Sorry if you are now singing along with Mary Poppins! Sugar and sweet treats are such a part of our society – both a way to express love while also reviled as an addictive substance that harms the body. So it’s worthwhile to explore some of the history of sugar and it’s alternatives, and see how these can be used in novels.

Sugar cane was first grown and processed in India in the first century AD. While it was a basic form of crushing and juice extraction, it was enough to get a granulated ‘gravel sugar’ that would travel along trade routes. While Rome used it as a medicine, not a food additive, other countries such as China looked into getting their own. (All from the Wiki article on sugar)

It is a crop that grows fast – 7m in a season – and needs lots of water and sunshine. So it was limited to tropical areas, as it is to this day. As processing became more efficient, the demand for sugar grew. Unfortunately, it is a crop requiring hard and unpleasant labour to harvest, which led fairly directly to the slave trade growth in the West Indies, Caribbean and later on in Australia. During Napoleonic times, the trade from the tropics was restricted, and this led to a search for the sweet stuff in other crops – and so sugar beet crops flourished across Europe. Even today, 30% of sugar is from sugar beet.

Eventually people worked it all out, but like many desirable foods, sugar has a bloody history. Today the USA produces vast quantities of the mono crop corn to be used to produce corn syrup. A mono crop is bad for the environment as one disease can wipe it out, and then there are the problems of bulk production such as soil erosion and nutrient depletion, use of pesticides and herbicides, groundwater depletion and contamination etc. All suitable topics for apocalypse novels, and certainly if you add in climate change you don’ t need too much more. Michael Pollan speaks eloquently of the ubiquitous problems of corn use in all parts of the food cycle.

So what else is available to satisfy a sweet tooth? There is some evidence that desire for sweetness is linked to foods with more nutrients and energy – a lot of bitter foods have some level of toxin. 

In a fantasy you could rely on honey, either from a village hive or brave the bee wrath in a discovered one. Or trade for sugar crystals from a hot land far distant to your towns of hobbits and dwarves. Or try a few flowers – Australian grevilleas have been soaked in water for a honey drink, although you need to be careful not to pick the ones containing arsenic (grevillea robusta, a common park tree incidentally). Liquorice root tea is another sweet taste that might appeal to your characters – and Jean Auel used this as a spirit booster in times of stress. Or ‘honeypot’ ants with nectar filled bums which are an indigenous food in Australia.

Historical fiction has lots of opportunities to explore sugar as a way to add details of the time. Pa Ingalls in the Little House books bringing back a tub of honeycomb and leaving enough for the bees to salvage and competing for the haul with a bear. There are numerous instances of sugar being needed and appreciated in Laura Ingall’s books – sugar cakes for Christmas, maple sugar for every day and refined guest sugar, and sugaring off parties with maple sugar in the snow. All these glimpses produce a detailed picture of the people and their world. In ‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig, an autobiography of her family living in Russia, her Father requests a spoonful of their precious sugar as an energy boost to his nerves after being interrogated.

Romance books often have a lot of eating in them – for isn’t the way to a man’s heart through his stomach? Leaving aside the weird misogyny of this phrase, certainly feeding others can be an expression of love. Novelists as diverse as Barbara Cartland and Barbara Cornwell have produced cookbooks, and I’d recommend Cartland’s for its many charming oddities over the murder quotes and food which are uneasy companions in Cornwall’s book.

But what of scifi? Given we are still humans with an insatiable sweet tooth, we need to find some way to survive it. Sugar and artificial sweeteners are not the best for our bodies in large quantities. On the other hand it would be easy to replicate. So most likely medical advances will need to continue to combat a sweet tooth, or I suppose in the long term, some sort of natural selection for excellent sugar metabolism without damage is possible.

Humans are fighting a losing battle to control sugar once tasted. It is also important to remember that the abundance of the sweet stuff today really only reflects the last two hundred years or so. How would this affect the tastes of those from the past? Or those of the future? A mars bar might not be so tasty on Mars!

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World Building: A Spoonful of Sugar
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