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Booked on Sugar


Photo © Maksym Kravtsov, istockphoto

Sometimes the television remote control finds the channel for Destiny. I believe I was indeed destined to see Marc Aronson's and Marina Buddhos's presentation to students at the Brooklyn Public Library based on their recent book, Sugar Changed the World. Their program certainly changed my world. While written for a youth audience, this is a book that adults will enjoy, and naturally, a great book for parents to share with their children.

I often wonder at the parallels between drug addiction and food addiction in our culture. I know I'm not alone in this. You can't miss the similarities:  "Betcha can't eat just one.  Crave the crunch. Do you dream in chocolate? Hershey chocolate is bliss."  And, as noted in my earlier posts on  Super Bowl ads, when you see a man "snorting" Dorito crumbs .... well, I rest my case.

I've also thought about how quickly we "judge" people with substance abuse problems while the US clearly suffers from food abuse. If I can't turn down an extra helping of dessert, what right do I have to judge someone who can't turn down an extra helping of something illegal and dangerous to mind, body, and soul?  Don't get me wrong:  I'm not equating hard drugs or alcohol with food. I'm not saying that the person who eats two Snickers bars a day needs the help that a heroin addict does. I am saying that addiction is oh so very subtle--and useful.  It's most useful when you are one who can profit from someone else's addiction.

Aronson and Buddhos shared a wealth of information on the history of sugar--for the details, go to their elegant Web site and/or buy the book!  To give you a taste, though (pun intended), I'll share a few items that I learned from their presentation on CSpan.

Sugar began its life as a spice--not a sweetener as such, but as a sweet taste. To enjoy that taste, one had to chew on sugar cane, or develop formulas to extract sugar from cane (and later from beets).  It wasn't long before humankind also learned that sugar provides (a kind of) energy, a lift when you're tired. Why did our country and England (among others) import so much more sugar beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?  Industrialization. Human industrialization--humans, including children, working 10+ hours a day in factories. To keep going, they drank a lot of tea or coffee with sugar. Sugar was cheap, thanks mostly to slave labor. The people who cut cane, carried it, and worked in the sugar mills made life in a factory look wonderful. The sugar mill functioned 24 hours a day. A sword was kept close by in case one of the workers got an arm caught in the cane-crushing machinery. Rather than stop the machinery, the "foreman" would slice off the worker's arm.

In 1700, where sugar consumption could be measured, it was 4 pounds per year per person. By 1800, 14 pounds.  By 1900, 90 pounds.  And by 2010, 150 pounds per person per year.
This book is a magnificent wake-up call. Have we not been slaves to sugar? It's so darn easy to become one!  There's a place for it in our diet, sure, but as Marina Buddhos points out, it stopped being a spice--an extra, a flourish--and became a staple-- a staple that has no nutritional value.


Don't be hooked on sugar--get booked on sugar with this thoughtful, accessible (and yet scholarly) book: Sugar Changed the World.  It's up to us to write the story of how it will or won't change our world in the years to come.

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