Sugar is one of the most ubiquitous seasonings in the world—it has been an important crop and commodity since ancient times, and is still used to flavor foods all around the globe. While a lot of us are trying to cut back on our sugar intake, it's still an undeniably important part of modern life. So whether or not you've got a sweet tooth, check out these facts about the history and science of sugar:
1. SUGAR WAS ONCE CONSIDERED A SPICE, NOT A SWEETENER.
When sugar was first introduced to England in the twelfth century, it was grouped with other tropical spices like ginger, cinnamon, and saffron, and used by the very wealthy to season savory dishes.
2. IT WAS USED AS A MEDICINE FOR CENTURIES.
The use of sugar as a medicine dates back at least as far as ninth century Iraq, where it was combined with fruits and spices to make medicinal syrups, powders, and infusions. Centuries later, British doctors prescribed sugar to cure a range of diseases—one 18th century physician even suggested blowing sugar powder into the eyes to cure eye ailments and irritations.
3. EUROPEAN ROYALTY WOULD MAKE GIANT SUGAR SCULPTURES CALLED 'SUBTLETIES.'
Similar in consistency to marzipan, ‘subtleties’ were sculpted into different shapes and wheeled out at royal feasts starting in the 13th century. Though they were visually impressive, they weren’t particularly tasty—the sugar was mixed with a range of nuts, pastes, and gums in order to make it more malleable, giving it a slightly clay-like consistency.
4. IN EUROPE, IT STARTED AS A LUXURY …
Initially, sugar was so rare and expensive only royalty could afford it—and in very small quantities at that. In the 13th century, for example, British monarch Henry III once tried to order three pounds of sugar, but expressed doubts that so much sugar could even be found in England.
5. … BUT BY THE 19TH CENTURY, HAD BECOME A STAPLE OF THE WORKING-CLASS DIET.
By 1850, working class consumption of sugar had eclipsed that of the wealthier classes. As the price of sugar dropped, the working classes began using it in a range of baked goods, porridges, and “hasty puddings”—so-called because they could be prepared quickly and with ease. Perhaps most importantly, the working classes began adding sugar to tea—a tradition which, of course, persists to this day.
6. SUGAR CANE WAS FIRST DOMESTICATED IN NEW GUINEA AROUND 8000 BCE.
It was later carried to the Philippines and India—in fact, the first written mention of sugar may be in The Mahabhashya of Patanjali, a study of Sanskrit written around 400-350 BCE.
7. EATING SUGAR CAN GIVE YOU WRINKLES.
It’s common knowledge that eating too much sugar can cause weight gain, but few people know it can also affect the elasticity of your skin. It turns out, overconsumption of sugar causes glycation—a process in which the sugar in your bloodstream binds to proteins, forming molecules that make the collagen in your skin more brittle—which, in turn, causes wrinkles.
8. IT CAN BE USED AS A FOOD PRESERVATIVE.
Sugar has been used as a preservative for hundreds of years, and now scientists understand why: high sugar concentrations cause bacteria to lose water through a process called osmosis—and without water, bacteria can’t grow or divide.
9. DOGS HAVE A SWEET TOOTH, BUT CATS DON'T.
Scientists are still studying why some animals have a preference for sweet foods and others don’t. They’ve found, for example, that dogs enjoy sweet foods while cats and other felines don’t have sweetness receptors in their brains. They’ve hypothesized that sweetness receptors are unnecessary for carnivorous animals, as well as for animals that tend not to chew their food at all, such as dolphins and sea lions.
10. THE AVERAGE AMERICAN CONSUMES 76.7 POUNDS OF SUGAR A YEAR.
According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Agriculture Department, we’re each eating about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day.
11. OVERCONSUMPTION OF SUGAR HAS BEEN LINKED TO LOWER COGNITIVE ABILITIES.
That means too much sugar might actually make you stupider—at least if you’re a rat. So far, scientists have only studied the effects of sugar consumption on four-legged subjects, but they believe that the brain structure of rats is similar enough to our own that the findings can be extended to humans.
12. THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT KINDS.
The three main categories of sugar are monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polyols. Monosaccharides are single molecule sugars, while disaccharides are made up of two linked monosaccharides—both are found in a range of products, from fruits and table sugar to milk. Polyols, meanwhile, aren’t true sugars—they’re found in many sugar-free sweeteners.
13. SUGAR CAN BE USED AS FUEL.
14. SUGAR IS ADDICTIVE.
Quitting sugar abruptly can cause pain, nausea, and flu-like symptoms.
15. SUGAR HAS BEEN FEATURED IN SONGS AND POETRY FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS.
In 1436, Adam de Moleyn singled out sugar in a poem about English sea power called "The Libelle of English Polycye." The phrase “sugar and spice and everything nice,” meanwhile, first appeared in a 19th century poem called “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” And, over the last century, the word “sugar” has been featured in song titles by The Archies ("Sugar Sugar"), Talking Heads (“Sugar On My Tongue”), Nina Simone (“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”), The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”), Bob Dylan (“Sugar Baby”), and many more.
Additional Source: Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History