It tastes delightful but it’s not a food. It is terribly habit-forming and causes cravings but it’s not exactly a drug. It gives instantaneous energy and quickens the muscles, yet it’s not quite a nutrient, vitamin or mineral.
I am talking, of course, about sugar, which you have probably already consumed today, whether in the form of a spoonful in your coffee, the glaze on your breakfast cereal, or hidden in literally thousands of “convenience foods” found on the shelves of any modern American supermarket. And you’ve probably got a package of it stashed away in your pantry somewhere. I know I do.
When it comes to sugar processing, the term “refined” means “to purify” or “make pure”. The sugar refining process separates natural sucrose from its original plant source material without bleaching or chemical manipulation. All sugar is 100% natural or “raw”, no matter what type of sugar it is.
The ancient Indians knew how to extract sugar (sarkara) from cane, but did not refine it. Marco Polo in the 13th century reported that although the Chinese used a great deal of dark sugar, they did not refine it whereas in Egypt and also in Venice purer sugar was manufactured.
Over the centuries, numerous forms of sugar have been favored.
The crude juice is improved by removing impurities with slaked lime and carbon dioxide, and it is evaporated to form a brown syrupy product, which can be readily converted into molasses. This was the source of the brown sugars (such as turbinado, Muscovado and Demarara) that were common in the 17-19th centuries.
Sugar in impure form and molasses were brought to New England, and trading interests helped ensure that excess molasses was converted into rum. Refining of crude sugar results in white crystal sugar, which can be used in granulated or powdered forms or as lumps. In previous times, sugar loaves were marketed, while rich banquet hosts had their chefs produce sugar sculptures similar to ice sculptures
The brown sugars are more complex and flavorful; they contain calcium, iron and vitamins. It is an interesting aspect of human behavior that now ensures that the formerly cheaper products are coming back into favor (as more expensive products!) since they are more nutritious than white sugar. In the 19th century sugar from beets added to the world’s supply, and this formerly rare spice – a luxurious food and an impressive medicine – gradually came to assume its present role as an addictive necessity that endangers health.
Hard to believe it was once an exotic luxury kept in a locked box by the aristocrats who could afford it. But in fact, when one looks more closely into the history of this common substance that most of us take for granted, one is confronted with a tale that is both fascinating and disturbing, even a bit scary, for the story of sugar — its discovery, cultivation, production, refinement, sale, distribution and consumption over half a millennia — is a story of incredible ingenuity, ruthless profiteering, brutal slavery, power politics, imperial ambitions, technological wizardry, corporate malfeasance, chronic disease and human tragedy.
Sugar is the world’s predominant sweetener. It satisfies the human appetite for sweetness and contributes calories to our diet. Sugar is used in cooking, in the preparation of commercially processed foods, and as an additive to drinks; it is also a preservative and fermenting agent. It sweetens without changing the flavor of food and drink. It is cheap to transport, easy to store, and relatively imperishable. These characteristics helped sugar to displace such sweeteners as fruit syrups, honey, and the sap of certain trees, the most famous of which is the North American maple.
It meant overnight fortunes for some while it reduced others to abject misery and bondage.
Mankind first discovered how to cultivate the large grass known as sugar cane in New Guinea, probably about 10,000 years ago. By about 6000 BC, the sweet, juicy plant was well known throughout India and the Philippine islands. In 327 BC a general of Alexander the Great, sailing near the Indus River, wrote to him that:
“A reed in India brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made…”
By 500 AD we have written records fully documenting the process of sugar refining in India and Persia. The Arabs introduced sugar making all throughout the Mediterranean basin during the eighth century. But sugar was virtually unknown in Western Europe until after 1000 A. D. The Portuguese and the Spaniards were the first to recognize the commercial possibilities of sugar and attempted to establish a sugar industry in places like the Canary Islands, from where Christopher Columbus first brought sugar cane to the New World — on his second voyage in 1493.
