Sugar: The Science, The History, & The Love Affair

Sugar: The Science, The History, & The Love Affair

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t eat sugar” even while pouring honey into their cup of tea?  The word “sugar” has come to mean many things to many people, and some define it very narrowly to mean the white stuff they used to dump into their coffee.

To properly discuss sugar, we’ll start with what it is, where it comes from, the dangers of sugar, & why we love it.

Sugar: The Science, History & Love Affair

What is “sugar”?

In Chemistry-speak, sugar is C 1 2 H 2 2 O 1 1, ; it is a basic chemical compound that is the basis of all carbohydrates (glucose is the simplest form of carbohydrate).   And carbohydrates, produced by plants, are the macronutrients required by all living beings to produce energy.  They are the “hydrates of carbon” (Joachim, p. 98) and no matter what form the carbohydrate takes (sugar, starch, fiber, pectin, etc), all living things eventually break them down into….sugar.   This broken down sugar (glucose) is fuel.  Blood sugar is energy.  Sugar consumption begins immediately upon birth as it is found in a mother’s milk (called lactose); perhaps this connection is what starts the lifelong love affair with the #1 food additive.

Mother feeding child

And so, the person swearing off sugar is really swearing off refined sugar, sugar used as an additive to enhance food flavors.  No one can live a day without sugar in the bloodstream.  Is refined sugar a modern phenomenon?

History of Sugar

We often associate savory spices with the nation of India, but we can also thank them for processed sugar.  Extracting sugarcane juice and then boiling it into syrup began in India earlier than 500 BC.  Refining the sugar further to remove the dark crystals came about 400 years later.  Sugar was used medicinally in India, then in Persia, North Africa, and Spain all before the 7th century.  It didn’t hit Europe until some time after the Crusades and was by then not solely used as a medicine.  By the 1400’s, the candy industry was in full swing.  The British fancied a spot of sugar in the tea—so much so that the average person in England went from consuming 4 lbs of sugar annually to consuming 12 lbs of sugar just within an 80 year span during the 1700’s (Joachim, p. 552).

Cup of Tea

Americans, one could say, are having a similar renaissance now, as we have quadrupled our intake with the modern diet, and then some.   Don’t believe me?  Guyenet, an obesity researcher and neurbiologist determined that if the current trend in America continues, the American diet would be 100% sugar by 2606!

Graph from WholeHealthSource

Graph used courtesy of Stephan Guyenet

Sugar Beets joined in the fun due to the work of a Prussian chemist in the mid 1800’s.  Today, sugar beets account for more than 45% of modern refined sugar.  And that brings us to the next not-so-fun subject…genetically modified foods.  Back in 2009, Monsanto petitioned the FDA to allow the planting of GMO sugar beet seed, but the FDA was forced (by court order) to say “not yet” until it could be tested (you just gotta read this article).  But the FDA never completed the review of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beet seed prior to letting farmers use the seed anyway (so you have a federal agency defying a court order, basically).  Between 2009-2012, the seeds were used without real, legal permission until the review was completed by the agency responsible for all GMOs unleashed upon humanity– Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)—which, by the way, falls under the purview of the USDA.  You can read that official review statement here but I’ll warn you, methinks they protesteth too much with that self-validating last paragraph.  Eyeroll.

The Eeee-vils of Sugar

The subject of sugar’s effects on health overwhelms me: the damage that overindulgence can wreak is overwhelming to every system in your body!   I’ve written about food addiction, and about autoimmune disease and the connection they have to diet.  I suffered horribly until I learned to take baby steps towards changing my diet and regained my own health.   Maybe one day I’ll make that subject– the dangers of sugar– my opus.  But until then read this article by Andrea Fabry (someone whom I deeply respect) when she not only explains sugar but its effect on the liver.   Dr. Rossano links sugar intake with anxiety attacks, among other things.   Sugar feeds mold, and although that’s great when it comes to cheese or alcohol, it can make you very sick—so I also recommend this article by The Holistic Homestead in which Arwen explains the science and gives clear action steps to recovery.   Kelly from SimpleLifeMom talks about her own personal health and she gives irrefutable evidence and facts to back up the fact that too much sugar really has the power to destroy.



Why We Love Sugar

From a purely scientific and historical standpoint, sugar is traditional and simply unavoidable.  Like everything else, the problems begin when it is taken out of context.  It used to be something special and difficult to obtain, and was generally used in its more natural form (like juices).  Now, the processed version is found in virtually everything on the grocery store shelf as either white sugar or worse—corn syrup.  We cannot deny, however, the culinary benefits to sugar and its role in creating fermented foods (like kombucha, for instance).  There really are some benefits to sugar, but that doesn’t mean you have to use the Roundup Ready, bleached stuff, or that you have to drink carbonated corn syrup.  We’ll look at some options, but first let’s admit something on the happy side—there are benefits to sugar!

Benefits of Sugar


You are going to consume some sugar, in some form.  We use honey most often around our homestead (even in our homemade jam), but maple syrup comes in at a close second.  Our dear friend Kathie is an expert on that; she explains how you can make the substitution of maple syrup for white sugar.

