In the twenty-first century, many of us take sugar for granted. It seems like a basic grocery item essential for every kitchen, and only people who are dieting question our need for the sweetener. The idea that it did not even exist 2000 years ago seems almost unbelievable. What did ancient people sprinkle on their morning cereal or stir into their tea? How could they make cookies, candy, and cakes? Of course, without sugar, the ancients had none of these items.
According to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, authors of Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science, life was very different before people in India discovered how to produce refined sugar from sugar cane in the first or second century. The recipe was then closely guarded for trade purposes, and it was many centuries before Europeans were able to get small amounts of the "spice." Once they did, they sent explorers to find better trade routes to the Orient to get sugar and the other spices. When they eventually began colonizing distant lands, planting sugar cane and producing sugar was a prime consideration. Sugar plantations, of course, needed cheap labor to stay profitable, so all of the European countries greatly expanded their trade in slaves, mostly from Africa. Piracy flourish, wars were fought, fortunes were won and lost, tropical environments destroyed, and many innocent people were worked to death so wealthy Europeans could have sugar. Ironically, the destructive forces producing sugar also created much of our modern world.
In this book for young readers, the authors contend that much good has resulted in the end, as they tell the stories of their own ancestors who worked in the international sugar trade. Health officials might not totally agree, but such arguments are at this point just academic. The authors do a good job of showing how the desire for sugar drove political, commercial, industrial, and cultural developments. They also describe how we now get our sugar now. Younger and older readers should no longer take granulated sugar for granted.
Aronson, Marc and Marina Budhos. Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. Clarion Books, 2010. ISBN 9780618574926.