The High Cost of Sugar

During the 17th and 18th centuries sugar accounted for one third of Europe’s entire economy. After the Seven Years’ War France chose to retain the sugar producing island areas of Haiti and Guadeloupe, and cede Canada to Britain. By the time of the French revolution Haiti was producing more than half of all the coffee in the world, was producing 40% of the sugar for France and Britain, and accounted for 40% of France’s foreign trade (at a time when France was a dominant economy on the continent). In the 18th century the British West Indies were Great Britain’s most important trading partners.

The Caribbean sugar interests were a lobby that developed as the production of sugar resulted in money pouring into Britain. The lobby supported government policies that ensured the sugar business continued to provide large profits. Eventually a number of the lobbyists became MPs. They had the power and wealth to buy votes and exert pressure on others. They wrote a pamphlet arguing the slave trade (that supported the sugar plantations) was necessary to support the British economy. The slavery lobby presented themselves as reformers – revising slave codes and offering improved conditions.

In the late 18th century cotton, not sugar became the main produce of the British economy. By this time sugar has become much cheaper and played a role in the new industrial workers diet, which shifted to more fat, sugar and refined flour. These cheap, energy-providing foods were considered ‘fuel’ for the industrial revolution. These foods needed no digestion time; they became the energy food for the industrial worker. With more and more women working in the factories, it was advantageous to have foods with longer shelf life and less spoilage.  With this sudden change in diet health of the workers declined during the 19th century. The malnutrition among the poor classes at the end of the 19th century was awful.

Today sugar is one of the most traded commodities on the planet ranking only behind petroleum, precious metals, and coffee. North America is a $10 billion annual market. In the 1970s the US government decided to protect the domestic market for sugar with import restrictions that limited cane sugar that was imported into the country to ensure the price remained 50% above world-market prices. At the same time high fructose corn syrup that was made by enzymatic digestion of cornstarch came on the market. Agribusiness promoted HFCS through political contributions to both Republicans and Democrats. Corn syrup use increased dramatically as it was cheaper, easier to transport and sweeter than cane sugar.

HFCS became the sugar of use in soft drinks, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, baked goods (to keep moist) and frozen fruits. The fructose in HFCS is metabolized differently in the body than cane sugar is. For example, it does operate as efficiently in appetite regulation to shut down the urge to eat – thus a person eats more than they need. In addition fructose is more rapidly metabolized in the liver leading to more triglyceride synthesis and fat storage in the liver – leading to a rise in serum triglycerides and promoting an atherosclerotic profile and higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Some kids get 40% f their calories from junk food.

The industrial food system has made food very cheap. Industry argues that regulating the amount of sugar will be very costly to the economy because it will be necessary to redo the formula of salt, sugar, fat ratios to create a desirable product. In 2012 the industry is presenting themselves as the answer to the fear how to feed nine  billion people (in 2050), and argue for a continued reliance on processed foods. This is about spinning a story that sugar is not bad, rather a safe, reliable, cheap way to deliver necessary calories.1

The current food systems are deeply dysfunctional, with the world paying an exorbitant price for the failure to consider the health impacts in designing food systems. Deaths from non-communicable disease are rising in poor countries.  A change of course is needed as a matter of urgency – the cost of sugar is too high.

1Moss, Michael. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us  p. 340.

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