According to the recently published Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, a spoonful of sugar does more than help the medicine go down. The 888 page encyclopedia covers everything from à la mode to zuppa inglese, with nearly 600 entries written by experts who address the scientific, historical, and cultural aspects of sugar and sweets.
“It’s an excursion through history and culture, through time and place, all through the prism of the sweet. The Companion is about pleasure and pain—it encompasses just about everything that the human desire for sweet things has wrought. And, in that sense, it tells us a lot about the human condition,” says the book’s editor, Darra Goldstein.
Humans appear to develop a taste for the sweet stuff early on. Studies conducted by scientist Jacob Steiner found nearly all infants elicit positive facial expressions when sugar is placed on their tongues, unlike bitter and sour tastes, which cause newborns to display signs of dislike. As with most things, the experience of sugar is a mixture of nurture and nature. Sweets can often have a gendered dimension; in the West, “girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice,” and women are wooed with chocolate. Culturally, some countries have more of a sweet tooth than others--Japan’s low levels of sugar consumption support the theory that the nation prefers less sweet treats than many countries in the West.
“The language of sweets is so embedded in English that we don’t usually stop to think about how sugar pervades our vocabulary,” notes Goldstein. Commonly used in nicknames, idioms, songs, and stories, sweet talk is ubiquitous. This begins early on with sugar babies and their daddies--actually, no, that is something entirely different--but childhood is filled with references to candies and other treats. Shirley Temple may be the embodiment of this--not only did she have a drink named for her that she once described as “saccharine, icky,” she was known as “America’s Sweetheart”, and sang songs like this:
There’s plenty of sugar language for adults, too--filled with innuendo, euphemisms, and songs that are sultry and suggestive:
Sugar itself can be eye candy, explains Goldstein. “Sugar has brought great delight to the palate in a multitude of confections. And because it’s a very malleable substance when heated, over the centuries sugar has delighted the eye as it is cooked, cast, molded or spun into extraordinary cakes, desserts, candies, and massive centerpieces to decorate the table.” She adds, “ Then there are the special accoutrements that sugar has inspired, the objects designed for serving it, often beautifully crafted from silver and porcelain and other precious materials: tongs, sifters, canisters, bowls, epergnes, chocolate pots.”
Sweet treats have also inspired the fine arts, such as Andy Warhol’s Life Savers and Vik Muniz’s “Sugar Children”, a politically charged series that used sugar as a medium to draw attention to the dark side of sugar.
Once a rarity and long considered a spice, the American and European demand for sugar was met by slave labor on plantations in Africa and tropical climate colonies. Interestingly, sugarcane was the most beneficial crop for slave owners in the United States and used the most labor, although cotton is usually the crop most commonly associated with slavery. Despite the abolishment of slavery, the ethics of confectionary enjoyment are a contemporary issue. In the Ivory Coast and Ghana, child labor, fair wages, and other practices surround the production of cocoa.
Goldstein felt it was important to draw attention to the unsavory side of sweets in the book and says, “Such hard facts are not meant to diminish our pleasure or make us forswear everything we enjoy, but it’s good to be aware of--rather than oblivious to--the historical costs of our desires, so that we can seek out products made by companies that support fair labor practices.”
The role of sugar continues to change over time. In the past, it was prescribed as a medicine; now, rising levels of obesity and preventable disease are linked to its consumption. And it may have an entirely new role in the future of health and wellness. Goldstein tells me that one of the many sugar innovations involves experiments to build artificial organs, “Once living cells have been grown on a network of sugar fibers that mimic blood vessels, the sugar is dissolved, leaving behind interconnected channels. So, one day, the sugar we eat could be used to create the organs that help digest it!”