There is something sweet and sickly in the air.
It’s ten years since my book on sugar, Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World, was published. Next week I’ve been asked to open a conference at Bristol University on sugar – covering many of the topics I wrote about, from the evolution of sugar cane through to its effect on our health – although I’m expecting the academics at Bristol, a decade since I researched the subject, to have far more insightful things to say.
When I was writing Sugar, in the chapter on nutrition, I had to rigorously prove my hypothesis that sugar, rather than fat, was making us fat, and that we had sugar to thank for a host of diseases, like diabetes, many of which I predicted would grow to pandemic proportions if nothing was done about the amount of sugar added to
processed food by manufacturers.
The British Medical Journal has just published research showing that a third of English adults are bordering on being diabetic. Within a year, one in ten of us will have diabetes. The rate in the US is already 36% and in China it’s over 50%.
Obesity is already terrifyingly widespread. A study published last month in The Lancet showed that over the past 33 years, not a single country has reduced its obesity rate. Globally, obesity rates have risen in men from 28.8% in 1980 to 36.9% in 2013 – and they’re even higher for women.
Now it is accepted that eating sugar can make us fat. Goop (Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter) has weighed in with a fashionista’s guide to what you can get away with eating in moderation (4 teaspoons a day or less, preferably of honey) and given us an A to Z of the weird and wonderful names manufacturers use to disguise sugar in our food: hexitol, monoglyceride, zylose – who knew?
As I was researching my book, Tate&Lyle launched a new, much hyped calorie-free alternative to sugar: Splenda. It’s real name is sucralose. It’s sugar with a chlorine molecule added. The company refused to give me access to the majority of their research papers. At the time I said, and still say, why would you willingly eat chlorine? How can you tell it does not damage your insides, particularly if most of the scientific studies on it have not been released? As Goop says,
The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently downgraded Splenda and sucralose from its “safe” rating to “caution” based on research that connected the sweetener with an increased risk of developing leukemia. A recent study in the journal Toxicology and Environmental Health reports that sucralose may raise blood sugar, spike insulin levels, and lead to diabetic conditions. The researchers also found that sucralose may negatively impact the microbiome by reducing beneficial bacteria colonies in the digestive tract, leading to weight issues and digestive disturbances.”
If it hadn’t been for slavery, arguably we would not have had such easy and cheap access to sugar for so long, nor seen human misery on such an unprecedented scale. Slavery seems, finally, to be on our minds too, with films such as 12 Years a Slave and Belle becoming global blockbusters. It’s not before time.
Closer to home, some are questioning whether it’s right to celebrate the lives of those, like Edward Colston, founding forefather of Bristol, the city where I live, whose wealth was derived from an intimate and evil connection between sugar and slaves.
Sanjida O’Connell does for sugar what Dava Sobel did for Longitude: make gripping drama out of dry school lessons.
Sanjida O’Connell unforlds the complex story of the quest to satisfy our sweet tooth in this absorbing and illuminating history of sugar.