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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese military attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,000 Americans, mostly sailors.

In a very short time, the U.S. military was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean and the Germans in Europe and Africa. In all of World War II, nine million members of the U.S. Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines served overseas.

With both those theaters thousands of miles from home, the war machine got priority on all supplies. To prevent shortages, many items were rationed back home, an idea completely foreign to the Americans of today who can buy any food they want any time they want.

Gasoline, tires, shoes, stoves, and typewriters were rationed. So were many foods, including sugar, coffee, cheese, meats, canned fish, and processed foods. Civilians were allowed half a pound of sugar per person per week.

For centuries people chewed the stalks of wild sugarcane because they liked the sweet taste

About 10,000 years ago, the people of Papua New Guinea were the first to domesticate sugarcane. The first country to produce refined sugar from sugarcane plants was India, 2,500 years ago. Over time, domesticated sugarcane plants made their way around the world

What is sugarcane?

It’s one of the world’s tallest grasses, growing as tall as 20 feet in ideal conditions. It is a thin-bladed grass with stout, woody stalks. Sugarcane needs lots of sun and lots of rain. It thrives in moist, rich soil and grows wild in countries near the equator.

Why is Portuguese Brazil’s official language?

The Portuguese established sugar plantations in their Brazilian colony because growing conditions were ideal there. There was plenty of sun and rain, and the slave-based plantation economy thrived. So much so that seven years later Brazil declared its independence from Portugal.

Today Brazil is the world’s largest sugarcane producer, harvesting 642 million tons of sugarcane grown on 21 million acres of farmland.

As demand for sugar continued to increase in Europe, planters in Brazil and the Caribbean brought 12 million slaves from Africa to do backbreaking work on their sugarcane plantations.

The Slave Economy in Six Steps

  • Step One: Kidnap slaves from Africa, take them to the Caribbean, and sell them at slave markets. 
  • Step Two: Sell slaves to plantation owners who force them to plant and harvest sugarcane.
  • Step Three: Buy sugar, rum, coffee, tobacco, and coconuts in the islands.
  • Step Four: Take shiploads of these exotic goods back to Europe and sell them.
  • Step Five: Buy textiles, brandy, and arms, take them to Africa ,and use them to buy slaves. 
  • Step Six: Keep this up for another 300 years.

What are the basic sugars?

  • Sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose, the sugar found in fruit and vegetables. It is the chief component of beet and cane sugars.
  • Glucose, the body’s main source of energy, is a simple sugar derived from plant carbohydrates. It’s the type of sugar used for energy.
  • Fructose is the sweetest of the three. High-fructose corn syrup is used to sweeten processed foods and drinks. Metabolically speaking, fructose causes seven times the cell damage than glucose.

What is corn syrup?

Corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made from corn starch and used in processed foods to add volume and enhance flavor.

Healthline lists six reasons why eating and drinking large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad for your health.

  1. Sugar and HFCS contain fructose and glucose. Your body metabolizes fructose differently than glucose, and consuming too much of it can lead to health problems.
  2. HFCS is metabolized differently and can contribute to increased liver fat.
  3. The ready availability of HFCS and refined sugar has increased Americans’ average daily calorie intake, a key factor in weight gain. Scientists say these days people consume more than 500 calories per day from sugar.
  4. Excessive fructose or HFCS intake can lead to insulin resistance, which can result in Type 2 diabetes and has been linked to heart disease and certain cancers.
  5. Studies are starting to link sugar and HFCS with increased risk of heart disease and reduced life expectancy.
  6. High-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars contain plenty of calories but include no essential nutrients.

A 1986 Food and Drug Administration study found “no conclusive evidence” that sugar was harmful when consumed at typical sugar levels

Scientists say the FDA’s conclusion was flawed because it was based on the wrong information. Instead of calculating the effects on the actual per capita sugar consumption using then-current 75 pounds per year figures, calculations were based on sugar levels of 40 pounds per year, last seen 100 years ago. Using the correct per capita numbers from 1986, the USDA study would have shown Americans’ yearly sugar intake was 90 pounds per year and the FDA would have found the evidence they say wasn’t there.

How is sugar processed?

This is how sugar.org illustrates how sugar beets are processed

Sugar Beets’ Journey from Field to Table sounds organic: Harvest, Wash, Clean, Crystallize, Spin, Dry. The use of gentle pastel colors has a calming effect on the viewer and the circular design of the layout suggests the process somehow returns to the earth. 

This flow chart that fully illustrates the stages that turn sugar beets into processed sugar

Extraction by Diffusion, Purification, Filtration, Evaporation, Crystallization, Separation and Screening into Bagged and Bulk. The size and complexity show us there are many steps in the process of converting sugar beets into refined sugar.

