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15 june 2015

The other day, I found an odd item in the clearance bin at my supermarket: gourmet syrup from the Dominican Republic. It contained no high-fructose corn syrup, no honey, no sorghum or agave or other potential allergens – let alone lactose or gluten or other currently-evil things. It was a new kind of healthy light sweetener: 100% pure cane sugar syrup.

After watching Americans ingest tons of sugar for the first third of my life, and watching them freak out about the stuff during the second third, I may be in for a dotage of appreciating the salutary qualities of sucrose. As Andrew Smith puts it in his global history of Sugar, "sugar bliss" has given way to "sugar blues"; but the scale may be tipping the other way. Presumably one day we'll reach "sugar balance." Just let me bake a few more batches of cookies first.

Smith's books Hamburger and Potato are strong on the global economic impact of their title foods. Sugar adopts a similar approach. The interconnections of colonialism, mercantile economies, and chattel slavery are fairly well-known even to general readers, thanks to books like Sidney Mintz's classic Sweetness and Power (1985). But I learned new things from Smith's treatment. Most saliently, I learned that 18th-century New York City was built to a great extent on sugar refining – as important a sugar capital in its day and age as Tate & Lyle's Liverpool would be in the 19th century. Barely a trace of this foundational industry remains in Manhattan; there's no "sugar district" awaiting gentrification. But the massive Havemeyer plant on the Williamsburg waterfront is a fixture on the Brooklyn skyline to this day (refining having ceased there only about ten years ago.) The wealth of the city can be traced back to the sugar in colonists' tea and cookies – the word "cookie" itself being native to the Dutch communities of the Hudson Valley.

Sugar has been bad for the globe and its populations and bad for individual consumers. Yet Smith is no more inclined than Mintz to think that sugar is inevitably evil. Eight percent of global calories currently come from sugar (135), and in some ways it's a perfect food, at least on the carbohydrate side: compact, shelf-stable, with an excellent ratio of calorie output to industrial input. If it's been an absurd extravagance for the wealthy (Smith catalogs the excesses of early-modern aristocratic sugar consumption), it's also often kept body and soul together for the poor.

At times Smith treats high-fructose corn syrup as identical to sugar, which initially confused me, as many of the foods and beverages he treats have recently seen corn replace cane as the basis of their sweetness. He defends this treatment by noting that HFCS is scarcely different from sugar in its composition or effect on the body (132): its "high" fructose content is five percent higher than that of sugar, which is a 50/50 compound of glucose and fructose.

Sugar beets and artificial sweeteners come in for treatment, and Smith gives a capsule history of just about everything that sugar's been added to in the past two centuries, which is nearly all the world's food. Sugar therefore links to other Reaktion Edible titles like Chocolate and Ice Cream, as well as bidding to become a global history of candy. In fact I learned from Smith that the word "candy," like the sugar-cane plant itself, is ultimately a native of the Indian subcontinent. Sweet!

Unlike most of the other Edible books, Smith's Sugar includes no contemporary recipes. The ones he reprints are all quaint confections from the past, the latest dating from 1909. Sugar may reach a state of truce with dietetic advisors (just don't overdo it!), but sugar cuisine is currently nonexistent. It's a shame, because while white sugar is merely sweet, molasses and brown sugar contribute a distinctive note that explains why sugar used to count in Europe as one of the spices, and still does in Chinese cooking.

Smith, Andrew F. Sugar: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.