But the Portuguese and Spanish, more interested in finding gold and pursuing the legend of El Dorado than raising crops, were soon to be eclipsed by the British who quickly recognized the value of their new American colonies in helping them launch a full-fledged industrial enterprise for the production of sugar for export. By the beginning of the 1500’s sugar was being shipped to Europe by the boatload and thus began a fateful love affair between Western Europeans and sugar, which continues to the present day.
At first sugar was regarded as a spice — rare, costly, and to be used sparingly, like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and other tropical spices then being imported into Europe from the Orient. Sugar was even once regarded as a potent medicinal substance and it figures prominently in the writings of Arabic, Jewish and Christian physicians between the 12th and 16th centuries. One such writer recites the wonders of sugar as follows:
“Nice white sugar…cleans the blood, strengthens body and mind, especially chest, lungs and throat…As a powder it is good for the eyes, as a smoke it is good for the common cold, as flour sprinkled on wounds it heals them…”
By the late seventeenth century, the rising popularity of coffee, chocolate, and, especially, tea created a whole new demand for sugar. Indeed, sugar had become so widespread in its various uses as spice, preservative, beverage sweetener, and medicinal substance that by the end of the 17th century sugar had largely replaced tobacco as the cash crop of choice in both the British and French West Indies.
For a time France and Britain competed fiercely for control of the sugar trade. Indeed, Napoleon Bonaparte, who loved his bonbons, commissioned French scientists to pursue reports and evidence suggesting that sugar could be extracted from plants other than cane.
When one scientist finally came up with a way to process sugar from beets, he was awarded the Legion of Honor and the emperor promptly ordered that beets be planted everywhere in France. But eventually Britain was to surpass all others in the volume and robustness of her sugar industry. From its humble beginnings on the island of Barbados in the 1640’s, the British sugar industry grew by leaps and bounds, taking over that island, and soon after, Jamaica, becoming the undisputed king of the sugar trade. The English sugar planters of the 17th century, in a sudden turn of commercial good fortune much like the “dot-com” boom of the nineties, became rich virtually overnight.
Sugar production involved a massive, labor-intensive, carefully coordinated system that pre-figured the factory operations soon to become the symbols of the Industrial Revolution. Every stage of the process demanded strenuous labor, close supervision, and exact timing. Unlike other crops, sugar canes required as much as fourteen to sixteen months to fully mature.
When ripe, the 15-ft tall canes had to be cut down by hand, the outer leaves removed, and the bundled stalks carried to the mill for grinding. Once the cane is harvested the cane juice must be processed within a few hours or it was liable to spoilage or fermentation. The planter used an ingenious three-roller vertical mill, in which the center roller pressed against the two outer rollers while rotating.
Chopped up sugarcane was fed to the rollers and the dark brown cane juice flowed down into a trough and was then piped into a cistern for boiling. Within the boiling house, a battery of four or five great copper kettles hung over a furnace. The juice had to be passed from kettle to kettle, with constant evaporation and skimming off of impurities, until only a thick dark brown liquid remained. Lime was added to the brown syrup to promote crystallization of the sugar content. Once granulated and cooled the sugar was packed into earthenware pots.
In these pots, which had holes at the bottom like flower pots, the sugar crystals dried as the dark molasses was slowly drained out — a process which could take as long as a month. The molasses was collected and kept later to be turned into rum. The dried and hardened sugar was then packed into huge barrels called hogsheads, which were stored in warehouses for eventual shipment to England.
This was arduous, highly labor-intensive work that required a whole army of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The obvious source of this labor was the African slave trade. The huge sprawling sugar plantations required slave labor on a grand, previously unimagined scale. Before the close of the seventeenth century, the six “sugar islands” in the Caribbean were alone responsible for the kidnapping and enslavement of over a quarter of a million African men, women and children.
The sugar industry and the slave-trading industry mutually reinforced and strengthened one another, setting a pernicious example for the cotton and tobacco planters of the thirteen colonies on the mainland to emulate. The almost insatiable demands of the sugar planters for African labor helped to ensure the perpetuation and expansion of the reprehensible practice of slavery as it helped to turn Africans, like the cakes of sugar they manufactured, into commodities to be bought and sold on the open market.