Because sugar beets are perishable, processing factories are built near the fields. They became a source for sugar when a chemists found they had the same sugar crystals as those in sugar cane, long the sole source of sugar.

The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died

That’s the name of a study published in the Milbank Quarterly. The authors had this to say: “In December 1953, the CEOs of the major tobacco companies met secretly in New York City. Their purpose was to counter the damage from studies linking smoking to lung cancer. The following year, the tobacco industry paid to publish Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in hundreds of U.S. newspapers. It stated that the public’s health was the industry’s concern above all others and promised a variety of good-faith changes. What followed were decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.” 

They go on to say, “The tobacco industry had a playbook, a script, that emphasized personal responsibility, paying scientists who delivered research that instilled doubt, criticizing the “junk” science that found harms associated with smoking, making self-regulatory pledges, lobbying with massive resources to stifle government action, introducing “safer” products, and simultaneously manipulating and denying both the addictive nature of their products and their marketing to children.”

You may recall

When the evidence of the tobacco-cancer link was too overwhelming to deny, the tobacco companies shifted their pitch from tobacco is harmless to defending people’s freedom of choice. The sugar industry now appears to be shifting their strategy to blaming fat.

The Sugar Association claims to be “the scientific voice of the sugar industry” 

This from their website: “We make a difference by responsibly supporting scientific research and sharing our knowledge to enhance consumer understanding and confidence in the role that real sugar plays in a nutritious, balanced and enjoyable diet.” 

What the Association did not say was how four of every five published studies involving sugar were funded by members of the sugar industry 

This is important because articles published in scientific journals are more likely than ever to bend the truth in the direction of the study sponsor. Compromised research like this was uncommon at one time but is now so prevalent that it doesn’t take a cynic to realize study sponsors get what they pay for – results that show them in the best possible light. This is the same tactic some researchers use to please clients: find things they want to hear and ignore those things that don’t.

Is it true than food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor?

Yes. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. The Associated Press said one published study funded by the National Confectioners Association went so far as to conclude that kids who eat candy tend to weigh less than kids who don’t.

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Called SSBs, they are any and all beverages made with added sugars. Frequent consumption of SSBs has been linked with adverse health outcomes, something denied by Big Sugar much as Big Tobacco denied nicotine was harmful. The Diabetes Council says people in the United States average 25 teaspoons of sugar per person per day. This is more than double the recommended amount.

What is a meta-study?

The foundation of all science is the cumulation of knowledge from many studies. A meta-study titled Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews did just that. Among their conclusions:

  • Four times out of five, studies funded by the sugar industry found no link between SSRs and weight gain.
  • Four times out of five, studies NOT funded by the sugar industry found links between SSRs and weight gain.

The U.S. sugar industry is heavily protected by restrictions and high tariffs-rate quotas on sugar imports

Critics say this situation keeps U.S. sugar prices artificially high, almost twice the price of world sugar. The Federal commodity support program maintains a minimum price for U.S. sugar. The American Sugarbeet Growers Association says “There are many benefits to consumers and taxpayers that result from a strong sugar industry. Even if you are not from a sugarbeet growing area or state, you benefit from a sound sugar policy.” The U.S. Government Accountability Office reviewed the programs and concluded it costs American consumers more than it benefits producers.

Life Savers has been a pocket candy since 1910

It got its name because it resembled the old flotation ring thrown off ships when passengers fell overboard — white and round with a hole in the center. Life Savers were popular with the troops because they were sweet and easily carried in a pocket. The Wrigley family (yes, the ones who built the famous Chicago ballpark) convinced other candy manufacturers to donate their sugar, allowing Life Savers to keep up production for the American Armed Forces fighting the Germans and Japanese.

The earliest refined sugars were sold in hard cones that had to be broken into pieces before eating

Wrapped in paper and sealed with wax, these sugar loaves ranged in size from a few inches to a few feet tall and weighed anywhere from five to 50 pounds. This was the way people bought sugar until the late 1800s, when cubes and granules made sugar lots easier to eat. And yes, that’s how the famous Rio de Janeiro mountain peak got its name.

Bonus stats

Back in George Washington’s day, Americans ate six pounds of sugar a year. Today they eat more than 100 pounds of sugar a year, much of it from beverages sweetened by high-fructose corn syrup.

On his second voyage to “India,” Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane plants to the Caribbean, a huge area with ideal growing conditions.

In the US, 20 factories turn 30 million tons of sugar beets into five million tons of refined sugar.

In 2023, Americans consumed 24 billion pounds of sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your sugar intake to no more than 9 teaspoons per day and less if you hope to lose weight. The average amount of sugar Americans take in is 22 teaspoons per day.

The U.S. Beet Sugar Association claims their testing shows refined sugar produced from bio-engineered sugar beets is identical to refined sugar produced from conventional sugar beets. Then what’s the engineering for?

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