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Sugar, The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity by James Walvin

Published in April of 2018.

I love books that explain the big world through small things.

Getting one’s head around the history of the world is hard. There is just so much to keep track of.

Developing a sense of world history through the biography of a single product or commodity is one way to counter information overload.

So I was predisposed to love Sugar, The World Corrupted. And I did.

Sugar is the latest thing that we are all freaked out by. Sugar is the new tobacco.

Usually, we are freaked out by the wrong things.

We fear terrorism when we should really be worried about car accidents. Airplane crashes are world news, yet the toll they take is minuscule compared to auto accidents. We are convinced that schools are dangerous, when really they are about the safest place a kid can be. We worry about crime, but we’d be better off worrying about the backyard pools.  

But with sugar, we are right to be worried. Apparently, sugar and other sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup, are in everything. The stuff is used in everything from pasta sauce to bread, yogurt to salad dressing.  The stuff that is making us heavy and unhealthy is unavoidable.  (Or very difficult to avoid).

I thought that I had known all the bad stuff about sugar. Turns out I didn’t know the half of it.

The history of sugar, as beautifully told in Walvin’s book, is not a happy one. The history of sugar production is inseparable from the history of slavery. The sweet commodity that rotted the teeth of generations of Westerners, including more than a few royals, is the stuff that empires of exploitation and domination were built.

Today, the price of sugar is mostly paid by those with the least resources. Inexpensive processed food is laden with sugar. The lower one’s household income, the more likely one is to suffer the health consequences of ingesting too much sugar.

The soda companies and giant food conglomerates have fought any regulations, taxes, or public education campaigns that might lower their profits by reducing sugar consumption.

The last historical food biography that I read was Kurlansky's Milk. Here is a 2011 list of other micro-histories that I’ve loved, or that I would like to read.  .

I’d be interested in your recommendations about your favorite big books that seek to explain the world through the lens of a single thing.

What are you reading?

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