Sugar consumption had a dramatic rise tied directly to the expansion of the Triangle trade and shifting eating habits. Over time this simple substance became a cornerstone in European food. We can see just how cemented sugar is in modern cuisine by the sheer amount that we consume on a daily basis. In the U.S. the average person consumes a staggering 126.4 grams per day, followed by Germany and the Netherlands at 102.9 grams and 102.5 grams, respectively. England, who we’ll discuss again in this post, consumes a whopping 93.2 grams.
We’ve discussed this meteoric rise before in class, in particular the way sugar uses our instinctual love of sweet things to work its way into our everyday cuisine. But sugar hasn’t fully invaded all cuisines. France, even with a recent rise as processed foods enter common everyday consumption, consumes only 68.5 grams of sugar each day placing it 3rd to last among European countries for sugar consumption. Haitians consume even less, averaging about 41 grams each day or a third that of the average american (Helgilibrary). Why is this? Surely a craving for sweetness is a universal trait, but how have these cultures resisted the temptation so well? In this post, I posit that the low sugar consumption in France and Haiti can be tied directly to the cuisines in each country. As we’ll explore, there are peculiarities in each cuisine that bring about cooler relationships with sugar than that of other nations like England and the U.S. who heavily rely on processed and refined sugars.
The unusual health of the French people is a widely recognized phenomenon. In particular, their low intake of sugar is touted as the source of their lean statures. Diet blogs have published numerous articles on “How to Eat like the French,” which suggest cutting sugar and leaving high-fat foods like butter and cheese in one’s diet. We know that the French eat significantly less sugar per-capita than other European nations and the United States, but how did a country so complicit in the sugar trade through the 17th and 18th centuries keep such an indifferent relationship with the substance? The answer may lie in the French cuisine itself, a collection of fatty and savory tastes that, while leveraging sugar occasionally (primarily in baking), doesn’t have any central role for sugar to take on. In England, for example, we can see sugar taking on a central role as English tastes favored heavily sweetened tea and sugar-rich desserts both at meals and as snacks (Sweetness and Power, 189). With a heavy reliance on sugar for even everyday dishes, we can see why England consumes as much sugar as it does: it’s simply part of the cuisine now. In the case of French cuisine history, sweetened teas never supplanted wine (or coffee, for that matter), and dessert is dominated by cheeses (Sweetness and Power, 189). With both of these niches filled, sugar had little room to enter French cuisine outside of baked goods which have little influence on the everyday life of the average French person. Compare this with English daily tea practices and we can already see a source for the disparity in consumption. For these reasons, sugar hasn’t played a dominant role in French cuisine until more recent times as processed foods enter the everyday eating habits of everyone, including the French.
We’ve explored how France could avoid sugar despite owning sugar colonies, but what if you were a sugar colony? How could a place like Haiti maintain such a low reliance on sugar despite still farming and exporting sugarcane products? In some ways, fault may still lie with the French. Claimed by Spaniard Christopher Columbus in 1492, Haiti existed under sole Spanish influence until Saint-Domingue came under French control in 1625. With the treaty of Ryswick in 1697, these influences effectively split Haiti in half, setting up a century of heavy French influence until the Haitian Revolution that resulted in independence and the first Black Republic in 1804. With such a long period of influence from the French, it would naturally follow that Haitian cuisine would have strong similarities to French cuisine, but the low sugar-per-capita consumption remains an interesting quirk considering the history of sugar in the country. We know from reported statistics that Haitians consume almost a third less sugar than the French, despite whatever similarities might have been developed between their cuisines.
This could, in part, be attributed to economic pressure and poverty leading to difficult access to the sugar products that are produced in the country. However, there is also a unique and vibrant relationship to sugarcane in Haitian cooking that upon closer inspection can give us the ability to explain these statistics. It has much to do with the usage of non-processed sugarcane in dishes. For example, it is common practice to use sugarcane directly in Haitian cooking in the form of sugarcane juice to sweeten beverages or raw sugarcane as an ingredient to stewed dishes. Even rum produced on the island uses sugarcane juice as opposed to the traditional molasses, giving a unique flavor and name (Rhum) (Food by Country). What we see in Haitian cooking is a healthy relationship with sugarcane, not processed and refined sugar. By using sugar in a raw form as opposed to the concentrated and densified version in processed products, Haitians can actually consume less sugar than their European and North American counterparts.
Despite a growing reliance on processed, sugar-heavy foods that skew more recent statistics, France and Haiti have a rich culinary history that, in their own ways, resist an over-reliance on sugar compared to other cultures. While some of these resistances are habitual in nature, like in the case of France and their relationship with wine and cheese in place of tea and sugary desserts, others are more intriguing. I particularly found Haitian usage of sugarcane in cooking to be an interesting characteristic of their cuisine, similar to sources of sweetness in other cuisines like piloncillo in Latino and Mexican cuisine or palm sugar in Thai cuisine. In a way, there are many ways in which we incorporate sugar and sweetness into our foods, and while refined sugar is a convenient metric, it doesn’t always capture the depth of traditional dishes and sources.
- “8 – Eating and Being.” Sweetness and Power, by Sidney W. Mintz, Viking, 1985.
- Chery, Manie. “Pate Kòde (Fried Haitian Patties).” Love for Haitian Food, 12 Oct. 2015, loveforhaitianfood.com/pate-kode-fried-haitian-patties/.
- Ferdman, Roberto. “Where People around the World Eat the Most Sugar and Fat.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Feb. 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/02/05/where-people-around-the-world-eat-the-most-sugar-and-fat/.
- Franklin, Rebecca. “How To Eat Like the French and Lose Weight – Yes It Is True.” The Spruce Eats, The Spruce Eats, 4 June 2018, http://www.thespruceeats.com/eat-like-french-and-lose-weight-1375590.
- “Haiti.” Food in Every Country, http://www.foodbycountry.com/Germany-to-Japan/Haiti.html#ixzz3HPliGLdn.
- “Sugar Consumption Per Capita in Haiti.” Helgi Library, http://www.helgilibrary.com/indicators/sugar-consumption-per-capita/haiti/.