The scent of granulated sugar lured us out the door and into that rainy October morning when we woke at dawn in Monterosso, Italy. We had opened the window of the room we were renting for some fresh air and relief from an overactive radiator. Even through the drizzle, the heady smell of yeast and caramelized sugar was like a signal fire to our hunger. Setting out to uncover the source of this enticement, we found — on a small winding side street — the back door of a bakery swung wide open to let out the blasting heat of the oven. We followed a tray of perfectly sugared, tanned, and tender puff pastry to its destination, ordered our espresso and sat down for a heavenly moment.
The Cinque Terre is a lot like our hometown here in Maine in the late fall — mostly locals, a few travelers taking advantage of the season’s last moments. Indeed, the very next day, the bakers would close this shop for the winter. But right now, despite days on end of dreary mist, there was nothing but their swan song, this ephemeral instance of culinary perfection. Pillowy, buttery pastry under a sublime sugar-crisp crust, filled with vanilla-infused cream: sfogliatelle. Our slightly bitter espresso was the ideal foil for this unctuous delight. The critical ingredient that made this whole divine experience possible? Sugar.
My husband, a sea captain, and I, the cook, traveled for several years as crew and managers on sailboats throughout the world. These jobs took us to many and varied points abroad, and I came to expect enormous variations in available ingredients due to seasonality, continent, and local customs. We ate only what we could catch off the boat, buy in small groceries, or obtain from open-air markets. I tailored my menus around the food preferences of guests and availability of ingredients.
It was a trial-by-fire experiment in intuitive and improvisational cuisine. However, no matter our destination, we made it almost a second job to go ashore as often as possible and taste the delights offered in neighborhood bakeries and cafes. What would Tahiti be in our memory without the guava croissants from the patisserie?
A Sweet And Rich History
It’s bewildering to realize that — along with just about everything else on America’s abundantly stocked supermarket shelves, where we actually have a choice between several brands of just about everything — sugar was once a luxury. Indeed, centuries ago sugar was so valuable a commodity it was even used as currency.
Perhaps more than almost any other food crop, sugar has helped shape the history of modern humanity. A complex interconnection between continents, dynasties, explorers, and merchant trade routes emerged because of sugar. Sugar’s history is strewn with indulgence, pain, fortunes made and lost, slavery, exploitation, and colonialism. Sugar drove human innovation and countless social and political shifts. All this from a sugar beet and sugar cane, refined into humble crystals that, over time, fundamentally changed the way we live, cook, and eat.
As with many widely traded foods, sugar’s very etymology is a traceable map of its evolution and movement through the continents. With its ancient origins in India, sugar hails back to the Sanskrit word sarkara, which in turn gives way to iterations from China and Persia (sukkar or shakar) to Greece (sakcharon) and then Italy (zucchero), France (sucre), Spain (azucar), England, and finally to the colonies and America. Before this, honey was generally the most common sweetener, if any processed or refined sweeteners existed at all. And in some places, the far-flung influence of sugar took a long time to find purchase.
Can We Ever Truly Escape Granulated Sugar?
Now, however, even the most traditional diets have come to include granulated sugar of some kind. No matter where my husband and I sailed, I could always, without question, find sugar — even in the smallest towns in the Greek Islands or French Polynesia. One remote island market in the Bahamas was barren of even toilet paper, yet we still found cigarettes and sugar.
I’ve long fought my own battles with the sweet stuff. Usually, I lose. My parents held a restrained attitude about sugar, sometimes banning it altogether (often unsuccessfully). Like most children, I always found my way to ice cream, candy, or baked goods. As an adult, I’ve intermittently forsworn sugar or restricted myself to only unrefined or natural sweeteners. I may again. After all, I have an example to set now and a child of my own to raise with good habits and a healthful diet. Still, no matter how we might have resisted at first, our kid loves ice cream as unreservedly as we do. I am an unabashed lover of the chocolate chip financier cakes at my favorite bakery and even (secretly) my daughter’s confiscated Halloween candy.
But do I think about how to move beyond this and break my bond with sugar? Do I wonder if it is an addiction of sorts?
Yes and yes.
We stock our house with lots of good local maple syrup, raw local honey, stevia, and xylitol. And we try to use them when the sweet tooth strikes. But more often than not, we succumb to sugar’s siren song.
We have read the research and we know that many health professionals suggest aggressively limiting consumption of refined sweeteners, chiefly granulated sugar. Many warn us to cut out sugar sources altogether. Sometimes referred to as “the white devil,” granulated sugar is considered by many to be a poison linked to increases in chronic and degenerative diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Plus, since sugar is nutritionally vacant, regular consumption can rob the body of essential nutrients including magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Finally, sugar’s role in tooth decay is widely known.
Thinking back to our experiences with sweet indulgences the world over, it’s hard to imagine that something so delicious could be so damaging to us. It begs the question: If it’s so bad and most of us eat it, how much are we actually consuming? A frightening amount, it turns out. According to the USDA, the average American consumer, including me, ingests approximately my current weight of 153 pounds of sugar each year. Can this be true?
I’m inclined to think this statistic is overblown, that many of us who are at least trying to be conscious of our health couldn’t possibly eat that much sugar every year. For example, I can count the number of sodas I drink in a year on two hands. But then again, I do bake a lot, and I take sugar in my coffee every day. Plus, though I don’t consume much processed food, I do eat some, and granulated sugar often hides in any food that comes from a jar, can, bag, or box. I am loathe to think what I would discover if I began to measure how much sugar I actually do consume in a day, a month, or even a year.
Enjoy The All Natural Flavor Of Equilibrium. No Added Flavors And A Base of Sweet And Delicious Raw Honey
If You Can’t Beat Em, Find A Different Way To Enjoy
I applaud anyone with the discipline to give up refined sweeteners. And I say “discipline” intentionally, since for me restraint would be a major hurdle in eliminating my sugar consumption. I may one day take this healthful and courageous step. Could I be truly happy without bittersweet chocolate-covered sea salt caramels? Probably. Maybe someday I’ll find a way.
Until then, on dreary mornings, in that hazy place between sleep and waking, I will imagine sitting with my sweetheart in a little cafe. Muddling through the Italian newspaper with my kindergarten language skills, I drink espresso and single-handedly devour a warm, sweet sfogliatelle.