Sugar production was a boon to the aspirations and lust for power of the emerging British Empire. Surpassing the Spanish and holding their own against the French in the efficient exploitation of her sugar-producing island colonies, England came to totally dominate the sugar industry by the late 17th century, and by the time she lost her monopoly on the international market she had already developed a rapidly-expanding domestic market more than sufficient to satisfy her imperial ambitions. During this period no less than 400 British vessels routinely traversed the Atlantic Ocean, each carrying 150-ton cargoes of fresh sugar loaves to the motherland.
By the late 1700’s the seduction and conquest of Western Europe, and especially England, by sugar was a fait accompli. Once a rare and expensive luxury available only to the rich and the ruling class, by 1750 sugar was a mainstay of the poorest English farmer’s pantry. Between 1655, the year the British stole the island of Jamaica from the Spanish, and the year 1800, the British population’s consumption of sugar increased some 2,500 percent. By 1830, total world production had risen to 572,000 tons. By 1890, after the rapid growth of beet-sugar production in addition to cane, world production exceeded six million tons — an increase of 500 percent over that of only 30 years earlier. Surely no other food in world history has ever turned in such a bravura performance.
By the year 1900, the United States was fully caught up in the sugar frenzy. The original 13 colonies had shared in the sugar boom of the 18th century when New England rum distilleries became a lucrative market for the molasses leftover from West Indian sugar production. Indeed, founding father John Adams called molasses “an essential ingredient in American independence.”
Americans had already been consuming 38 pounds of sugar per person per year by 1880 — well ahead of all other world consumers. United States consumption more than doubled in the next 10 years. And visions of sugar riches — no less than in other countries — titillated American businessmen and industrialists, as well as influenced U.S. foreign policy. The expansion of America’s military power in the Caribbean, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and Hawaii, her colonial designs on Cuba and the Philippines — all are in large part attributable to the lust of sugar profits.
Today, as we move into the 21st century, the world’s love affair with sugar is as impassioned as ever. World sugar production reached an unprecedented 144 million tons as of 2006. This — despite all that is now known about the effects of sugar on the human body.
We consume an enormous amount of sugar, whether consciously or not, but it’s a largely misunderstood substance. There are different kinds and different ways your body processes them all. Some consider it poison and others believe it’s the sweetest thing on earth.
Nature has given us sugar in the form of sugar cane and sugar beet. When sugar cane and sugar beet are analyzed it is found that every piece is equipped with every nutrient our bodies need to metabolize every molecule of sugar, in that piece properly. But we don’t eat sugar cane or sugar beet in its natural form. We extract the sugar out of them and throw everything else away. That processed sugar comes into our bodies like a villain, robbing and pulling nutrients out of our bones, muscles, brain and other tissues in order to be metabolized. For example, for the body to metabolize just one molecule of sugar, the body requires around 56 molecules of magnesium. The over consumption of processed carbohydrates and sugar is a major reason for the widespread magnesium deficiency in our modern society, eventually leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and neurological problems. Sugar is also implicated in causing type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, kidney disease, liver disease, obesity and depression.
Because sugar is so chemically pure, it more or less bypasses the normal digestive channels such as the stomach and small intestine to be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Thus when heavily sugar-laden foods — ice cream, cake, cookies, doughnuts, breakfast cereal — are ingested the sugar is immediately pumped into the blood and blood sugar levels rise instantly — which is what gives us that “sugar-rush” sensation that most of us find so irresistible.
Many of the foods we eat contain sugar, or are changed into sugar through the process of digestion. Sugar is then absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. For sugar to be used as fuel for the body, however, the hormone called ‘insulin’ is required. The pancreas produces insulin and it helps sugar move from the bloodstream into the cells that make up the body.
