WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sugar was the oil of its day. The more you tasted, the more you wanted. In New Guinea about 10,000 years ago sugar was domesticated and was an elixir, a cure for every ailment, an answer for every mood, and was featured prominently in ancient New Guinean myths. Today, the taste of sugar still hits our tongues like a shot of starburst.
Rich Cohen, a New York Times bestselling author as well as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone writes in the cover story of the August 2013 edition of National Geographic magazine, titled SUGAR LOVE (A not so sweet story) that “In 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds a year. In 1800 the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar. In 1870 that same sweet-toothed bloke was eating 47 pounds annually. Was he satisfied? Of course not! By 1900 he was up to 100 pounds a year. In that span of 30 years, world production of cane and beet sugar exploded from 2.8 million tons a year to 13 million plus. Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually, or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.” The August issue is on newsstands July 30.
Rich’s grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, a short-order cook, invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low, primarily for diabetics. Sweet’N Low was initially used in hospitals and allowed diabetics to enjoy a little added sweetness to a cup of tea, coffee, and other foods in the measured amounts of a packet to avoid the possible frenzy of spooning the Sweet’N Low from a sugar bowl. Those little packets of Sweet’N Low were regularly stolen from hospitals and it quickly became clear that there was a big demand as so many were trying to cut back on sugar.
As lands with oil and gas are greatly sought after today so it was with lands for sugarcane that needed tropical, rain-drenched fields to flourish. With wars affecting trade among countries, it became clear to develop new sources of sugar. In school they call it the age of exploration, the search for territories and islands that would send Europeans all around the world. In reality, it was a hunt for fields where sugarcane would prosper.
Rich Cohen is available for interviews on Wednesday, July 31, and August 1, to discuss how sugar played an important part in the history of the world, the conquest for lands in Barbados in 1625 and throughout the Caribbean where lands were depleted within a century by the production of sugarcane. Water tables were sapped and only brought the search for new lands including Jamaica, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico. Rich can discuss the rise of slavery which made sugar all the more profitable and can answer questions whether sugar is at the center of a colossal American health crisis. Is fat, salt or sugar in our foods the biggest culprit? What about the mutation that made apes efficient processors of fructose? How much sugar does our body need to survive and be healthy? What is the good news—what happens to your body when you stop eating an excess of sugar?
If sugar is so bad for us, why do we crave it? The short answer is that an injection of sugar into the bloodstream stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that respond to heroin and cocaine. All tasty foods do this to some extent, but sugar has a sharply pronounced effect. In this sense it is literally an addictive drug. The average American eats 22.7 teaspoons of sugar each day. Even without dipping into a sugar bowl, it’s not hard to eat so much of it because of the sugars in processed foods. Though sugar consumption has dropped since 1999, we’re still wildly exceeding the recommended limit.
Rich Cohen is a New York Times bestselling author as well as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He has written seven books, including Tough Jews, Israel Is Real, and the widely acclaimed memoir Sweet and Low. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and Best American Essays. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, three sons, and dog.
About National Geographic Society: The National Geographic Society is one of the world’s largest membership-based, nonprofit scientific and educational organizations. Its mission is to inspire people to care about the planet. Founded in 1888, National Geographic has funded more than 10,000 scientific research, conservation and exploration projects and supports an education program promoting geographic literacy. For more information, visit www.nationalgeographic.com.
Read his Rich Cohen's story, Sugar Love.