Sunday, September 8, 2019

Retrospective #204: A Modern History of Cane Sugar

“In August 1492, Christopher Columbus, enroute to discover America, stopped at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, for wine and water, intending to stay only four days. Instead, 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 story is from Wikipedia. Wikipedia continues…
“In the 1500’s British women blackened their teeth [with sugar] 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…” Sugar then became popular, and by the end of the 19th century, sugar was considered a necessity.”
Until that time, honey was the sweetener of choice. “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.’ Sugar cubes first appeared in the nineteenth century. In later years, granulated sugar was generally bagged.”
The production or manufacture of sugar is a complex process. 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 phosphorylation 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. Then, India, the European Union, China and Thailand. The U.S. was sixth. We produced barely one-fifth as much as Brazil and one-fourth as much as India. Consumption was a different story.  India led 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, was 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 (1.2 billion). In 2008 American per capita consumption of sugar and other sweeteners, mainly high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), was 136 lbs./yr., divided between the two.
Wiki concludes, “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, Type 2 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.”
Funny, if not so terribly sad. One thing is clear, though. Table sugar is an industrial manufacture. It’s not real food.

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