Sugar plays no small part in the globating of Europe. That sweet temptress has had an astonishing career – especially considering that sugar was practically unknown in our region around 200 years ago.
A tropical, natural product
Technically, one might think sugar should be healthy. After all, it is a plant-derived product; and generally, things that are natural are seen as harmless. Sugar is extracted from the tropical sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum in its official Latin name, and is grown mainly in Brazil, India, and China, as well as in Australia, the USA, and further Latin-American countries. The main growing condition is warmth because frost causes sugar cane to die a quick death. People with a sweet tooth are advised to nibble on the stalks, rather than think about chewing the leaves, for only the former has the sugar in its pulp. This pulp, which is harvested after one or even several years and holds between eleven and twenty percent of sugar, is pressed and either boiled down to create brown cane sugar, or cleaned and concentrated to make white sugar.
Napoleon was a fan of beets
In contrast to the sugar cane plant, whose sweet secret was discovered in New Guinea as early as 8,000 BC, the beet or mangold, widely known also in our region, was discovered only relatively late as a source of sugar. In 1747, the German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709-1782) – whose father ran a lucrative business from his Berlin pharmacy dealing in cane sugar, then a prescription-based, luxury good – discovered, while searching for sugar in native plants, that the sugar of the mangold was identical to that of the sugar cane. In a period of several decades, it became possible to raise the initially small percentage of sugar from around 1.5 percent to five and later to over twelve percent. Today, the percentage lies at an average of 17. With the discovery of beet sugar the monopoly of imported cane sugar was broken. Napoleon implemented a continental ban against British colonial goods from 1806 to 1813 and this and the following collapse of the sugar cane import, in addition to a beet-friendly legislation by the French, meant that beet sugar extraction experienced a veritable boom. This lasted until the lifting of the continental ban. It was only in the mid-19th century that the competition between beet and cane sugar lead to a massive reduction in price, and sugar finally transformed from a luxury good into a consumer good for the masses.
Mean: Well-hidden calories
Sugar really makes keeping an eye on your weight difficult. It is not enough to give up on that cream-filled gateau or leave out the sugar in your tea (or coffee). Even giving up on your regular coke (with its infamous 35 sugar cubes per litre) will not necessarily be sufficient to keep a slim waistline. Indeed, alternative soft drinks are not the solution either. Lemonade and co are only a few cubes behind the calorie bombe Coca Cola in terms of sugar content. Sugar hides in countless foods, even if it does not seem obvious at first glance. Especially dangerous are sauces. For example, most ketchups contain sugar as one of the main ingredients (besides tomato purée), while BBQ sauces often contain up to three sugar cubes per spoonful. Even in your seemingly healthy muesli you will find sugar involved. Take especial care when buying Cornflakes and Co! That also applies for the fruit yoghurts so beloved at breakfast time.
Unfortunately, sugar does not only cause you to pile on the weight and damages your teeth, it can also have a negative effect on your psyche. Researchers at University College London discovered, as part of a major study a few years ago, that men who consumed around 70 gram of sugar per day, had about 25 percent higher chance of mood swings and depression five years later. Astonishingly, the amount of sugar a woman consumes had, according to the study, no effect on her psyche. Thus, a word of advice to all readers with a man at their side who likes to complain about low sugar intake (which, for those who do not know, is a classic excuse for low mood): better not to provide too much chocolate in case the mood gets worse.
Deadly grape syrup?
Already the Romans were known to enjoy their meals and not to spurn sweetmeats. The problem was that sugar was an absolute rarity in Rome, had to be imported from India, and was only affordable by the wealthy. Everybody else made do with Defrutum: grape syrup. For these purposes, grape syrup was boiled down through a long cooking process, generally to one third of its original volume. The problem was that the usual vessels used to cook it in were made of lead. These days, we know that that’s pretty bad for you. But then it was not known. The result: some historians allege that the Roman Empire did not fall on account of its vices and decadence but simply because of collective lead poisoning.
The thing with sweeteners
The Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg (1850-1910), who researched coal tar at the American Johns-Hopkins University at the end of the 19th century, is generally held to be the inventor – or rather chance discoverer – of artificial sweeteners. He himself describes the discovery later as following: “I had, following a busy day working, washed my hands thoroughly before going home. I was very surprised to find my hands, on lifting bread to my mouth, tasted sweet. I suspected the housewife, (but) the bread itself was not sweet, rather my washed hands were.” Thus, saccharin was born.
The horror story of aspartam
One of the most widespread sweeteners, besides saccharin, is aspartam, known as NutraSweet. It is contained in countless light-products, such as Coca Cola Zero. Even if conspiracy theorists claim that mysterious US businesses want to poison the world population with aspartam, so far the claim that the sweetener causes cancer has not been substantiated. The problem with sweetener is simply that it does not satisfy sugar cravings. While the stuff tastes sweet, the brain does not let itself be duped that easily; the craving for “real sweetness” remains. Thus, sweetener can even lead to weight gain if, after the consumption of artificially sweetened foods, “actually sweet” foodstuff is consumed. Tip: To counter this, a cube of grape sugar is said to work wonders.
The amount counts
Of course, no sweet tooth has to completely give up on sugar. But if you fancy holding onto your weight and teeth, stick to the following rule: According to the WHO, an adult should not consume more than 25 to 50 grams of pure sugar a day. 50 grams are around 10 teaspoons. What’s that? You think you never consume that much? Well, a single can of lemonade alone contains around 40 grams…