The Bitterness of Sugar
Updated: Mar 28
By Lucy Brock
Sugar is arguably one of the most historically significant goods ever to be traded, processed, and consumed. Sugar production and the birth of the sugar industry in the Americas has a grim and lengthy past. While sugar was the driving force of the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th-century, today the industry has bent the truth on health studies, disguising the fact that most refined sugars are not vegan, and continuing to exploit cheap labor in developing nations (Whipps, O’Connor, Bratskeir, Cole).
A Bitter Backstory
Sugar, once known as White Gold, was the focal point of the Middle Passage, a system that transported Africans to Central America to be sold into slavery, moved goods to Europe so that the European superpowers could reap the benefits of this labour and then reinvest their profits in ships that travelled back down to Africa to repeat this cycle (Whipps). While sugar cane, which now accounts for 80% of produced sugar, is native only to Southeast Asia, Brazil actually produces more sugar than any other country (Whipps). This turnover in production happened over multiple centuries. The first slave boats arrived in the Americas in 1505, and by the middle of the 1800s nearly 10 million Africans had been forcibly transported to the New World (Whipps). Sugar was by far the most important good being harvested in Central America, and many historians have argued that if Britain had not been so focused on protecting their sugar plantations in the Carribean, then the thirteen original colonies of the United States may never have gained independence (Whipps).
An Insidious Industry
Not only could sugar have been responsible for shaping global superpowers as we know them today, but it has also significantly changed global health. In the past few years it has been revealed that the sugar industry has been manipulating nutritional science for decades. In 1967, the Sugar Association paid three Harvard scientists what would today be about 70,000 CAD to cherry pick certain facts in a study that would downplay the connections they found between sugar and heart disease, and instead to link these health complications to saturated fats (O’Connor). Similarly, the Coca-Cola company spent millions of dollars on research trying to minimize the link between sugar and diabetes, and several candy makers have funded studies that try to argue children who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t (O’Connor). In addition, one of the three Harvard scientists that was paid off by the Sugar Association became the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, helping draft some of the government’s first dietary guidelines for food companies (O’Connor).
An Increase in Illness
The results of these influences by companies that rely on sugar production is that there is a huge amount of misinformation at the consumer level. While many people believe that the worst thing for one’s heart is fat content, both the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization, among others, have warned that added sugars may have more to do with increasing the risk of heart disease than fat (O’Connor). New studies are showing the truly terrible effects of added sugar on the health of those in countries who eat more processed foods. The World Health Organization estimates that issues in regulating blood sugar kill about four million people a year (Brooks). While genetics certainly plays a significant role in diabetes, the number of patients with diabetes has doubled since 1980 (Brooks). In 1920, diabetes was relatively unheard of in countries such as Kenya and Uganda, but by 1970 sugary products had spread from the Americas to these regions, and diabetes clinics were popping up in every major city (Brooks). If we take a look at the island nation of Tokelau in the South Pacific Ocean we can see the effects of sugar as opposed to that of fat. In the 1960s, Tokelauan food markets were relatively untouched by western products, but more than half of the average Tokelauan’s daily caloric intake came from fat, much of it saturated (Brooks). At this time about 6% of Tokelauans had diabetes (Brooks). But by 2014, as Tokelauans imported more sugary goods, sugar-consumption per capita rose from eight pounds a year to fifty-four pounds, and currently 38% of all Tokelauans have been diagnosed with diabetes (Brooks). It is unclear as to whether these health concerns are the direct result of higher sugar intake or the obesity that is sometimes the result of a high-sugar diet, but sugar has definitely played a role in these numbers. Unfortunately the impact of sugary products disproportionately affects communities of colour. Indigenous Americans are more than twice as likely and black Americans are 1.7 times as likely as white Americans to get diabetes (Brooks). The lack of restrictions that governments in North America put on food companies therefore has a greater effect on these communities. Furthermore these health problems can be very expensive, meaning they place greater financial strain on people of color.
