The Bitter History of Sugar

Between the endless articles on how sugar shapes our bodies and the endless advice on how to consume less of it, it’s rarely mentioned that sugar has also heavily shaped the modern world. And much like the cavities and diseases our bodies are wracked with, this deceptively harmless sweetener’s impact on the world is markedly negative.

44153785 - bowls of various kinds of sugar on old blue background
Photo Copyright: Andrey Maslakov

Sugar’s earlier history, its childhood in Asia, is less volatile than its later years in the West. Part of the grass family, sugar cane is one of the most photosynthetically efficient plants in the world. It occurs in the wild in a number of regions — eastern and northern Africa, the Middle East, mainland Asia, Polynesia — but evidence suggests that the cultivation and consumption of sugar cane originated in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in approximately 8000 BC. That’s 10,000 years ago.

Thanks to Austronesian and Polynesian seafarers and migrants, the crop slowly spread through the continent of Asia and found its way to India, where the art of refining sugar was born around 300 AD. The Indians dubbed the sweet crystals śarkarā (meaning grit or gravel), which became shakar when the technique spread west to Persia, and then sukkar when the Arab empire invaded Persia in 642 AD. Less than 400 years later, the Arabs installed the world’s first sugar refinery on Crete, an island they called Qandi (the Arabic word for processed sugar that we continue to use today).

30076734 - sugar cane isolated on white background
Photo Copyright: phittavas


The Crusades in the 11th century delivered sugar to Europe, where it remained a luxury commodity throughout the Middle Ages. It was in 1493 when Christopher Columbus touched down in the Dominican Republic and realized the Caribbean climate was ideal for growing sugar cane that the industry exploded. Sugar’s not-so-sweet history in the 16th and 17th centuries is well-documented. Demand for this superfluous crop, once considered a rare and expensive spice, is almost single-handedly responsible for the forceful shipping of 12.5 million human beings from Africa to European colonies in the Americas.

Professor Mark Horton of the University of Bristol sums it up sugar perfectly when he describes it as “the food nobody needs but everyone craves.” Sugar cane is currently the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, and sugar-based carbohydrates are nearly ubiquitous in our supermarkets. That’s over 26 million hectares of arable land devoted to growing a crop that has more in common with alcohol than to food.

How’s that for motivation to lower your sugar consumption?


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. Click here to register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.

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