Sugar has many aliases and, according to Prevention magazine, precisely 57 different names. Nowadays, sugar is ubiquitous and permeates much of our food supply, even in places you might least expect, like ketchup and barbecue sauce.
So where did sugar originate? Sugar cane was initially grown about 10,000 years ago on the island of New Guinea where people picked and ate it raw. By AD 500, sugar was powdered in India and used as a treatment for various ailments, but sugar refinement was a covert process that eventually spread to Persia. The Arabs were the first to turn sugar production into an industry after Arab armies conquered Persia and marched away with sugar’s potent secrets.
By the time cane sugar reached the West (roughly 600 years ago), it was classified as a spice and purchased by European royalty, the only ones with the means to pay the exorbitant prices. Two hundred years later, slave labor on sugar cane plantations made it possible for the working class to buy sugar. The Industrial Revolution made sugar accessible to everyone and manufacturers now refine raw sugar into the white crystals available in our grocery stores.
How much sugar do we really consume? Below are some astounding statistics and, just to provide some context, one 12-ounce can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar:
- In 1822, Americans consumed approximately 1.8 teaspoons per day
- By 2012, each American consumed 30.6 teaspoons per day, which equates to almost 3 ½ cans of soda
- As of 2012, the average American child consumed a whopping 32 teaspoons per day, or almost 3/4 of a cup
Why do we want sugar? Essentially, sugar in the bloodstream “stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine… In this sense, it is literally an addictive drug.” (National Geographic)
Several prominent scientists suspected that sugar might cause diabetes as early as the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1972 that John Yudkin, a British physiologist and nutritionist, proclaimed the evils of sugar in a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly, which was written to send the message that overconsumption of sugar was leading to many diseases, including heart disease, liver disease, and some cancers. The book was based on a series of studies during the 1960s showing that high amounts of dietary sugar resulted in increased amounts of fat and insulin in blood, raising the risk for heart disease and diabetes. However, Yudkin’s message was overshadowed by Ancel Keys (click here to read the recent saturated fat blog for more on Keys) and other scientists who preached the theory that saturated fats caused heart disease and obesity.
Richard Johnson, MD, a nephrologist the University of Colorado in Denver, says that “every time I study an illness and trace a path to the first cause, I find my way back to sugar.” Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco, has proclaimed that the “food industry has contaminated the food supply with added sugar” that has become a poison.
– Holly Hough, PhD
References: Prevention; Forbes; Mind Body Nutrition; National Geographic; The New York Times (February, 2014); The New York Times (April, 2011); Mother Jones; The Huffington Post
Image by Uwe Hermann, via CC