'Sweetness & Desire: A Short History of Sugar' explores the food we love to hate

woman eating macaron
Public Domain MaxPixel

A new 5-part radio series hosted by food writer Bee Wilson delves into sugar's powerful effect on politics, culture, and health.

Sugar is a food that most people would agree is too prevalent in the modern diet, and yet there is something irresistible about it. Few can turn it down when offered. In a new five-part series for BBC Radio, food writer Bee Wilson delves into the history of sugar. "Sweetness and Desire: A Short History of Sugar" is a tale that Wilson describes as being "laced with exploitation, tragedy, and desire."

The first episode, which I listened to today, examines the "lure of sweetness," and why humans gravitate so strongly to this crystalline white substance.

It's commonly attributed to our fruit-eating primate past, when plants wanted our ancient ancestors to eat their fruits and berries in order to spread seeds further afield, and so filled them with sweetness to make them desirable. Peter Rogers, professor at the University of Bristol, explains, "If you take a population and you ask them about how much they like particular levels of sugar, on average it's around 10 percent." Ten percent is right around the sweetness level of ripe fruit, so that preference does seem to be a "hangover from our primate fruit-eating past."

Prior to modern production and importation of sugar, if humans wanted to indulge in sweetness, they had to embark on a perilous hunt for honey, after which they could still turn up empty-handed. The search for energy-boosting sweetness required energy to obtain.

As a result, sugar has always been seen as a rarity and associated with special occasions, which made it all the more pleasant and desirable. Historically, sweetness has been associated with celebrations, such as birthdays, baptisms, religious holidays, and weddings. It is a sign of hospitality, a way to honor and welcome guests.

Now times have changed, and perhaps not for the better. We live in an era that's saturated with sugar, where it can be widely obtained at minimal cost. Bee Wilson asks the crucial question: "Now that our food supply is drenched in a million different forms of sugar, does it lose its meaning?"

The people she interviews seem to think not, saying that the associations with sugar as celebratory are so ancient that they're not likely to die out soon. But I'm not so sure. Too much of anything, no matter how wonderful, turns it into something ordinary.

At a time when sugar is intensely vilified, and most people I know claim to be "cutting down" on sugar, it's interesting to delve into a history of the substance we love so innately -- and love to hate -- that's not entirely focused on health issues. Putting sugar into a broader cultural, historical, and political perspective makes it all the more interesting to learn about.

Additional episodes, airing every day this week, will include an exploration of sugar's relationship with slavery, politics, health, and British culture. Listen here.

'Sweetness & Desire: A Short History of Sugar' explores the food we love to hate
A new 5-part radio series hosted by food writer Bee Wilson delves into sugar's powerful effect on politics, culture, and health.

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