided between the two.

Wiki concludes its introduction to sugar with this: “Since the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been questioned whether a diet high in sugars, especially refined sugars, is bad for human health. Sugar has been linked to obesity, and suspected of, or fully implicated as a cause in the occurrence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have been undertaken to try to clarify the position, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that do not consume, or are largely free of any sugar consumption.” Well, if Wiki hasn’t figured it out yet, I have. Table sugar is an industrial manufacture. It’s not food.
What do you think? Has cane sugar really and truly  become a “necessity”? Did Christopher Columbus really and truly have a month-long dalliance with Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio? What kind of name is Bobadilla y Ossorio and what is a Bobadilla any-way? And, when Columbus finally sailed, what if Beatriz hadn’t given Columbus those fateful cuttings of sugar cane? And what if this whole story is just an apocryphal, if very romantic, tale?
What if’s, and apocrypha, are fun, aren’t they?


  1. Very interesting stuff! People always think of sugar as a natural product and have no idea how much processing goes into it. Ditto for the seed oils which are also thought of as a healthy part of a "balanced" diet.

    1. You're right, Judi. I have to admit, although I've known about vegetable oils for a long time (since reading Mary Enig and Sally Fallon's articles), the idea that "table sugar," also known as cane sugar and white sugar, was not a "natural" food came as somewhat of a surprise to me too. That's part of the fun of writing this blog: I learn stuff. Anyway, it definitely is a highly processed "industrial manufacture."

  2. The whole business revolves around creating perfect sugar cubes, crystalline and pure white in color. Just to do that, our sugar is treated with a host of "Harmful" chemicals.

    1. Well said, Raghav. And just to be clear, I'd avoid the raw, unbleached, unrefined stuff as well, EVEN IF I WEREN'T A TYPE 2 DIABETIC, which I am.