This historian continues, “A sugar-loaf could weigh anything between one pound and 20 pounds, but whatever it weighed it was worth that weight in silver” (Toussaint-Samat 555). By the sixteenth century, it was discovered that sugar cane grew amazingly well in the New World Christopher Columbus had discovered, especially in the Caribbean areas. Toussaint-Samat notes, “in 1506 one Pedro dArrance took sugar cane to Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic. It grew there so profusely that by 1518 the island had eight sugar plantations” (Toussaint-Samat 556). Sugar grew in popularity as it became more readily available, and it also began to drop in price, so the middle class could afford it. As early as 1600, one early historian notes, “That which was once a remedy now serves us as food” (Toussaint-Samat 557). Sugar cane became another form of currency, and entire economies were built on it before it dropped in price and threatened to destroy the economies of the West Indies and the French Atlantic seaports, who both depended almost entirely on sugar in money and trade.
Sugar was also one of the first crops to rely heavily on slave labor, especially in the West Indies, where native populations were plentiful, and explorers like Columbus had already enslaved many of them. Growing cane is extremely labor intensive, especially at the harvest, so cane growers enslaved the natives, and when they died out, they imported slaves from Africa. One sugar grower notes, “We grew rich because whole races died for us. For us, continents were depopulated” (Toussaint-Samat 560). Thus, sugar has more of a taint culturally than salt, because sugar helped create and continue the slave trade. Other high-labor crops like cotton and tobacco kept the trade viable in the American south, but the slave trade was already operating in the Caribbean when slaves were first imported to the South, and these first slaves were working and dying in the cane fields. Plantation owners grew incredibly wealthy as sugar continued to rise in popularity, and they began to look for other ways to create sugar.
During the eighteenth century, many scientists tried to discover how to create sugar from other plants. In the mid 1700s, scientists discovered that certain beets had a high sugar content, and whole areas of land in Europe were eventually given over to raising sugar-beets, to reduce their dependence on the sugar cane of the West Indies and beyond. Toussaint-Samat notes how important this discovery was. She states, “Beet was to strike a heavy blow at the economies of the West Indies, Brazil, and Reunion, based on the cane sugar which was now more expensive than sugar from beet” (Toussaint-Samat 561). Thus, sugar created economies, and eventually brought them tumbling down. It seems difficult to believe that such a lowly plant could create and destroy fortunes, but when entire fortunes are built on one foundation, the foundation has the ability to topple civilizations. In addition, sugar has long been used in its fermented state to create alcoholic beverages, and that was another source of wealth that also depended on trade and one plant for success or failure. In the Caribbean, rum developed as a by-product of sugar, and it was also an extremely important export to the world. Therefore, sugar not only created its own economy, it became an important ingredient is so many other important exports that without it, entire economies could and did collapse.
Today, sugar has taken on much of the taint that salt has. It is blamed in tooth decay, weight gain, and diabetes. Another historian notes, “Sugar is blamed for almost all of the dietary ills of the western world and castigated as empty calories. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dental problems and depression have all been linked to sugar consumption” (“Hated Sugar” 56). Low- and no-sugar foods abound, and there is even a sugar replacement derived from sugar but without the calories, called “Splenda” available on grocery shelves.
Too much sugar can be very bad for the health and body, but sugar is also pervasive in many of the foods on grocers shelves. Most lists of ingredients list some from of sugar, from “high-fructose corn syrup” to “dextrose” and “sucrose.” Sugar, just like salt, makes foods taste better. That is why it was used in medicines for so long. Today, many medicines come “sugar-free,” but it is still used in a wide variety of pharmaceuticals and foods. Writer Wilson continues, “But we still take sugared pastilles for our coughs, and many of the leading brands… are now made by major sweets and chocolate manufacturers, including Mars” (“Hated Sugar” 56). Many manufacturers try to hide the sugar content by using words like “glucose” in place of sugar, but these items are all still sugar in some form or another.
Interestingly, some cultures blend sugar and salt to bring out the best of each. Swedes are especially adept at this blending of sweet and sour. One writer notes, “Pickled herring is another obvious Swedish sockersaltad food, made by marinating salt herrings with sugar, vinegar and onions” (“Socker Mad” 48). This helps demonstrate the profound cultural significance of this lowly mineral and plant. Salt and sugar have started wars, begun the slave trade, been used for barter and money, helped maintain great civilizations, and supported others. Salt is necessary for life, and sugar certainly makes it more enjoyable and tasty. These two items, seemingly so dissimilar, have really turned out to be two of the most important discoveries in food history, but also in the history of humankind. Love them or hate them, salt and sugar are here to stay, their history is too long and to involved to ever think otherwise.
Culturally, sugar and salt are both extremely important. They helped build cultures, but more than that, growing sugar and mining salt became major activities for certain peoples of the world, and helped them develop more refined and successful cultures. In earlier times, they were both of supreme importance to people and to survival, but today, they have assimilated into culture so successfully that most people simply take them for granted. They buy a box of salt or a bag of sugar at the supermarket, and never wonder where it came from, how it was produced, or what part it played in the history of the world. Sugar and salt mean little to most people today, but if they disappeared, so would many other items we take for granted, from cheese and dairy products to bread, alcohol, and thousands of other products. Sugar and salt helped create cultures, and if they disappeared tomorrow, they could help doom cultures, too.
In conclusion, sugar and salt are quite a pair. They both are necessary for some of the most basic aspects of life, and the both are blamed for a variety of ailments, from heart diseases to diabetes and obesity. Perhaps the Scandinavians have the right idea. They blend the tastes of sugar and salt in many of their foods, to bring out just the right amount of each flavor. Perhaps the perfect blend of sugar and salt is the way to manage these minerals, and make sure neither one of them creates too much havoc in diet, life, and health.
Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Walker and Company, 2002.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food Anthea Bell, trans. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992.
Wilson, Bee. “Perhaps if We Hated Sugar.