Home Stories A brief history of sugar – Hemant R Joshi

A brief history of sugar – Hemant R Joshi


Today, sugar is a ubiquitous substance. The entire world craves for it. But this was not always the case. The spread of sugar is a fascinating study for how products that were once not even necessary have become indispensable today.

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Here’s a brief history of how it happened –

Some sources suggest cane sugar originated in India, while others state that it originated in New Guinea. Initially, canes were enjoyed just by chewing into them, but Indians started refining sugar from canes in the 4th century BC. 

Soon after, they started mixing sugar with other food such as milk, rice, etc. to create puddings and other sweets. 

300 BC – 1000 AD: Western explorers who came to India started taking it westwards, studying sugar as a subject for medicinal use to treat intestinal and kidney-related diseases. At the same time, sugar also started getting domesticated in the East, as Chinese imperials took their learnings back.

By 650 AD, as the Arabs started raiding Persia, India and the Mediterranean, they started gathering knowledge about Sugar, and used it not only for medicinal purposes, but also as a delicacy for the royalty.

1100 AD: European soldiers brought Sugar from their conquests to Jerusalem, thus kicking off sugar’s popularization in Europe. But Sugar was still very expensive by 1300 AD.

1500: The real “price reduction” of sugar began with the Spanish colonization of Canary Islands around, when they started mass producing sugarcane on the archipelago. Because of this, Spain dominated the European sugar market. The portuguese were fast to follow.

1500: Their discovery of Brazil leads to sugar plantations in Brazil. With the rapid advances they made in technology, Brazil soon dominated the world sugar industry!

But around this time, the dark history of sugar began

Early 1600s: Because of the rapid expansion of Sugar plantations in South America, exporting slaves to plantations in South America began. 

Prices continued to fall. Demand continued to rise.

1900s: Prices fell so much that producers in the US started to collaborate in order to increase prices. Around this time, the development of beet-extracted sugar, as opposed to cane sugar, continued to rise in the US.

The Indian government incentivized the production of sugar by protecting the industry from foreign companies. This continued well after its Independence, as sugarcane production exploded in Northern India.

2000s: India became the largest producer of sugar products (including gur, khandsari), followed by Brazil.

What started as a medicinal product to relieve kidneys and intestinal irritation grew into a premium product, then into a commodity that anyone could eat, thus leading to is overuse.

Today, we’re grappling with the ill-effects of over-consumption of Sugar.




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