Food History

Sugar R.I.P

Apparently, sugar is slowly poisoning us and its end is nigh. Introduction of new taxes and recent discoveries of natural alternatives may mean cheap sugar becoming a thing of the past, supply outstripping demand. The price of sugar could be pushed-up and we may see a return to a time when only the wealthy can afford to buy it.

The government’s new Sugar Tax, to be levied on high-sugar drinks, particularly fizzy drinks has, for the most part, been well-received. This revenue generating scheme will divert some of the money raised into initiatives aimed at tackling the obesity pandemic.

Will this new tax succeed in reducing our sugar consumption? The short answer is, probably not. Higher prices alone never changed people’s habits with regards smoking, did they?  Only a combination of educational campaigns, legislation, health clinics and alternatives such as’vaping’ resulted in a significant drop in sales of tobacco products.

The obesity crisis is a complex issue and sugar is not its only cause. Lack of exercise, food education, cookery skills and poor lifestyle choices coupled with a variety of other socio-economic factors, all need to be addressed, in equal measure, before significant change can take place. We mustn’t make sugar a pariah. After all, it is a good servant but rather a bad master.

A step in the right direction towards rebalancing our levels of sugar consumption would be to legislate against sugar content in, so-called, low fat food products. For example, many low fat yoghurts contain so much sweetener, you might as well eat a handful of sugar lumps! There also needs to be greater public education regarding how to interpret data printed on food labelling and packaging. We should stop taking notice only of calorie and fat content and pay attention to sugar, salt and carbohydrate levels as well.

Household Uses for Sugar

In light of the newsworthy nature of sugar’s demise, I was recently asked to appear, as a live studio guest, on Solent News Now. I discussed the history of sugar and its taxation as well as providing viewers with some practical solutions as to what we should do with a kitchen full of unwanted sugar. Here are my top tips:

  • To keep your cut flowers fresh, add 3 teaspoons of sugar to 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Add mixture to water in your vase. The sugar nourishes the flowers’ stems and the vinegar has anti-bacterial properties which will help keep your water and flowers fresh;
  • Exfoliate your skin. Make a paste using soft brown sugar, a few drops of almond/olive oil and a few drops of skin safe essential oil (for example tea-tree or lavender). Apply directly to your skin and rub-in using gentle, circular movements. Rinse mixture off with warm water. Pat dry. Your skin will be so smooth;
  • Grass stains can be removed using a paste made from sugar and water. Apply to stain, leave for 1 hour and wash garment as normal;
  • Clean your coffee grinder (old-fashioned, crank-handle version, not an electric one). Pour plenty of sugar directly into the grinder. Grind the sugar as coffee;
  • Keep your bread bin free from mould by adding a few sugar cubes inside the bin. If you add a few cubes of sugar to your cheese container this will also help keep it free from mould;
  • Removal of leg hairs. The art of sugaring dates back to Egyptian times. Hair that has been removed by means, grows back softer. Make a paste from sugar, water and lemon juice which has been heated to the ‘soft-ball’ stage (use a sweet thermometer). Let the mixture cool. Cover the area of skin you wish to remove hair from. Cover the same area with cotton strips designed for hair removal and follow the manufacturers instructions for removing hair (i.e. direction and areas suitable for this type of hair removal treatment).

Yudkin’s Pure White and Deadly

In 1972, a British physiologist and nutritionist Professor John Yudkin published, Pure, White and Deadly. Yudkin was the first to make a link between sugar consumption and childhood obesity. Interestingly, it is the 1970s when our appetite for consuming synthetic foods with high sugar content began to reach worrying levels. Yudkin’s publication was derided, his reputation and career left in tatters.  He never fully recovered and in 1995 died, largely a forgotten man.

In 2009, a talk by Professor Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, ‘Sugar: The Bitter Truth’, was posted on You-Tube instantly gaining millions of views. At the time of writing, total views of his talk are nearly 6 and a half million. Lustig made extensive reference to Yudkin’s research, in particularly Pure, White and Deadly.

Although now out of print, Pure White and Deadly and Yudkin’s theories are now central to the anti-sugar trend. Lustig’s talk is also credited with kick-starting the anti-sugar-movement campaign which calls for sugar to be treated as a toxin, like alcohol and tobacco, taxes on foods with a high sugar content and health warnings on packaging.

