Tuesday June 18, 2024

The history and evolution of sugar — a luxurious and valuable commodity

The derivation of the word "sugar" is thought to be from Sanskrit literature, where it means "ground or candied sugar"

By Sabir Shah
April 13, 2020

LAHORE: Following the surfacing of a "Sugar Scam" in Pakistan, which pertains to startling revelations that export subsidies to the tune of Rs24.912 billion were generously dished out to country’s affluent millers by the federal and provincial governments between 2015-2018, the "Jang Group and Geo Television Network" has undertaken a study to peek into the history of sugar, which is one of the world’s oldest documented commodities.

And at one time in human history, as the "American Sugar Association" states,sugar was so valuable that people used to lock it up in a sugar safe! The "American Sugar Association", which was originally founded as the "Sugar Research Foundation" by members of the United States sugar industry during World War II in June 1943, further writes: "While chewing sugar cane for its sweet taste was likely done in prehistory, the first indications of the domestication of sugar cane were around 8,000 BC. Follow sugar’s historical journey across the world and the advances in technology that allow us to enjoy sugar today."

According to noted historian Tasugitaka Sato’s 2014 book "Sugar in the social life of Medieval Islam", although sugar was first produced from sugarcane plants in northern India sometime after the first century, its extraction from the sugarcane plant had commenced in Southeast Asia some 4,000 years ago.

The derivation of the word "sugar" is thought to be from Sanskrit literature, where it means "ground or candied sugar". Penned down between 1500 and 500 Before Christ (BC), the Sanskrit literature provides the first certified account of sugar cane’s cultivation and of the subsequent manufacture of sugar in Indian Bengal.

According to historian Michael Adas’s book "Agricultural and pastoral societies in ancient and classical history", people initially chewed sugarcane raw to extract its sweetness. The 77-year-old Michael Adas is an American historian and currently a professor of History at Rutgers University, New Jersey's public research university.

Another American historian, Thomas Trautmann, had written that Indians discovered how to crystallize sugar during the Gupta Dynasty, about 350 years after the death of Christ.

Thomas, a cultural anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, has viewed that that refined granulated sugar was already being produced in India before the Gupta Dynasty. According to him, he had based his observation on literary evidence.

The cultivation and manufacture of cane sugar had then spread to the medieval Islamic world with highly improved and innovative production methods.

The cultivation and manufacture of cane sugar to the West Indies and tropical parts of the Americas began somewhere during the 16th century, though more intensive improvements in production of this plant have followed since the 17th century.

Beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners were produced during the 19th and the 20th centuries! By the end of Medieval Period or the "Middle Ages", which had lasted from 5th to 15th century in the history of Europe, sugar was a very expensive commodity, but production in bulk during the years that followed had made it cheaper.

Sugar was called a "fine spice" in Europe. One of the research papers of the Brussels-based "European Food Information Council" had mentioned: "The origins of sugar from beet sugar was a luxury in Europe until early 19th century, when it became more widely available. The first milestone in the history of European sugar is a remarkable discovery by the German scientist Andreas Marggraf. In 1747, he demonstrated that the sweet-tasting crystals obtained from beet juice were the same as those from sugar cane."

According to Encylopedia Brittanica, it was basically German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709-1782), whose discovery of beet sugar in 1747 had led to the development of the modern sugar industry.

In 1747, chemist Marggraf had used alcohol to extract juices from several plants, including one now known as sugar beet.

He had identified the sugar beet's dried, crystallized juice as identical with cane sugar by the use of a microscope, in what was perhaps the first such use of that instrument for chemical identification. His discovery of beet sugar was not acted on until 1786; four years after his death, and the first beet-sugar refinery began operations in 1802.

Annals of British history reveal that the word for sugar is spelled "Zuker" during the year 1299, "Zucar" in 1316 and "suggir" in 1440.

The England-based Sugar Knowledge International Limited (SKIL), known throughout the world's sugar industry for its consultancy services to the sector, writes: "Sugar was only discovered by western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in 11th century. Crusaders returning home talked of this "new spice" and how pleasant it was. The first sugar was recorded in England in 1099. The subsequent centuries saw a major expansion of western European trade with the East, including the importation of sugar. It is recorded, for instance, that sugar was available in London at "two shillings a pound" in 1319 AD. This equates to about US$100 per kilo at today's prices so it was very much a luxury."

The 40-year-old Sugar Knowledge International Limited had revealed: "In 15th century, European sugar was refined in Venice, confirmation that even then when quantities were small, it was difficult to transport sugar as a food grade product. In the same century, Columbus sailed to the Americas, the "New World". It is recorded that in 1493 he took sugar cane plants to grow in the Caribbean. The climate there was so advantageous for the growth of the cane that an industry was quickly established. By 1750, there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain. Their combined output was only 30,000 tons per annum."

The institute had more to say on history of sugar: "At this stage sugar was still a luxury and vast profits were made to the extent that sugar was called "white gold". Governments recognized the vast profits to be made from sugar and taxed it highly. In Britain for instance, sugar tax in 1781 totalled £326,000, a figure that had grown by 1815 to £3,000,000. This situation was to stay until 1874 when the British government, under Prime Minister Gladstone, abolished the tax and brought sugar prices within the means of the ordinary citizen."

In their book "Sugarcane in Prehistory", author Dr Christian Daniels, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, states: "Humans consumed sugarcane as a major food in some areas in the early 20th century. We suggest that sugarcane was a major food for pigs in the New Guinea Highlands prior to the introduction of the sweet potato about 250 years ago. Pigs consume sugarcane avidly and it provides a high calorie diet combined with suitable fibre roughage. Evidence is provided to show that large fields of sugarcane were grown in monoculture in the highlands at the time of European contact. Both hypotheses are compatible with sugarcane being available for human and pig food from about 6000 years ago." It is imperative to note that New Guinea is world's second largest island after Greenland.