Lusting after crisps? Unwrapping a mars bar ice cream with greed in your eyes? Licking the cream spoon and smiling with pleasure? You’re not alone, or unusual. Man is genetically coded to seek out, gorge and hoard these three fundamental building blocks for life – sugar, salt and fat. This is because they have, historically, been difficult to find, or costly to acquire/grow/nurture, or only very seasonally available. So we’re highly sensitive to their taste, their smell and their after effects…in short we’re sugar, salt and fat junkies.
Happily, for 99.9% of our time on this earth, humans have had to accept their lot, and work around these cravings within local, regional, seasonal and cultural circumstances, so as to build time-honoured healthy traditional diets based on generations of trial and error. However, of the holy trinity of desire let’s not forget that in the natural world, salt and fat are usually much easier to obtain than sugar. Which is why the craving for sweetness is so overwhelmingly powerful. Until very, very recently the only sources of concentrated sugar were wild, primarily honey and tree syrups, and of course the naturally occurring sweetness from the sugars within fruits and vegetables. Concentrated sugar was therefore scarce, highly seasonal and/or unknown to most of the world until about 500 years ago, when sugar cane growing and processing rapidly evolved into a global trading phenomenon.
Sugar cane is indigenous to SE Asia, and it is thought that the peoples of present day India discovered that by cooking the sugar cane juice – still a common street vendor refreshment in India today – you create a stable (sugar is a preservative), solid, easy to handle and ship, block of intense sweetness – which they call jaggery. We now know this as unrefined cane juice sugar. Similar unrefined cane juice sugars are also produced in central and south America. Aside from narcotics, jaggery was perhaps the first easy to transport and store international trade commodity, which is a rather amusing parallel, as studies show that refined sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
Jaggery was the start of the rot, in more ways than one. The insatiable desire for this sweet opiate swept through the Islamic world into Europe, and with the conquistadors went sugar cane, as production switched to the Caribbean and the Americas, creating not only immensely rich sugar empires but also the slave trade. If jaggery is the rough diamond of the sugar world, refined white sugar is its distant cousin far removed. Refined white sugar is now the most widely traded and consumed form of sugar. It was created with typical ingenuity – for the pursuit of personal and corporate profit – with the complete disregard for the well being of the citizen. Refined white sugar is easy and cheap to produce from both sugar cane and sugar beet, homogenous (looks clean and perfect), remains stable, is quick dissolving, a great preservative, and has a super long shelf life. Sugar is a highly addictive substance, so for the big food companies, the production of cheap refined sugar is a licence to print money, legally. Humans love it, so give them more. And more. And more. In sneakier ways. Sugar has been a glorious ally to the proliferation and popularity of prepared, convenience foods. One of the earliest partnerships was sugar and tomatoes. Before refrigeration, Heinz discovered that fresh tomato puree lasted longer and was made seductively moreish when produced with added refined sugar. Say hello to Heinz Ketchup – the first of the many sweetened refined foods that we adore.
The sugar honeymoon has been sweet and long lasting for big food – Heinz Ketchup has been an international food since 1907 – and you’ll be very surprised (or not) to find that refined sugar is found in so many rather unlikely foods, such as savoury ready meals, and even dried fruits. Why such a long honeymoon? Well, we do love sweet things, and also we’ve been so preoccupied with demonising fat (don’t get me going on this one) of late, that we’ve been ignoring the fact that despite a low fat dietary obsession, people are on average getting fatter…
Which is why I am writing this ranty blog – as I am sure I am not the only one to notice that the refined sugar honeymoon seems to be, at long last, losing its lustre. You know this is so when the lifestyle advisors in the tabloids feature not only low fat dietary guidance but also a sensationalist and evangelical anti sugar scoop within the same section. That’s good isn’t it? Well, yes and no. The demonising process is often, sadly, a rather all-embracing, crowd-pleasing selection of simple sweeping statements. (I should be a politician) Just as all FAT is bad, and makes you fat/die, so all SUGAR is now the really bad stuff that will make you spotty, blotchy, moody, bad tempered, fat, ill and of course, die. Get ready to be afraid and, of course, worried, about sugar. Here’s some cold turkey advice from the popular press for all of us sugar addicts (sinners): wine contains sugar, so that’s off limits. Honey? Bad. Tonic water? Switch to slimline. Diet fizzy drinks? Find your zero sugar fix out there. Careful: bread contains sugar so you jolly well can’t have any.
This is absurd. But inevitable. Be ready for the sugar damnation brigade to take over, and for the low sugar or sugar-free sweeteners (natural like Stevia, or synthetic like sucralose) to take the moral high ground. But we will all suffer, as usual, from this simplistic evangelism. Just as not all fats are equal – there are good fats and bad fats – so sugar is not a homogenous substance. When produced naturally, used wisely and enjoyed in a time-honoured fashion, good sugar is one of life’s great pleasures. I love honey (from a small producer), organic maple syrup, rapadura sugar, coconut palm flower sugar and, of course, jaggery. Do I add them to my Bolognese sauce? No. To my stewed rhubarb? But of course. These are all wild or unrefined sugars to be appreciated and savoured, and used sparingly. They come complete with a complex, ever changing selection of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Used in moderation, they not only give pleasure, but also health. And if you think I am about to be mortally afraid of good wine, you can think again, as I raise my glass to the simple pleasures of good sugars.
Please note that very little of this blog is original. The truth has been out there longer than you think. It’s just we’ve been too busy stuffing down low fat doughnuts to bother to listen. Please see, for instance, the 1975 book, Sugar Blues, by William Dufty. And for more startling insights into why all sugars are not equal, take a moment to study this nutritional comparison between unrefined cane juice sugar and refined sugars.