Sugar is a huge industry in the United States. The substance is in nearly every processed food we eat. Why is this the case?
Sugar is a drug. A legal drug that alters our body chemistry, including mood, psychology, and medical condition. Over a lifetime of eating sugar people develop all sorts of medical conditions, diabetes the most prevalent. This unscientific essay will discuss the history of sugar in the United States in my own biased way.
I love sugar. I eat in every day in several foods. I love chocolate, love candy. I don’t eat candy everyday, and avoid buying candy in the store. However, when its around, I will eat it. Over my lifetime I have eaten any number of processed foods full of sugar and liked them.
I have also made a habit to not eat too much sugar, and seek sweeteners in as natural a form as I can get them. I do not like to drink or eat anything with High Fructose Corn syrup, another form of sugar. In the recent past I altered my coffee sweetener to Splenda, and other sweeteners. They are good at dissolving in coffee, but Splenda tends to make me a bit jittery and makes my Restless Leg Syndrome go crazy.
I am now using natural sweeteners like Stevia. I do not get the RLS symptoms with sugar or Stevia.
For the last two years I have been on a partial vegan diet with most of my meals without sugar.
But again, why is sugar such a big part of our diets. I turns out that as late as 150 years ago, sugar was not a big part of an American diet. How did this all change? In college I had the opportunity to study Hawaiian history. When Hawai’i was an independent nation, and recognized by many other nations, there was a migration of Calvinist missionaries to the Islands. Beginning in the 1820s the missionaries began coming to the islands uninvited and setting up churches and gathering congregations from among the Hawai’ians and settlers. The Calvinists and other missionaries, acquired Hawai’ian citizenship and land on Hawaii, and began operating sugar cane plantations, many financed by US banks like Ladd & Co. The first plantation began in 1802 by a Chinese immigrant, and then the missionaries took up the practice because sugar was highly profitable. The United States government greatly aided the industry on Hawaii by throwing resources behind sugar production and passing the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875. The treaty allowed Hawaiian sugar products to enter the U.S. duty free. And then in 1893, the United States took over the Island kingdom illegally, with the aid of the missionaries.
During the 18th century sugar was a desired additive to foods like tea and coffee, but it was somewhat expensive and was not a regular part of the average person’s diet. In the 19th century, the consumption of sugar grew by an estimated 100 percent or more because of the growth of some key industries. The use of the Caribbean to grow sugar (and develop the slave trade for cheap labor) was by this time a major worldwide phenomenon, with island colonies like Haiti and Barbados some of the richest in the world, making more sugar than anywhere else in the world. This industry was controlled by the European countries, who controlled the colonies and charged a high price to bring the sugar into New Orleans or other ports on the East Coast. In the 19th Century, with the advent of the Formation of this new country the United States, many industrialists in the country sought to get out from under the European controlled industry, a form of economic monopoly. Hawaii, became the answer with a similar tropical climate to the Caribbean. Much of the United States was in temperate climates and so sugar cane, the major source of sugar in the world would not grow on most of the Continental US. There was some production in the American south but not to the scale of the Caribbean. Then when the Civil War broke out (1861), sugar supplies were reduced and Hawaii became very important source of sugar. [Just two days ago I found evidence that white sugar beets were being introduced to the Oregon territory in the 1840s. Oregon Historical Society Library correspondence collections]
Hawaii became the major source of raw cane and processed sugar for the United States, and saw the early development of the Big Five sugar producers, Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors and Theo H. Davies & Co.., most, by the way, originating from missionary families, who had access to old family money from the Eastern United States and were well financed by US Banks. Castle and Cooke merged into the Dole Company later; C. Brewer & Co. spawned the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corporation, and dissolved in 2006; American Factors became AMFAC which is now a division of Federated Department Stores and owns Xanterra Parks and Resorts and Kāʻanapali Coffee Farms; Theo H. Davies & Co. is now owned by Jardine Matheson of Hong Kong and is being liquidated; while Alexander and Baldwin remains on the islands. The Sugar Industry, from Sugar Cane, declined with the advent of Hawaiian Statehood (Aug. 21 1859) and the creation of HFCS, High Fructose Corn Syrup in the 1950s. Statehood brought more federal laws to the islands, outlawing the practice of employing workers as indentured servants, that harvested the cane in Hawaii cheaply. This was a situation which developed in the 19th century with the importation of Chinese, Japanese, and Philippine laborers to Hawaii. These laborers were denied rights and where economic slaves to the sugar barons.