However, the sharp surge in blood glucose is an alarm to the pancreas, causing it to send out a flood of insulin to help capture and convert the excess glucose into glycogen and transport it to the muscles or liver for storage until it is needed for energy. This, in turn, causes a steep drop in glucose levels, which triggers another set of adrenal hormones to attempt to restore the balance. After years of reacting to such wild “mood swings” in the bloodstream, the endocrine glands gradually become worn-out and exhausted and are no longer able to secrete the optimal amounts of hormones needed to maintain a healthy balance. This results in diabetes, or its precursor, hypoglycemia — conditions in which blood sugar levels are chronically too high or too low.
There’s nothing like low blood sugar to aggravate feelings of irritation and frustration. The brain requires a constant and steady supply of glucose, without which our neurons struggle to function and we become more prone to fits of pique. This was confirmed by a recent American study, which suggested that people with higher blood-sugar levels are better able to control their anger than those whose sugar levels are depleted. There has even been a suggestion that there is an indirect link between diabetes and loss of self-control.
Diabetes occurs when there is not enough insulin, or the insulin that is produced is not able to work as well as it should. The result is that too much sugar stays in the bloodstream and not enough sugar gets into the cells of the body where it can be used as fuel.
That diabetes has reached near epidemic proportions in the last hundred years is indisputable. As early as 1929 the trend was observed and commented upon by many in the medical profession. Dr Frederick Banting, the physician who discovered insulin remarked:
“In the U.S. the incidence of diabetes has increased proportionately with the per capita consumption of sugar. In the heating and recrystallization of the natural sugar cane, something is altered which leaves the refined product a dangerous foodstuff.”
Observers noted a sharp decrease in new cases of diabetes in the U.S. during World War I, when sugar was rationed. Researchers discovered that the disease was virtually unknown in China and Japan before World War II, two nations whose populations consumed very little refined sugar. Not long after Western-style eating habits were introduced to the Japanese, a host of Western-style diseases followed in their wake.
Sugar has now been implicated in a wide-ranging variety of health conditions from diabetes to heart disease to obesity to hyperactivity in children. For the past several decades, medical researchers and diet doctors have sounded the warning about the kind of hormonal havoc that excessive amounts of sugar can wreak on the body’s metabolism. The relationship between sugar intake in the form of sucrose (table sugar), levels of blood sugar (glucose), and pancreatic and adrenal hormones such as insulin and cortisone is now much more clearly understood.
Although sugar receives blame for many health problems, without it, your body would cease to function properly. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit, and lactose, or milk sugar, come from sources that benefit your diet. However, the sugars and syrups added during food processing and preparation, called added sugars, are viewed as a detriment to a healthy diet. Maximizing sugar’s benefits requires balancing the healthier and less wholesome sources.
All sugars are essentially the same and none offers significant nutritional advantages over another. Therefore, there is no difference between honey or brown sugar and table sugar. The sugar in fruit is no better than the sugar in a candy bar. Fruit actually contains a combination of fructose, sucrose, and glucose.
Fructose is very low on the glycemic index and has a slower entry rate in the bloodstream than glucose. Also when you eat fruit, the fiber slows down absorption into the bloodstream. The health bonus that comes from eating fruit lies in their vitamin, mineral, and fiber content, not in the type of sugar they contain.
The body needs sugar.
Glucose, the main sugar in the blood and a basic fuel for the body, is essential to the functioning of all cells, particularly brain cells. But you don’t need to eat any sugar to supply your body with glucose. All you need is complex carbohydrates, also known as starches, which are found in foods derived from plants – grains, vegetables, and fruits. Starchy foods such as breads, rice, pasta, potatoes, cereals, corn or any food made with grain or flour, do not usually taste ‘sweet’, but they are changed into sugar through the process of digestion.
We need a constant supply of sugar in our diets. Our cells rely on sugar as their primary source of energy, and function at a laggardly pace without it. This is especially the case for the brain, where a lack of glucose makes it harder for us to concentrate and gives that light-headed feeling we get when we skip lunch. And while the body can synthesize a sugar replacement for short periods, exertion – mental or physical – becomes difficult.