Sugar Reduction: The Evidence For Action

In October 2015, the Public Health England, published their report on the impact of sugar consumption on the nation’s health, Sugar Reduction: The Evidence For Action:

Sugar intakes of all population groups are above the recommendations, contributing between 12 to 15% of energy. Consumption of sugar and sugar sweetened drinks is particularly high in school age children. It also tends to be highest among the most disadvantaged who also experience a higher prevalence of tooth decay and obesity and its health consequences. (p.5)

Over the last 30 to 40 years there have been profound changes in our relationship with food – how we shop and where we eat as well as the foods available and how they are produced. Food is now more readily available, more heavily marketed, promoted and advertised and, in real terms, is much cheaper than ever before. All of these nudge us towards over consumption. The changes have crept up on us and while none of this is anyone’s fault, it is time to do something about it.(p.5)

The report, although a long read, is actually very interesting. Research has indicated that adults, aged between 19 and 64, are consuming high levels of sugar predominantly from these products:

  • table sugar;
  • biscuits;
  • buns;
  • cakes;
  • pastries;
  • puddings;
  • soft drinks.

Sugar Alternatives

Healthier alternatives to sugar are now being sought. If the public turns its back on refined sugar then there needs to be a suitable replacement to satisfy our sweet tooth. It is estimated that a 1/3 of British chocolate is expected to be low-calorie by 2021. Confectionary giant Mars by GlycoMar, a marine biotechnology company, may have come-up with the perfect substitute.

The boffins at GlycoMar have discovered a green algae, similar to those that cause scum to form on ponds, which produces a sugar-like chemical to protect it from harm. When refined into a white powder, it can be used to sweeten products and dishes without piling on the calories. Who knows, this clever alternative may just be the solution so watch this space.

Healthy-eating tsars and wellness gurus are also feverishly developing recipes containing zero sugar.  A popular substitute being honey. Dried fruit, such as apricots, figs and dates are also proving a popular sweet alternative. Be warned though, you might benefit from a clean colon but dried fruits etc still have a high sugar content. When sugar was last rationed in Britain (1940-53), carrots and beetroots were a popular, natural, alternative to sugar. I have used both in my baking, they are superb sweeteners, particularly carrots.

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A Brief History of Sugar & Its Taxation

Sugar has been used for practical, culinary and medicinal purposes since ancient times. If you want to know more about the social history of sugar then I recommend, Sweetness and Power: Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz (1986), it is excellent. Mintz examines the socio-political context of sugar and explores its journey to becoming a staple ingredient in the English diet.

I am concerned with a single substance called sucrose, a kind of sugar extracted primarily from the sugar cane, and with what became of it. The story can be summed up in a few sentences. In 1000 A.D., a few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one- in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.

(Sweetness and Power: Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Wilfred Mintz, 1986, pp.5-6)

Before sugar, our ancestors satisfied their sweet tooth with honey or fruit. A trend, as I have already mentioned, that is returning. In Roman Britain (AD 43-c.409), small quantities of sugar was imported into the Empire for medicinal rather than culinary use. As a consequence, for a long time, only apothecaries had the right to sell it.

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) took sugar canes with him on his second voyage to the New World. Spain cultivated sugar in the Canaries and Antilles in the mid 1400s and quantities arriving in Britain surged at this time. Sugar was shipped in solid cones weighing up to 30 lbs and broken-up with special ‘nippers’ then ground into a fine powder for use.

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Many British monarchs had a sweet tooth. Henry VIII (1491-1547) employed a Mrs Cornwallis in his kitchens at Hampton Court, her role was to make him sweet puddings. By the time Elizabeth I (1533-1603) reached 65, she had severe tooth decay from eating too much sugar.  By 1619, the first American Colony at Jamestown had sugar (and slaves!) Slavery made sugar cheaper.

During the 18th century, when tea and coffee were popular but bitter tasting, social drinks, sugar was in demand as a sweetener. By the end of the century, average sugar consumption rose from 8 to 13 lbs per head. This trend continued upwards and in 1901 Britons were getting through 90 lbs of sugar every year.

In both World Wars, sugar rationing was strict. In World War One, it came into force towards the end of hostilities, in January 1918. Allowances were 1/2lb per person, per week. In World War Two, sugar rationing began in January 1940 and ended in 1953. The weekly allowance was 8 ozs (225g). Interestingly, instances of tooth decay during these 13, sugar-free, years fell dramatically.

The government’s levy on soft-drinks is not the first time sugar has been taxed. In 1764 (5th April), The Sugar Act (also known as the American Revenue Act) was brought in to replace the Molasses Act which had expired the previous year. The Sugar Act supported a form of indirect taxation. The Act was not only designed to help regulate the sugar trade it also raised revenue.

A large proportion of this revenue helped clear extensive war debts accrued as a result of the Seven Years’ War (known in Colonial America as the French and Indian War) which ended in February, 1763. The Sugar Act was repealed in 1766 and replaced with the Revenue Act of 1766. This 1766 Act reduced tax to one penny per gallon on molasses imports, British or foreign.

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