The California and Hawaiian Sugar Refining Company (C & H Sugar) grew out of the company that began processing raw Hawaiian cane in California. It is today one of the largest sugar refining companies in the world.
Sugarbeets as a crop began production in the 18th century in Europe. Beets are a cold weather crop and can survive well in temperate zones. U.S. Sugarbeet production began in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, with the height of the growth of production in about 1917. Today’s production is more efficient with fewer factories producing more sugar than in previous decades. Sugarbeets where introduced to American Indian reservations in the mid-west and west by about 1905, some grown on the reservations and much off. Native American peoples of the region spanning eastern Washington, Montana, Idaho, and the Dakotas were the migrant farm workers in the sugarbeet industry. The one source I know of that discusses this industry on Native American Reservations is Louise Erdrich’s Pillager family saga generally , but specifically the book, The Beet Queen. (The book is a work of fiction, but some scholars and tribal members have suggested that many details are based on actual history.) Migrant farm labor practices of Native American peoples was common from the 1850s to the 1950s, with many farmers dependent upon the reservation based populations to seasonally harvest lily bulbs, hops, beans, nuts, and berries in the West.
The sugar industries were heavily affected by the invention of HFCS, High Fructose Corn Syrup in the 1950s. With the production of a cheap sweetener from Corn, then sugar and sweeteners could be produced anywhere corn would grow, which is throughout the United States.
So what was the great demand for sugar in American History? I tend to think that the creation of new products and new holiday traditions had a huge effect on the growth of the Industry of sugar production. Alcohol production, including beer, whiskey and other spirits needs sugar. The growth of this industry in the 19th century in the U.S. was pushed and pulled by sugar production and producers. Alcohol was a huge industry in the U.S. and was relatively unstructured until the 20th century. Desserts are also a big industry today, but not so much in the 19th century. Sure desserts existed, but definitely not to the level we have today. The Dessert industry, candies, cakes, cookies, etc, were made an American cultural institution by the creation of national holidays built around drinking beer, sharing sweets, and giving presents, many of them wholly made of sugar products. Examples of this are Easter, Mothers Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, and birthdays. Easter and Valentines holidays alone must be huge for the sugar industry. Valentines Day, began as a holy-day to send cards to people you love, and has in the 20th century become much more, with candies and chocolate gifts a big part of the event. Easter is a holy day, likely beginning many hundreds of years ago as an observance of the god Ishtar, but today’s observance among the American public is something quite different full of chocolate bunnies and candy jellybeans.
I think the final step of the sugar producers was to make sugar a part of the American lifestyle. The creation of dessert and candy and cookie recipes and the dissemination of these recipes to the American housewife in the mid-20th century has to be important. During the mid-20th century, the commercialization of the idea of the American household and the American housewife, and then the visualization of how that should be in magazine and television commercials and ads, I believe pushed the industry and their profits into the stratosphere. Like many such advertising strategies even today, the notion of joining the in-crowd, of being a part of something desirable, to be a true American because of the image, what you eat, what you do, and how you live your life, really influences people to alter themselves to fit in. This is a part of every processed food we eat, we are not just eating because we want to, but because of the social, emotional and psychological influences that form many of our desires.
Today many of us are addicted to sugar, not only as a part of our diet, but really as a part of who we are in the world, how we fit into our society, and how we gain approval for doing what everyone else does. It is a part of our psyche, ingrained in us from childhood. Sugar is really a legal drug that is a true addiction. It has huge effects on our health, and will shorten our lives because of the numerous illnesses and diseases that we develop over time. The industry is so much a part of our society, a part of the fabric of our politics and a huge industry that is a significant part of some very large multinational corporations, that it is inconceivable that they would ever admit there is anything wrong with what they do. Where do we go from here?
References- Some is conjecture on my part, I gathered some information from Internet websites of the companies mentioned. Wikipedia offered the best links and raw dates, but generally Wikipedia information needs to be cross-checked for accuracy, because it is subject to anyone altering the information. The Hawai’ian Sugar industry, titled King Sugar, is a subject I wrote a paper on some 15 years ago for a Poli-Sci course at UO, if I find that paper I may post a form of it here. All errors are mine alone. I apologize in advance if this is at all offensive to the Hawai’ian people or native peoples of the US.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.