The main reason sugar receives such negative criticism pertains to its lack of nutritive value. The American Heart Association and other health organizations recommend that most of your sugar intake come in the form of complex carbohydrates. Simple sugars, such as table sugar, honey and syrup, metabolize quickly and cause rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates, such as those found in grains, starchy vegetables, breads and cereals, take longer to digest. This results in steadier blood sugar levels and sustained energy. Also, complex carbohydrates tend to provide more vitamins and minerals than sources of simple sugars.
Sugar alone is not to blame for obesity. Eating more calories than you burn up adds pounds to the body – and for most people the lion’s share of excess calories comes from eating too much refined sugars and starches (which get converted into sugar) and our increasingly sedentary habits.
Sugar may get a bad rap in sweets, but it’s an excellent ingredient in skincare. Sugar has been used for generations to heal wounds in Africa but so far has had its potential ignored by main stream medicine.
Experts say the ancient treatment probably works because sugar tends to draw water into its gritty midst, through osmosis. This action both dries the bed of the wound to promote new tissue growth and dehydrates the bacteria that cause infection, leaving them weak and fragile. Several American pharmaceutical concerns make expensive wound pastes composed of synthetic microscopic water-absorbing beads that perform this same function.
Dressings made of sugar and honey, favored by healers throughout history, fell into disfavor with the development of antibiotics over half a century ago. But even the most sophisticated modern preparations have proved unable at times to overcome the hearty bacteria that live in deep wounds, and a handful of doctors, mostly in Europe, are turning once again to sugar ”It’s a very old and very simple treatment which was forgotten for a while but is now coming back, like a fashion,” said Prof. Rudy Siewert, chairman of the department of surgery at the Klinikum Rechts der Isar in Munich, West Germany.
First, sugar is a natural humectant, meaning it draws moisture from the environment into the skin. So when you apply products with sugar or sugar derivatives, they’ll actually help hydrate your skin and keep moisture within.
Secondly, sugar is a natural source of glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that penetrates the skin and breaks down the “glue” that bonds skin cells, encouraging cell turnover and generating fresher, younger-looking skin. Glycolic acid is typically used to treat sun-damaged and aging skin.
Because it can be irritating to certain skin types, over-the-counter products typically contain less than a 10 percent concentration of glycolic acid in their formulas. Spas and dermatologists may offer more advanced glycolic treatments with concentrations above 10 percent, but those should be supervised by a professional.
Because glycolic acid — and all AHAs — exfoliate the top layer of skin, it’s important to always follow with a sunscreen if going out during daylight hours to avoid damaging newly tender skin.
Finally, sugar’s small particles make an excellent topical exfoliant, and are used in a number of body scrubs to exfoliate dead surface skin cells and reveal the glowing, healthy-looking skin underneath. Sugar scrubs also have a few benefits over salt scrubs. For one, small sugar granules are generally gentler than salt, which can cause microscopic tears in the skin; two, because of sugar’s natural humectants properties, these scrubs are more hydrating than salt scrubs, which can strip skin of natural oils.
Nothing is better for your face skin than sugar. Any type of sugar like white, brown or Muscovado sugar- all are extracted from sugarcane or sugar beet- presents to the face all routines required for a good skincare. Sugar composition is so simple – only the disaccharide Sucrose and the alpha hydroxy acid Glycolic acid are contained in sugar- yet it does everything your skin needs.
When glycolic acid is applied to the skin, it reacts with the upper layer of the epidermis, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold the dead skin cells together. This allows the stratum corneum to be exfoliated, exposing live skin cells. Regardless the effect of sucrose on the skin, glycolic acid has the most valuable effect when applying sugar on face. Sugar is the best scrub for your face.
Once touted as a medicine, a panacea for all sorts of ills, it is today often only implicated in serious health conditions which would surely have earned it a warning sticker were it any other substance.
Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the fate of Western civilization has been inextricably tied to the history of sugar.
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