Sugar & Spice:
Why a spice company is getting into sugars
By Ethan Frisch, Co-Founder & Co-CEO
Sugar used to be a spice.
For most of human history, sugar was rare and highly prized; granulated sugar especially was a very valuable commodity, produced at a small scale in only a few places on earth. Botanically, sugar cane is native to the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea and spread across the sea to southeast Asia, southern China and South Asia where it was cultivated and beloved in early Indus Valley civilizations at the dawn of recorded history.
The oldest Sanskrit texts from northern India, dating back almost 5000 years, contain detailed descriptions of sugarcane cultivation; the word "sugar" itself comes from the ancient Sanskrit word "sarkara." Granulated sugar was first described in written documents 2,400 years ago, and Indian sailors of the time enjoyed meals of sugar and ghee on long ocean voyages.
Sugar has always been appreciated both for its own flavor and its properties as a flavor enhancer, like salt. Also like salt, it's a remarkable preservative, and has been used since ancient times to make shelf-stable jams, candies and syrups from fresh fruit and flowers. Our evolutionary ancestors may have developed modern brains because of access to sugary easy-calorie treats like fruit and honey, and that deep connection could be why we still love the flavor of sweetness so much.
Until the modern era of refined white sugar, most sugar was produced and consumed as a liquid syrup. Granulated sugar was incredibly difficult to make, requiring land, labor and infrastructure to be orchestrated in a complex logistical routine. Sugar cane grows in seasonal cycles in tropical, rainy climates, and faces unique challenges to harvest and process because of the rapid fermentability of the plant. Historically, it had to be grown, juiced and boiled on a single farm-and-factory site at a very fast pace to prevent the juice from spoiling, which can happen in less than a few hours and ruin the whole batch.
To make granulated cane sugar, the tall, heavy stalks must be cut by machete and carried to the onsite factory, where they are crushed under immense pressure, their juice boiled to temperatures higher than 300 degrees and transferred as a molten syrup between multiple pots. The operation is fueled by burning huge quantities of bagasse, the desiccated cane husk, in a massive furnace. The final transition from syrup to granulated sugar happens when air is whipped into a super-saturated solution of boiled cane juice, and the syrup transforms in a single moment from a foamy liquid into a mound of coarse, sandy crystals. In traditional sugar production, each of those steps is done by hand, a combination of incredible skill, sophisticated equipment and sheer physical strength beyond any other ingredient. It is difficult and dangerous work, from the sharp knives used to harvest the cane, the heavy rollers and grinders used to crush it and extract the juice, the smoke and fire of the evaporation process, and the bathtub-sized vats of boiling, spitting, liquid sugar.
While other crops, particularly other spices, can be harvested and sun-dried on household farms with minimal equipment, sugar, because of the elaborate on-farm assembly line required to produce it, has often been financially viable for export only at the scale of plantation-style agriculture.
Trading alongside other spices, sugar crossed the Indian Ocean and found a home in the Arab world around 2000 years ago, where it was embraced for its sweet flavor, preservation abilities and purported medicinal properties for everything from digestion to skincare. The biblical city of Jericho became a hub of sugar production during the time of the Crusades, and sugar was sold at a price per pound equal to black pepper, nutmeg and other valuable spices in England as late as the 1400s. It was included as a spice in countless recipes from Europe to the Mediterranean, across the Arab world to the center of the Indian subcontinent.
It appears that Arab production of sugar was associated with the first instances of the enslavement of African people for large scale agricultural labor. Mass production of sugar required a large and disposable labor force, and as the demand for sugar grew in Europe, the use of enslaved labor became the cruel strategy to produce it profitably at scale.