Restrictions placed on sugar companies, or companies that use sugar, would have to take into account the fact that sugar is an addictive substance (Brooks). The sugar industry has managed to insert itself into all aspects of what we consume, be it bread, canned foods, energy drinks, etc. (Brooks). Sugar may even have helped spur widespread nicotine addiction, as sugar added to cigarettes makes inhaling tobacco smoke feel less harsh. This has allowed smokers to fully inhale the tobacco into their lungs, which absorb nicotine much more readily than the inside of someone’s mouth, giving smokers a better high and getting them addicted more quickly (Brooks). If anyone has tried to go sugar-free for a while, they’ll have found that it is nearly impossible unless you cut out all processed foods, basically leaving you with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meat. If we really want people to try to cut down on sugar, we’ll need to rethink the food industry and the regulations that have been shaped by decades of misinformation.
A Vegan Vendetta
Sugar beets are the main ingredient in about 20% of refined sugar, but sugar made from sugar beets is the only refined sugar that is truly vegan (Whipps). Most sugar is made from the sugarcane crop. In the process, sugarcane stalks are crushed to separate the juice from the pulp. The juice is then heated and distilled until it becomes crystallized, which is when it is filtered and bleached using bone char, which gives sugar the white color we are familiar with today (Bratskeir). While refined sugar doesn’t actually contain bone char, which is generally made by heating cow bones at extremely high temperatures until they reduce to carbon, depending on definitions of veganism, processing the food using animal products makes it non-vegan. Some companies rely on alternatives for the bleaching process, such as granular carbon, but since these are processes and not ingredients, companies are not legally obligated to list which method they use on their food packages (Bratskeir).
While several countries now have Fairtrade certifications that they give to companies who can prove they do not use forced labour, labour violations are still hugely prominent in the sugar industry (ILRF). Highlights of reports on the sugar industry done by the International Labour Rights Fund in 2004 included serious violations found in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. In Guatemala, where it is against policy to hire women and children in the sugar industry, the ILRF found women working for lower than minimum wage, as well as children as young as ten who were forced to participate in labour to help support their family (ILRF). Even though most sugarcane cutters worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, they were unable to make enough to cover their basic needs (ILRF). Furthermore, 75% of workers reported workplace accidents, and workers who complained about low wages or unsafe working conditions were said to be blacklisted at other farming mills (ILRF). Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador had similar complaints, which also included being exposed to unsafe chemicals, little access to potable water, and a lack of help or accountability from companies in response to injuries and illnesses directly related to the sugar farming (ILRF).
The immense history of the sugar industry, that may have helped shape global politics as well as influenced mainstream scientific views, means that sugar sales have affected our very culture. There are even positive connotations to the word “sugar,” including variations such as “sweet,” “sweetheart,” “honey,” while most of us give a negative significance to the word “fat.” Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF and an author of a study on the role of nutrition and heart disease, has acknowledged, “It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion” (O’Connor). Shaping the scientific discussion around sugar has trickled down to mold views on sugar in the public sphere. While most people know that sugar is bad for you, few are aware of its role in the slave trade, the manipulation of scientific facts and subsequent consequences on global health, and the industry’s continued participation in unjust labour.
Bratskeir, Kate. “Not All Sugar Is Vegan. Surprise!,” HuffPost Canada. January 5, 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sugar-vegan-bone-char-yikes_n_6391496.
Brooks, Michael. “Sweet Death: How the Sugar Industry Created a Global Crisis.” Accessed February 25, 2020. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/01/sweet-death-how-sugar-industry-created-global-crisis.
Cole, Nicki Lisa. “Child Labour, Poverty and Terrible Working Conditions Lie behind the Sugar You Eat.” The Conversation. Accessed February 25, 2020. http://theconversation.com/child-labour-poverty-and-terrible-working-conditions-lie-behind-the-sugar-you-eat-95242.
“New Reports on Labor Conditions in Sugar Industry in Central America | International Labor Rights Forum.” Accessed February 25, 2020. https://laborrights.org/releases/new-reports-labor-conditions-sugar-industry-central-america.
O’Connor, Anahad. “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat.” The New York Times, September 12, 2016, sec. Well. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html.
Whipps, Heather. “How Sugar Changed the World.” livescience.com. June 02, 2008. https://www.livescience.com/4949-sugar-changed-world.html.