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Little sweetness to be found in
sugar's sordid history

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Little sweetness to be found in sugar's sordid history

The reasons for optimism at the end of the article are misplaced, in my view

The Toronto Star March 2, 2008

Little sweetness to be found in sugar's history
From the launch of the slave trade to wars and bad teeth, sugar has
much to answer for

By Christine Sismondo

Sugar: A Bittersweet History

by Elizabeth Abbott

Penguin Canada, 453 pages $24

When you hear the word "sugar," maybe you think of plum fairies.

Or Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane Kowalczyk character in 1959's Some
Like it Hot. Or a perky dessert show on the food porn channel. Or a
nickname for your loved one. Or that gooey song by the Archies, Sugar

To Toronto author Elizabeth Abbott, the entry of "sugar" in a word
association game could elicit any of the following: genocide, human
rights, slavery, Caribbean dictators, corporate lobbying,
environmental monoculture, obesity, diabetes or Queen Elizabeth I's
black teeth. (Yes, we know. They don't dare darken Cate Blanchett's
chompers in those Tudor movies.)

This is the dark side of sugar - the less glamorous story, one that
Abbott, former dean of women at University of Toronto's Trinity
College and author of A History of Celibacy, chronicles in Sugar: A
Bittersweet History.

The story begins with Columbus bringing sugar cane from the Canary
Islands on his second trip to the New World. With that one transplant
(and encounter with the Taino people who then inhabited the island),
the next 500 years of Caribbean history is foreshadowed. The fight to
control the lucrative sugar trade redraws political maps and trade
routes, sparks wars and, ultimately, becomes the rationale for one of
the most brutal colonial regimes in human history.

The majority of Abbott's book is devoted to the particular conditions
of sugar slavery - the practice of ripping millions of people from
their homes, transplanting the survivors across the Atlantic and
forcing them to labour in appalling conditions.

Among the many accounts and indications of atrocities in the
plantations is the fact that, in many French and British colonies,
the death rate was higher than the birth rate. This not only
demonstrated the savage inhumanity, it was also the reason for a
continuing slave trade and a crisis after the trade was outlawed by
the Brits in 1807.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, giant sugar sculptures of laurel trees,
boar and deer were on display at royal feasts, where guests ate from
sugar dishes with sugar forks and knives. The conspicuous consumption
of the latest aristocratic luxury dominated all the major coronations
and weddings of the period, including our black-toothed virgin
queen's four-day "sugar banquet," which consisted of copious trays of
sweets and processions of marzipan beasts and sugar castle sculptures.

And this is all before sugar even became really popular.

Conspicuous consumption has a way of eventually filtering down to the
middle classes - take that guy next door who proudly owns a Hummer.
Within a couple of hundred years, everyone was using sugar, not just
the royal families. Abbott points to the first person that thought to
put sugar in tea as the culprit. From then on, sugar became
mainstream and the consequences of its increased popularity, of
course, were dire for the people involved in its production.

The land suffered too. Abbott says sugar has done more damage to
flora and fauna than any other single crop on the planet. The
monoculture of sugar is also responsible for the destruction of
indigenous agriculture and wildlife and, what's more, has made it
difficult for Caribbean populations (most notably in Cuba) to
re-establish sustainable agriculture.

The last section of the book is devoted to how those little white
granules grew to become corporate Big Sugar.

As sugar became an important cultural commodity, it continued to
influence military and political affairs. It played a role in the
Louisiana Purchase, the Spanish-American wars, Castro's rule, Haiti's
underdevelopment and, strangely enough, even had a small cameo in the
Clinton-Lewinsky affair - unearthed were transcripts revealing Bill's
long conversation with sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul, Jr.

As to sugar's relationship with obesity, diabetes and tooth decay,
well, that's a little more controversial. Starchy food may, in fact,
do far more damage to teeth than the fast-dissolving sugar, despite
the evidence in Queen Elizabeth's head. Abbott also points out that
most of the sweetness in our packaged cookies, soups, cereals,
ketchup and pop (in North America) now comes from cheaper corn syrup.
The switch from cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup is, in fact,
often associated with the spike in diabetes and weight gain.

The only potentially "sweet" part of Sugar is Abbott's conclusion.
She sees hope in Cuba's efforts to diversify its crops and adopt
organic farming techniques. Perhaps more importantly, she also finds
reason for optimism in Brazil's efforts to promote its ample sugar
fields as a bio-fuel alternative to fossil fuels.

She's cautiously optimistic about both of these developments,
however. Sugar has done us more harm than good. By far.

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