With movie theaters and restaurants closed from COVID-19, sugar demand is down, Bloomberg reported. The sweetener surplus suggests that humans consume more sugar while they’re out than they do at home. Our love for sugar dates back 10,000 years.
The diminishing sugar demand took a worldwide pandemic to occur, according to Bloomberg. “The global closure of restaurants, sports arenas, and cinemas means sugar demand will drop this season for the first time in four decades,” the article said. “Drink and confectionery sales at giants including Coca-Cola Co. and Nestle SA have fallen, and while economies start to reopen, it’s unclear how quickly demand will recover as incomes and employment fall.”
The article pointed out that while health groups encouraged people to cut back on sugar and some producers raised taxes on sugary drinks, “none of that had as much impact as the lockdowns that slashed out-of-home spending. And now the emerging global recession is hurting the demand outlook going forward.”
So how did we get hooked on sugar? The story begins around 8,000 BCE.
The Origins of Sugar
Although different types of sugars are found in most plant foods, granulated sugar—which is what we think of as “sugar,” in general—is mostly found in sugarcane and sugar beets.
“The birthplace of domesticated sugarcane is thought to be in New Guinea, close to 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It was then carried to the Philippines, China, India, and Indonesia—although some scholars think that Indonesia might be an independent place of origin.
“At first, sugar was processed manually by chewing on cane stock; it wasn’t until around 1,700 years ago that sugar cane was made portable, and this likely first happened in India.”
Surprisingly, Dr. Crittenden said, an efficient sugar press wasn’t invented until the 1390s. Until then, the process of extracting sugar from sugarcane was long and arduous.
Sucrose and Its Byproducts
“When the cane was ready to be processed, it had to be extracted immediately, so that the proportion of sucrose in the cane juice was at the optimum level,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The cane fibers were crushed so their liquid could be extracted, and then the cane was either crushed, chopped, ground, or pressed into liquid. Then the liquid was heated up, causing the water to evaporate, and yielding a concentration of sucrose.”
According to Dr. Crittenden, once this liquid was hyper-saturated, sugar crystals appeared. At this point, it would yield molasses, though she said that at another point during the extraction process, it’s also possible to extract sugar cane juice, a candy sweetener.
“The end product of this operation can be either two types of sugar—one is liquid and golden, and the other is typically granular and white,” she said. “The liquid golden sugar was, at one time, a large competitor with honey. You might know it as treacle, a common sweetener in the British diet to this day.”
Early production centers of sugar included Pakistan and Iran, according to Dr. Crittenden, and sugar first reached Europe during the Crusades. From there, it spread around the world and became a household product.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.