This marked the beginning of an era of racist imprisonment of African and South Asian people on sugarcane plantations and factory farms that would last for centuries, span the globe, and forever disassociate sugar from its agricultural and artisanal roots as a spice. The practice spread to the Canary Islands, Madeira and on to the Caribbean, South America and the American south, as well as to Mauritius and Southern Africa. Everywhere, sugar was produced under assembly line conditions on plantations that were essentially torture camps for the extraction of pure physical labor under worse circumstances than any of us can probably conceive.
Historically, sugar wasn’t the sickly sweet, ultra-refined white crystals we know today. The warm, rich, umami flavor of real sugar was used like clove, paprika or black pepper to add depth and complexity. It was enjoyed similarly to the way we appreciate the hot sensation of chili peppers, and was combined with other spices and savory ingredients to create complex flavors in a single dish. In the same way the heat of a chili pepper can accentuate other flavors in a dish and make a bland meal more exciting, sugar was used to enliven monotonous foods of all kinds.
Modern white sugar is almost perfectly pure sucrose, refined to such a degree as to render it more of a chemical than an agricultural product. White sugar can be considered non-GMO only because it contains literally no genetic material after being refined. White sugar is processed at a gargantuan scale from industrially-grown sugar cane or large white sugar beets, originally introduced in Napoleon’s France after the successful slave revolution in Haiti cut off France’s supply of cheap cane sugar from their former colony.
Even the vocabulary we use, of “white” and “refined,” is loaded; sugar’s early association in Europe and the Arab world with health and medicinal purity incentivized the removal of color and flavor from the final product. This is in opposition to the brutal farm and factory conditions endured by Black, brown and indigenous people producing it at the origin of its supply chain. The sugar plantations of the Caribbean consumed the lives and labor of enslaved people to produce sugar for the tea, white toast, and jam that fed the workers of Europe’s industrial revolution. The history of sugar is intertwined with the history of capitalism, the origins of wage labor, the beginning of industrial agriculture and the invention of the very first ultra-processed foods, cheap and unhealthy calories meant to fill the bellies of poor people in the global north, funded by the forced labor of enslaved people.
Today, we're fortunate to understand far more about sugar and its impact on our societies and our bodies than ever before. We're fortunate to be able to communicate with people all around the world, to be able to travel to spend time together, and to enjoy a shared appreciation for delicious ingredients produced with integrity. By engaging with its complex past and by working hard to build new supply chains and new markets for carefully chosen, traditional and absolutely delicious sugars, we hope to contribute to a process of redefining an ingredient we've come to take for granted.
Sources and suggested reading:
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- Creative Time. Creative Time Presents: Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety.”
- Dunn, Rob, and Sanchez, Monica. Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human. United Kingdom, Princeton University Press, 2021.
- Galloway, J. H. The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from Its Origins to 1914. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Goldstein, Darra et al. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years,Updated and Expanded. United States, Melville House, 2014.
- Krondl, Michael. Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. United States, Chicago Review Press, 2011.
- Lieberman, Daniel. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. United States, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014.
- Milcé, Jean-Euphèle. To Drink My Sweet Body. Creative Time Reports. May 9, 2014.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. United Kingdom, Penguin Publishing Group, 1986.
- Moss, Michael. Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions. United States, Random House Publishing Group, 2021.
- Moore, Jason W., and Patel, Raj. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. United Kingdom, Verso, 2018.
- Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System - Revised and Updated. United States, Melville House, 2012.
- Patel, Shailja. Unpour. Creative Time Reports. May 8, 2014.
- Richardson, Ben. Sugar. Germany, Polity Press, 2015.
- Riley, Vanessa. Island Queen: A Novel. United States, HarperCollins, 2021.
- Scott, James C.. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. United States, Yale University Press, 2017.
- Smith, Jennie Erin. Colombians Ask: Who would Dare Patent Panela? New York Times, January 26th, 2021.
- Tandoh, Ruby. Sugartime. Eater, August 6, 2018.
- Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. United States, Basic Books, 2015.
- Wooding, Steven. Is a Sweet Tooth Genetic? Sapiens, January 4, 2023.