One of the surprises to come out for me of the National Underground Railway Freedom Center was the link between sugar and the slave trade. “Sugar cane and its byproducts, processed sugar and rums, changed the history of the world,” one sign proclaimed. (I always thought of slaves picking cotton, but that did not become a viable crop until after the invention of the cotton gin in 1794.)

Sugar had once been a luxury item, but as additional products were made with sugar, the demand grew and an abundance of labor was required to harvest the crop. Slaves on Caribbean, British, Spanish and Dutch islands were all deployed in the quest to produce more cane. Because the harvesting conditions were so oppressive, deaths occurred and more and more slaves were required to keep the plantation production going.

I think about sugar and its link to slavery, and now sugar’s link to obesity and all the other health ailments that result. There are movements today to reduce the size of beverages with fructose, put healthier items in school vending machines, have “lite” versions of about every food imaginable and to limit sugar consumption as much as possible. 

“I would say that all human pleasure derives from sugar,” said the director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.* “The sugar pathway goes directly to parts of the brain that are involved in emotion and pleasure.” This highly addictive quality caused — and still causes — that insatiable demand that people pursued at unimaginably high costs; first superseding the lives of others and now placing their own lives at risk from overindulgence in the taste sensation.

Take a moment to pause and think about sugar. It’s a metaphor for implications — and an extreme example of how all good things have a downside. In the aggregate, there is nothing sweet about sugar.

beth triplett

*Source: Gary Beauchamp as quoted in “You May Also Like” by Tom Vanderbilt, Knopf, 2016, p. 19

Sugar originally was sold in a small cone with a hole for twine.
It was strung up on the ceiling and the twine wrapped in
tin to keep the ants from crawling into the sugar.

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