The sweetest craving of all

Through the ages, sugar has inched its way to global dominance

S is for… Sugar. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors seldom ate anything sweeter than a berry. In fact the only really sugary foodstuff in prehistory existence was honey, and, as Winnie the Pooh taught us, it isn’t always readily accessible. And like many rare items it was a precious commodity; so precious, in fact, that Tutankhamen was buried with some.

Honey wasn’t prized solely for its scarcity, however. There was a good evolutionary reason to crave the sweet stuff. Sugar turns readily into fat in the body; for early sapiens, body fat safeguarded against starvation during fallow periods when there was less food than usual. And the infrequency with which sweet food was available meant that the body fat was usually burnt off by their peripatetic lifestyle before the next glut of raspberries was ripe.

Even after the agricultural revolution, 12,000 years ago, when starchy foods became the mainstays of our diets, processed and refined sugar didn’t exist. Sugar cane was farmed on the island of New Guinea as long ago as 10,000BC, but didn’t reach Europe or America for many millennia. Its slow crawl to global dominance with speeded up by the Crusades, when Western Europeans tasted it in Spain, and by Christopher Columbus taking it to the New World. Yet as late as the 18th century, sugar was a rare luxury. In fact, it is only in the last 200 years or so that refined sugar has been cheap and readily available. In 1822 the average American consumed around six pounds of added sugar each year; by 1999 this had risen to over 100.

These days you can hardly move for the stuff. It’s in the unlikeliest of places – pasta sauces, bread, vegetable juices. We all know that Haribo sweets are full of sugar, but did you know that ketchup is stuffed with it too? You may steer clear of chocolate but what’s the use if you eat cereal every morning? And don’t fool yourself that the low-fat vanilla yoghurt you snack on is healthy.

Sugar can be a killer. The anti-sugar movement, with its warnings about heart disease, diabetes and obesity, has been led by Dr Robert Lustig and is supported in one way or another by Jamie Oliver, Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley sisters. Dr Lustig’s video ‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’ has more than six million views on YouTube; it seems people are waking up to the threat posed by sugar-heavy diets.

Some experts say that sugar is addictive, the next crack cocaine. But it will always be an integral part of our culture. We will always have Marilyn Monroe introducing herself as ‘Sugar, Sugar Cane’ in Some Like It Hot. We will always have Stevie Wonder crooning the word. We will – God help us – always have re-runs of The Apprentice with Lord Sugar. If we’ve craved it since we were cave men, we will crave it until the earth runs dry. Ain’t nothing sweeter.


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