Sugar: The Journey From Medicine to Murder.

In the 1500s, a Dominican Friar in Chiapas wrote to the pope about Chocolate. He wanted to know whether the pope felt that chocolate was appropriate for Catholics to indulge in. Specifically, he wanted to know if Catholics should be consuming chocolate during times of fasting. The pope ignored the letter and it is said that he even laughed the letter to scorn. But, was the pope in error? Should he have actually taken note to what the friar was arguing?

It may be that the friar had an intuition about an even deeper and greater issue. Maybe he should have continued his inquiries to the pope until he received the response that he wanted. Or, maybe he should have made his argument a little more in-depth. Like, what in chocolate makes it something that Catholics should not indulge in. After all, in all honesty, the base is cacao and that is as much a fruit as any other. What makes it so bad? The true issue may have been the sugar mixed with cacao that made it no good for consumption. Although we can’t go back in time, it does not hinder us from considering all possibilities. One being, what if this Dominican Friar would have focused his attention on sugar and its negative potential? What would the world look like today? How would history be told, the same? Sugar is a driver behind two of the worst subjects in the history of the Americas, slavery and obesity. Both lead to death for many.

Sugar is sweet. But, sugar has caused some of the worst damage this world has ever seen. From slavery to the modern American diet, sugar has altered the lives of millions for the worst. It is amazing that not many have looked at sugar from this perspective. After all, this small crystal of pleasure would not have the capacity to do that much, would it?sugar1

Let’s consider American slavery. During American slavery what were slaves actually producing? According to Dr. Carla D. Martin,

What enslaved people were producing were primarily commodity crops,things like                 cacao, sugar, rum, tobacco, coffee, and cotton. And if you sort of separate out cotton,             what you have is a list of crops that are luxuries that are meant to stimulate or                         inebriate Europeans and early colonial north  Americans. They are not things that are           necessary for life.

Slavery was driven by a desire not only to make money, but to fulfill a lust for stimulating pleasure. Only one out of the six primary commodity crops being produced during slavery was not a stimulant. Even further, one out of the five commodity crops that were stimulants was an ingredient used in three of the crops. All three of those crops were pleasure drinks with an ingredient of sugar. Thus, making sugar a subtle driver in the system of slavery. It has a trail that leads to the final product of half of the processed primary commodity crops. It is one of the six commodity crops itself. This makes sugar sixty-six percent of the primary commodity crops produced during slavery. If there was no sugar, there would not be any rum. If there was no sugar, would tea and coffee be so popular?


sugarSugar was first introduced as a medicine. Within 400 years it was an elite product that only the nobility and wealthy could access for food. By 1800, “sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one” (Mintz). Post 1800, even common Europeans were accessing this costly product. The question is, who was it actually costly too? In Latin America slaves were producing the sugar. They only had an 8 year life expectancy. Yes, it cost a few extra pounds for Europeans to purchase their sugar. But for the slaves, it was costing their lives.

Speaking of pounds, things have changed. In modern America, sugar is still costly. It has continued to pack on the pounds. But the modern pounds are not currency. They are fat cells that are a driver behind diabetes, coronary heart disease, and congestive heart failure. The aforementioned are leading causes of death in Americans. Today, there are very few foods that don’t have sugar. It is hard to fathom that this 1100 CE medicine has turned into a 2000 CE drug. Within 400 years of entering European and early American colonial culture it turned into a life threatening substance –directly and indirectly. According to Sidney Mintz:

In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon             after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had                       become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary                             imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity –             albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was                       supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.

Slavery has ended. In general, sugar is no longer indirectly affecting the life expectancy of people. Much worse, it is now directly affecting the life span of millions of Americans. Consider this article,
In 1800, added sugar counted for only twenty percent of the diets of Europeans. That number has escalated for Americans. According to Alice G. Walton of, “Too much sugar is linked to everything from metabolic syndrome to cancer, and given our tragic dependence on it, it’s even begun to be banned in some locales.” The American Heart Association reports a 2014 study that says, “Getting too much added sugar in your diet could significantly increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease”.


Sugar has been in the western world a little over 1,000 years. It entered as a medicine and in just a small span of time its existence has become a terror to many. What stories would history tell if the western world would not have encountered sugar?


Works Cited:

Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease. (2015, October 25). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from

Dr. Carla Martin (2016) Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture Video. Web. 19 February 2016

Dr. Carla Martin (2016) Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture Video. Web. 9 March 2016

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Walton, A. G. (2012, August 30). How Much Sugar Are Americans Eating? Retrieved March 9, 2016, from how much sugar are americans consumption

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