Sugar occupies a unique place in cultural and culinary landscapes. It has graduated from an esoteric ancient crop to an omnipresent part of modern food consumption. Sugar’s history, however, is not always a sweet story, and it poses contemporary health concerns as well. Join Active Minds as we explore the fascinating world of sugar.

Key Lecture Points

  • It’s never a bad time to talk about sugar. From humble origins as a southeast Asian cane crop to an omnipresent feature of global culinary culture, sugar is one of the most important food additives in human history.
  • Sugar’s economic history is fascinating and often awful. Sugar was one of the primary drivers of the slave economies that developed in the New World during the era of European colonization. Sugar was once one of the single most valuable commodities, earning the moniker “white gold”. Sugar also played a role in the United States’ own imperial adventures in places such as Hawaii and Cuba during the 19th century.
  • Consumption of sugar in the developed world in general and the United States in particular has skyrocketed over the past century, due in part to the prevalence of sugar sweetened beverages such as soda.
  • The health consequences of sugar consumption, especially over-consumption, have become more well-known is recent decades. Health complications from eating too much sugar include heart diseases, diabetes, and oral health issues such as tooth decay.
  • For its myriad flaws as an indulgent, possibly harmful substance and its role in global economic exploitation, sugar remains an almost-universally loved part of worldwide food culture. Sugar’s presence can be found in nearly every culture at any given time, but gets special attention during the holiday season.

Exploration Questions

  • What is your favorite sugary treat? Would you define yourself as a high sugar consumer?
  • Have you ever tried any of the above-mentioned sugar snacks?
  • Have you ever made an effort to limit your sugar intake?

Reflective Questions

  • Should public health officials take efforts to limit sugar consumption, given the United States’ astronomical rates of sugar consumption and its documented health effects?
  • Are there any lessons to be gleaned from sugar’s hyper-exploitative past? Can those lessons be applied the current system of interconnected global supply chains and the ways that consumer products reach store shelves?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Mintz, Sidney, and Godlstein, Darra. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Oxford University Press, 2015. 920 pages. An in-depth and exhaustive collection of sugary treats and sweets from around the world.
    Click here to order
  • Macinnis, Peter. Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar. Allen & Unwin, 2020. 190 pages. An examination of the economic history of sugar with a specific focus on the slave trade and the social and political ramifications of the growth of the international sugar trade.
    Click here to order
  • Edwards, William. The Science of Sugar Confectionary. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2015. A scientific look at the processes of sugar confection and the development of sugar’s gastronomical history.
    Click here to order