Sugar Throughout History


Anvita Koneru, Journalist

Sugar. The one thing that everyone in the world, not just America, is used to, and has, every single day. But it wasn’t always that way. The history of sugar is much more important and complicated than you would think, for something so simple. It originated from Asia, then made its way into Europe and slowly spread throughout almost every country and continent around the world. 

The first known production of sugar was in Northern India, sometime after 100 AD. They made it from sugarcane extract. The name originates from a Sanskrit word,“śarkarā”, which means “grit” or “gravel”. The name in Sanskrit for the crude form of sugar was “guda”. The extraction of sugarcane juice, and the domestication of the plant, however, happened in Southeast Asia in around 4,000 BC.

During the medieval period, the Arabs adopted techniques to mass produce sugar from India. However, at that time, sugar was only used for medicinal purposes. They set up large plantations with refineries that were dedicated to sugar. From Arabia, sugar was exported throughout Europe, and more was exported as the Western consumption of it increased. At that time, sugar was equivalent to fancy imported spices from Asia, such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. But the price was also equally as high, and not everyone could afford it.

Sugar traveled from Portugal to Brazil. In Brazil, there were about 2,800 sugar mills in the year 1540. Then, after 1625, the Dutch took sugar from South America to the Caribbean Islands. At that point, sugar prices started decreasing, as it was mass produced and not hard to find. Then, sugar started being eaten for pleasure, not as medicine. Sugar boomed in demand and production, as Europeans started eating jam, tea, coffee, candy, processed treats, and other food based almost solely on sugar. And from there, sugar became as we know it today – the sickly sweet substance that everyone loves, and everyone eats. But we think of it as something so simple, that we forget that even the simplest of things have a history and origin behind them.