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Gleaning from the Food of Yesterday: Cane Sugar Consumption

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Cane Sugar Stalks

Without receiving a great exhortation about the negative impact of sugar on our health, most individuals would agree that the average American should consume less sugar. However, despite this acknowledgement, sugar consumption continues. This can be contributed to two primary factors: first, sugar is in SO MANY common foods and secondly, sugar is highly addictive. Has this delicious, but drug-like ingredient always been an issue? Join me for our first investigation into the history of food as we survey the production and consumption of sugar over the last 400-600 years.

The agricultural history of sugar cane dates to the early 6th or 7th century in India and Middle Eastern countries. However, in the 16th century, the first cane sugar mills were built in Jamaica, Cuba, Portugal, and other countries. There, the three foot sugar cane stalk--full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals-- became one Tablespoon of granulated raw sugar. At its first introduction, this ingredient was primarily enjoyed by the wealthy; who, aside from delighting in its sweetness, began to experience a decay in oral health. (Ironically enough, the lower class would blacken their teeth out to resemble the wealthy!) By the 17th century, sugar production increased as the population began to replace honey with sugar in many recipes. Sugar was still a treat, but was made more available to the common people.

How much sugar were these people actually eating? Let’s look at some numbers researched by the Natural Society[i], on the consumption of sugar during those centuries and how it has changed today:

1700’s- the average person consumed approximately 4 lbs of sugar each year.

1800’s- the average person consumed approximately 18 pounds of sugar each year.

1900’s-the average person consumed approximately 90 pounds of sugar each year.

2009- the average American consumed approximately 150-200 pounds each year.

With the early production of sugar, the primary health concern seemed to be oral decay. Since the 1900’s, we have seen the effects of high blood sugar in many health issues including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Observing this change through the centuries, one might ask is sugar ever okay? I would encourage you to refer to my article on the foundations of blood sugar handling, published February 9th (and archived on my website.)

In upcoming articles, we will investigate deeper into the evolution of the food industry during the 18th and 19th century to understand more clearly the increase in sugar consumption to where it is today, as well as other processed foods. Even though reducing sugar intake is very challenging in today’s food culture, it has never been more freeing! When I work with clients individually or through a RESTART class. I equip them with tools needed to regulate blood sugar as we tackle the challenge together. The fruit has been amazing testimonies and results!


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