For thousands of years, people in both Europe and the rest of the world have loved sweet tastes. Before sugar became known, our ancestors ate honey, dates and other sweet foods, which they also used as sweeteners. We know this from writings and reliefs from ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Honey is our oldest known sweetener. In the Arãna caves in Spain, 12,000 year-old cave paintings show women collecting honey. The women used the honey for baking, just as we do today, for making mead and for cleaning wounds. The first type of honey our ancestors used was wild honey taken from wild bees' nests. Later, people began keeping bees in hives, like we do today.
Although sugar arrived in Europe around 1100, it was not widely used until the 16th century. Until then it was reserved for rich people, who used it both to sweeten food and as a medicine.
The first plant from which sugar was extracted was the sugar cane (saccharum officinarum). The grass species from which sugar cane evolved originated from a few small islands in the Pacific Ocean, for instance in Polynesia and Melanesia. Experts can trace these grass species back 10,000 -15,000 years. The original species were transported from these small islands to Indonesia, India and China approximately 8,000 years ago, and have since become extinct. Today's sugar cane can grow up to six metres high. It grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Because sugar cane requires plenty of water and heat, it can only grow in the southern regions of Europe, for instance in Spain, Madeira and Portugal. The world's largest producers of cane sugar are Brazil, Cuba, India, the Philippines and Mexico.
How did people use the sugar cane's sweet interior before modern sugar production methods were developed? The Indians pressed the slightly cloudy juice from the canes or sucked them like lollipops – a practice that still exists in many countries. Later, people began boiling the canes' sweet juice to produce crystals, resulting in a kind of solid sugar.
According to legend, it was Alexander the Great who first brought sugar canes – or at least stories of them – back to Greece after a military expedition to India. Around 300 BC, his admiral Nearchos sailed from the Persian Gulf along the Indus River, where the sugar canes grew side by side, swaying in the wind. Nearchos reached for a cane and tasted it, and exclaimed, “Indian canes that make sugar without bees.”
The Arabs brought sugar to the western Mediterranean region. They cultivated sugar canes in southern Spain and Sicily after occupying these areas. In the Middle Ages, Venice was Europe's main importer and exporter of sugar. Raw cane sugar was imported from India and refined in Venice before being exported to the rest of Europe.
Sugar was extremely expensive, and was known as “white gold”. Wealthy people actually stored sugar as a form of savings.
One story tells of a bishop who bought sugar from Portuguese merchants for many years and stored it in his chamber. When he died, his possessions were divided between the cloister's monks. These possessions included the sugar. The monks tasted it expectantly, but grimaced in disgust. Instead of being sweet, it had a bitter, unpleasant taste. They didn't know that the sugar had been transported across Egypt by camel. During the journey it had absorbed the camel's sweat, which turned it bitter. Deprived of its sweetness, the sugar was now worthless.
Sugar production increased in the late 15th century when explorers brought sugar cane further south. For instance, Henry the Navigator brought it from Sicily to Crete. Initially, the juice was extracted using hand-operated presses. People later began using mills drawn by animals, and eventually, the juice was pressed using water power.
During his travels, Columbus discovered that the Caribbean had the perfect climate for growing sugar cane. He had learned about the cultivation of cane in Madeira, and brought sugar cane to America and the West Indies, where it was planted and grown on big plantations. The raw sugar was shipped back to Europe to be refined and sold. Following the rise in sugar production, sugar became more widely traded and was no longer reserved for the upper classes.
In the 17th century, most European countries had colonies throughout the world where they could grow their own sugar cane. An unpleasant aspect of sugar's history is that slaves were shipped to the colonies from Africa to work on the plantations.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Napoleon blocked the ocean trade routes to prevent sugar from being imported by ship. As a result, Europeans sought a substitute for sugar cane. They discovered that sugar could be extracted from sugar beets. However, the beets had a very low sugar content at the time, which caused sugar prices to rise.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the French released control of the trade routes and cane sugar became available again. Beet sugar production now became redundant. However, things changed again when slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century and the cheap labour disappeared – causing the price of cane sugar to rocket again. By this time, the sugar beet had been developed and now had the same sugar content as sugar cane. A completely new chapter of European sugar history was about to begin.
However, over half of today's global sugar production still comes from sugar cane.