{If you’ve ever wondered why anyone would be crazy enough to make their own syrup, click on the picture below!}

Maple Sugaring

Kelly from SimpleLifeMom gives a quick & concise list of some of your options.  Eliminating dependence on white sugar and bringing down the consumption levels to pre-1700s Great Britain would be quite a feat, would it not?  Can you bring your average consumption (assuming you’re an average American, which you are not) from 45 lbs annually down to only 4 lbs a year?

Remember things like moderation, ethical harvesting practices, and the purity of the product—those things matter.  Not all countries that produce sugar cane have American employment ethics.  Nearly half the sugar you buy in the store is from genetically modified plants and has been treated with copious amounts of Roundup (note: the actual genetic modification made to the sugar beet was in regards to its tolerance to Roundup, since a real sugar beet dies when exposed to it).  Most of what you see in the store has also been so overprocessed, there are zero minerals left.

I suggest finding white sugar alternatives where appropriate.  I think that the this article explains those alternatives extremely well (and check out the flow chart, it brought a chuckle).   You might be surprised how simple it is to make substitutions in recipes calling for white sugar.  In fact, we only eat homemade jam at our house and not a jar of it has white sugar in it, because by using Pomona’s Universal Pectin I can substitute other more natural sweeteners and with only a fraction of the quantity white-sugar-recipes require.

Blackberry Jam

Ethical, Organic, Non-GMO Options:

Sucanat is actually a trademarked brand name (held by Ragus Holdings, Inc), did you know that?  I knew that it’s often used as an alternative to brown sugar (that’s how I use it anyway).  It’s an acronym: “Sucre de canne naturel”—natural cane sugar.  According to the sugar industry, it’s somewhere between refined sugar and real, raw sugar; it’s the middle ground.  It’s not terribly different than any other organic cane sugar except that it does retain some of its molasses content, meaning it does have some residual minerals that over-processed cane sugar does not have anymore.  Rapadura is virtually the same thing.  It’s like Kleenex vs. tissues, Xerox vs. photocopy,  Pantry Paratus vs. “kitchen self sufficiency” (wink).   The benefit to buying the brand name from Pantry Paratus—is that you are getting organic, fair trade certified product, so you know it’s ethical.  Plus, you’re buying in bulk which eliminates excess packaging waste and saves some cash.

Organic, Fair Trade

If you are looking for cane sugar without the molasses content, you are getting a lesser product nutritionally.  Then again, who eats sugar for nutritional purposes?   You can at least ensure that the sugar you buy is cane (not beet), organic, non-GMO, and fair trade.  Pantry Paratus knows that this imported product is costly (while the over-processed, chemical laden junk is only pennies on the dollar at your grocery store)…so we sell it in 5 lb bulk bags.  Sugar doesn’t spoil; if you keep it dry by storing it properly, you will save real cash with the bulk purchase, while living out your convictions with your purchasing power.


What you need to know:

*Sugar byproducts are alcohol, citric acid, nutritional yeast & molasses.  They can come from beets or from cane, so be sure that you only buy organic (or at least nonGMO) products.  You can get non-GMO citric acid & nutritional yeast at Pantry Paratus.

*There is no law requiring food manufacturers to reveal the source of sugar as either beet or cane because both are chemically identical.  Corn is another matter.

*You can make substitutions in recipes between 1 cup white sugar & 1 cup packed brown sugar (but there might be a slight impact on flavor).

*You can substitute up to 1 cup honey for 1 cup sugar; a recipe calling for more sugar will not be a 1:1 ratio with honey, however.

*Powdered sugar nearly always contains cornstarch: make your own at home but pulsing regular white cane sugar in a coffee grinder.


Want to learn about sugar alternatives?

What sweeteners are doing to you
Read the article I wrote for Real Food Outlaws here.


Many resources that you would also enjoy are hyperlinked in the article.  The educational resources not hyperlinked and that were used to inform this article are as follows:

Ettlinger, S. (2007). Twinkie, deconstructed: My journey to discover how the ingredients found in processed foods are grown, mined (yes, mined), and manipulated into what America eats. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

Guyenet, S. (2012, February 18). Whole Health Source: By 2606, the US Diet will be 100 Percent Sugar. Retrieved January 4, 2015, from

Joachim, D., & Schloss, A. (2008). The science of good food: The ultimate reference on how cooking works. Toronto: R. Rose.

Wolke, R., & Parrish, M. (2002). What Einstein told his cook: Kitchen science explained. New York: W.W. Norton

Wolke, R., & Parrish, M. (2005). What Einstein told his cook 2: The sequel : Further adventures in kitchen science. New York: W. W. Norton.


Andrea @LittleBigHarvest

posted on Monday, January 5, 2015 8:28:48 AM America/Denver

What a great article. I am so glad you mentioned homemade jams. While I love using homegrown and foraged fruits to make jam, I have always disliked using so much white sugar. I’ve been trying to cut refined white sugar out of my life as much as possible, and this article is a big help, filled with information. Thanks!

Andrea Fabry

posted on Saturday, January 10, 2015 9:16:14 AM America/Denver

What a fantastic article! Can you imagine a diet that’s 100% sugar? Wow.

Sarah Sheean

posted on Monday, January 12, 2015 8:19:20 PM America/Denver

Thank you so much for this much needed info! We here in the US are just beginning to learn about all these overwhelming details about what lurks in our food. I for one am totally overwhelmed with all the information and how to find whole foods for my family. Again, thanks.