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Why Did the Spaniards Choose Cane Sugar over Honey? Was This the Healthiest Choice?

Before the colonial encounter, Mesoamericans commonly consumed cacao as a chocolate beverage in ritualistic, medicinal, and social contexts. Ingredients, such as flowers, spices, and honey, were added to diversify the flavor of the beverage. Specifically, honey is the oldest sweetener known to man in the world, although its exact date of origin is unknown. However, humans did begin to use honey at least 10,000 years ago, as was demonstrated by a cave painting found in the early 1900s in Valencia, Spain.

Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting at Arana Caves in Spain

This painting is at least 8,000 years old and shows a honey seeker, and in ancient times people in the Middle East, Roman Empire, and China collected honey to use as a sweetener, currency, and medicine (Nayik et al., 2014). When the Spaniards first encountered the Mesoamerican chocolate drink in the 1500s, it was too bitter for their palates and thus they relied on the principal spices or honey to consume the beverage comfortably (Coe & Coe, 2013). Although the intake of honey as food and medicine provided many nutritional and therapeutic benefits, soon after the Spaniards encountered chocolate, the Mesoamerican chocolate recipe was transformed in that cane sugar replaced honey as the sweetener. The sugar cane plant was a novelty to the Maya and the Aztecs when the Spaniards introduced and began to cultivate it in Mesoamerica after the Conquest (Coe & Coe, 2013). Honey as a sweetener could not satisfy the European sweet tooth, which was accustomed to the cane sugar that was introduced during medieval times in the western part of the Old World (Coe & Coe, 2013). In addition to the enhanced sweetness cane sugar offered, the chocolate recipe transformation occurred due to the increase in the perceived medicinal and nutritional properties and the source reliability that cane sugar also offered. In the modern context, however, this transformation may have not been for the best.

Despite honey’s ancient history, cane sugar quickly gained nutritional and medicinal popularity first among the wealthy and then most households in Europe. Cane sugar was first introduced to Europeans around 1100 AD, but it was classified as a spice rather than as a sweetener (Mintz, 1986). Around this time, cane sugar began to replace honey for medicinal purposes. Medical figures declared that cane sugar was more “soothing and solving” than honey (Mintz, 1986). Due to its perceived heightened medicinal properties, cane sugar was reserved for the wealthy while honey was delegated to poorer patients (Mintz, 1986). However, as cane sugar became more commonplace, honey became more expensive (Mintz, 1986). All around, cane sugar replaced honey, and this transformation was not limited to medicine. By the middle of the thirteenth century, cane sugar began to replace honey as a sweetener in wealthy households. Cane sugar came to replace honey in the diets of Europeans because of the perceived nutritional benefits it provided. It became a source of calories for the often undernourished working class. With the rise of coffee and tea, both of which lacked calories, cane sugar provided much-needed calories (Mintz, 1986). Also, cane sugar provided a cheaper alternative to other calorie-rich, but expensive, food items. Lastly, cane sugar was a better preservative than honey, as it contained the more effective sucrose (Mintz, 1986). Therefore, Europeans could save perishable foods, such as meats and fruits, for longer periods of time, which was also cost-effective. The perceived medicinal, nutritional, and financial benefits of sugar over honey led to the shift of honey as a sweetener to cane sugar as a sweetener, which played a part in the Spaniards altering the Mesoamerican chocolate recipe.

Another factor that influenced the shift from honey to cane sugar in Spaniards’ chocolate recipes was the source from which cane sugar is extracted compared to that of honey. Comparable to cane sugar’s source, honey’s source is variable and more biologically expensive.

Video representation of the honey production process

The video above describes the process of producing honey from the nectar of flowers via bees. Considering that a single bee must drink from thousands of flowers to fill its honey stomach, then serially transfer said nectar into the mouth of other bees before fanning their wings to create an air current that evaporates and thickens the nectar, the honey-making process is labor intensive on the part of the bees. Furthermore, for just one pound of honey, more than 10,000 bees will together fly three times around the world and drink from 8 million flowers. In contrast, the source of cane sugar is much more reliable and the biological cost is lower, as it is not an organism that must travel back and forth and rely on the movement of other organisms.

Video representation of the cane sugar manufacturing process

The video above demonstrates the cane sugar manufacturing process, starting from the sugar cane plant. This plant is a tropical grass that can grow up to 20 feet high. When sugar cane is ready for harvest, the tops of the grass are cut, and the base stocks are left behind so they can grow into the next crop. Due to this harvesting style, sugar cane is a renewable resource as it does not have to be replanted to produce a new crop. This is one benefit that cane sugar provides over honey, as bees must reproduce to continue the lines of queen bees and forager bees. After harvest, the sugar cane is transported to a mill and washed and cut into shreds. The shreds are crushed by rollers before they are placed in separators that remove the fibers and send the juice to evaporators. The resultant syrup is boiled to remove water, and then cooled before crystallization. More steps follow, but despite the complex extraction of cane sugar from the sugar cane plant, this source is more reliable than bees who are subject to climate change, infertility, and diseases. This reliability was summed up by Alexander the Great’s Admiral Nearchos around 300 BC, who referred to the sugar cane plant as “‘Indian reeds that make honey without bees’” (Nordic Sugar A/S, 2019) . Even during ancient times and without modern sugar production technology, the juice from the sugar cane plant was pressed out and boiled to produce crystallized sugar (Nordic Sugar A/S, 2019) . Since cane sugar production primarily relies on a renewable resource and man-made technology, it is more constant and not as biologically expensive as honey production, which makes cane sugar more readily available as a sweetener.

Although cane sugar was perceived as providing more medicinal benefits and nutritional benefits to the diets of Europeans than honey, research today discounts this belief. According to a study published in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, since honey is denser than cane sugar, one tablespoon of honey carries more than one tablespoon of cane sugar (Anonymous, 2011). Also, honey offers some nutrients that cane sugars does not, such as antioxidants (Anonymous, 2011). Therefore, this research overrides the notion that cane sugar is medically and nutritionally superior to honey. In hindsight, replacing honey as a sweetener with cane sugar does not appear to have been the healthiest choice, as honey does provide more calories and nutrients. However, cane sugar was and still is a better preservative and its taste more enjoyable, comparable to honey.

Overall, the honey to cane sugar transformation in chocolate recipes ultimately served to sweeten the beverage at the expense of healthier consumption. Although sugar cane is a more reliable source for sweetener than flowers and bees, nowadays humans are relying on an insubstantial added sweetener. Even though honey is also an added sweetener, it is nutritiously and medically superior to cane sugar. However, cane sugar was integral to the rise in popularity of chocolate, as its sweetness and taste could not be matched by honey in the palates of Europeans.

Multimedia Sources

Hanson, Joe [It’s Okay To Be Smart]. (2016, March 28). How Do Bees Make Honey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZlEjDLJCmg

[Imperial Sugar]. (2015, June 9). How Cane Sugar Is Made [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/EP_fgp7zYKk

Nayik, G., Shah, T., Muzaffar, K., Wani, S., Gull, A., Majid, I., & Bhat, F. (2014). Honey: Its history and religious significance: A review. Universal Journal of Pharmacy, 03(1), 5-8.

References

Anonymous. (2011). Honey or Sugar? Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 40(1), 224.

Coe, S. D. and Coe, M. D. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

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

Nordic Sugar A/S. (2019). A Sweet Story. Retrieved March 8, 2019, from https://www.nordicsugar.com/know-your-sugar/natural-sweetness/a-sweet-story/