The Sugar Timeline

9 Sep 2016
Read time: 7 min
Category: Archive

Sugar is an umbrella term for sweetness in its many forms—cane sugar, beet sugar, honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, among the many naturally-occurring and synthetically-derived sweeteners known to humans. In early recorded history it was mostly a sweetener experience dominated by sugar cane and honey, and that is where our story begins.

8,000 BC—It is conjectured that sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea and its cultivation then spread to Southeast Asia, China, and then beyond.

2,400 BC—Earliest evidence of beekeeping in hives to collect honey for honey cakes found at a religious temple near present day Cairo, Egypt.

350 AD—Sugarcane growers in India discover and master how to crystallize sugar using a boiling process of refining cane juice.

11th Century—British and French Christian crusaders encounter sugar from sugar cane grown by Arabs and bring back this ‘new spice’ to their own lands where it becomes an expensive delicacy for the rich and nobility.

1319—A kilo of sugar (known as ‘white gold’) goes for two shillings a pound in London, the equivalent of about $50 a pound in current dollars, keeping it a luxury item that few people below the richest class will experience in a lifetime.

1493—On his second voyage to the ‘new’ world of the Americas, Christopher Columbus brings along sugar cane plant seedlings for planting in the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola, where the warm climate is conducive for growth of the plant, giving rise to the sugar cane industry.

16th Century—Native Americans are enslaved by Europeans throughout the Caribbean islands, particularly Barbados and Jamaica, and in Central and South America, as labor to harvest sugar cane. When their numbers become depleted by disease and harsh working conditions, African slaves are shipped in to take their place in the fields and processing operations. Millions will die in the sugar cane fields from the brutal labor, lack of medical care, or in attempting to escape imprisonment.

1700—An average person in Britain consumes four pounds of sugar a year; that amount will gradually increase as the price of sugar falls due to overproduction in the Americas, making it affordable for the middle class and poor.

1747—Sugar beets are identified as a new source of commercial sugar. This new source further drives down world prices and makes sugar more affordable to generations of lower and middle class people never exposed to it before. Sugar is being added to jams, candy, tea, coffee, and many other food items.

1800—A French medical student identifies the first series of patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis, a condition characterized by the body’s own immune system attacking joint linings and cartilage. Two centuries later medical research will link sugar consumption as a cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis.

1807—By the time Britain bans slave trading in this year, at least six million African slaves have been incarcerated on sugar cane plantations.

1870—The average resident of Britain consumes 47 pounds of sugar a year.

1880—Cheaper sugar beets now replace sugar cane as the principal sugar source for Europeans.

1890—Indentured servants now eclipse slaves as the primary work force worldwide growing and processing sugar. An estimated 450,000 indentured servants, most serving ten years or more in servitude, are moved around the world, most to Fiji, Hawaii, and Australia. Once indentured servitude ends in the early 20th Century, sugar production remains an industry characterized by meager wages and workers living in harsh working conditions and extreme poverty.

1900—The average Briton now eats about 100 pounds of sugar annually; the average American consumes 40 pounds.

1906—A German physician, Dr. Alzheimer, first identifies a form of dementia characterized by dramatic shrinkage Sugar’s Sordid Timeline History 21 in brain nerve cells. By the end of the 20th century, an estimated 5 million Americans a year will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

1910—A medical explanation emerges in the U.S. for the rising rates of diabetes: the pancreas of a diabetes patient was unable to produce what {is} termed “insulin,” a chemical the body uses to break down sugar. Thus, excess sugar ended up in the urine.

1962—An estimated 13% of American adults meet the criteria for obesity.

1967—A Japanese scientist invents a cost-effective industrial process for using enzymes to convert glucose in cornstarch to fructose. High Fructose Corn Syrup derived from corn becomes a cheap alternative sweetener to sugar.

1975—In the U.S. 400 new cases of cancer occur for every 100,000 people.

1984—Soft drink manufacturers such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola switch from sugar to the cheaper high-fructose corn syrup in U.S. production facilities.

1992—Cancer rates have climbed to 510 new cases for every 100,000 people in the U.S.

1997—An estimated 19.4% of U.S. adults meet criteria for obesity.

2004—Obesity now affects 24.5% of U.S. adults.

2005—Each U.S. citizen eats about 100 pounds of added sugars each year, up from about 40 pounds in 1900.

2008—An ordinary American now consumes 37.8 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup every year, mostly unknowingly because it is laced in thousands of processed food and drink products. It is considered one of the ‘hidden’ sweeteners because, like many sugars and artificial sweeteners, it uses numerous chemical aliases making it difficult to identify on food label ingredient lists.

2008—The obesity rate for adult Americans reaches 32.2% of men and 35.5% of women. Obesity is considered a contributing factor to the deaths of nearly 400,000 Americans annually.

2009—The American Heart Association issues health recommendations that women consume no more than six teaspoons per day of sugars and men consume no more than nine teaspoons a day. Generally both men and women consume three times that amount daily.

2015—The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which meets every five years to issue dietary recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, advises for the first time that American consumers dramatically cut back on the amount of added sugars to 12 teaspoons a day, half of what Americans currently consume. Much of these added sugars are derived from consumption of juices, sodas and a wide range of sugary drinks.


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“Why Did Thematoid Arthritis Begin in 1800?” Richard S. Panush, M.D. The Rheumatologist . Sept. 2012.

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