The outside of the original Chelsea Sugar building in Birkenhead, Auckland

Candy is dandy…

By HVN’s Chief Scientist, Professor Richard Mithen

I have been re-reading Henry Hobhouse’s classic book ‘Seeds of Change – Five plants that transformed mankind.[1] His chosen five plants – quinine, sugar, tea, cotton and potato – may initially seem surprising. With the exception of potato, Hobhouse does not choose any of the staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice that have fed and continue to feed the world and underpinned the established of settled communities by the first farmers 10,000 years ago – the precursors to our urbanised cultures. Instead, Hobhouse selects the plants that drove colonialism, globalisation, and the widespread redistribution of peoples, either through the horrors of the slave trade driven by the need for labour in the sugar and cotton plantations of the New World or by the forced emigration from Europe and in particular Ireland due to the potato famines of the latter part of the 19th century. I would add cloves and nutmeg to this list, as it was the search for these spices by the European explorers of the 15th and 16th century that drove the development of the seafaring technology required for the age of European colonialism that was to come.

While all of Hobhouse’s chosen plants have fascinating back-stories, I am particularly drawn to the history of sugar, partly due to the on-going controversial nature of this most simple of foods in our diets, and its association with obesity and the risk of type II diabetes; and partly due to its importance in driving the slave trade of the 18th and 19th century and the origins of African-Americans, and its more recent social history, including the development of the Chelsea Sugar Refinery and its importance to the development of Birkenhead and the North Shore of Auckland. A millennium ago the white crystalline sugar we are familiar with was a scarce and extremely valuable product, a rare and much sought after ‘spice’ from India and only accessible by the very wealthy. Now it is a commodity product, of which 80% is produced from sugarcane – the world’s largest crop by mass, and costs about $2 per kilo in the supermarket.

Sugar is a generic name referring to sweet tasting monosaccharides or disaccharides which are the building blocks of polysaccharides or carbohydrates. What we commonly refer to as ‘sugar’ is the refined disaccharide sucrose which comprises one molecule of glucose combined with one molecule of fructose. It is the primary product of photosynthesis in plants and the type of sugar that is transported through the leaves and stems to various storage organs where it may be converted into more complex carbohydrates such as starch as in potatoes, or other simple sugars, such as fructose in fruits. Some plants, and notable grasses of the genus Saccharum or sugar cane [2] retain a high proportion of their sugars as sucrose and this is what is initially extracted by milling the cut canes. The extracted pulp is then boiled, and the raw sugar refined to produce the white crystalline sugar we are all familiar with.

Our familiarity with crystalline refined sugar is a recent phenomenon. For the majority of our history honey was the only sweetener available – bees doing a somewhat similar job as a sugar refinery in removing the water from a fairly complex mixture of sugar found in flower nectar. The first sugarcane to be cultivated was in New Guinea about 8000 years ago, and about the same time also in south west China and Taiwan. From these two initial centers sugarcane spread westwards to India and slowly to North Africa and southern Europe where it was cultivated around 800 CE and spread eastwards throughout the Pacific islands.

The first records of sugar refining and the manufacture of crystalline sugar are from India about 2,500 years ago, with it reaching western Europe in the 14th century as a very expensive novelty product that was used to make palatable many of the concoctions of the medieval pharmacopeia and was highly sought after by the wealthy to satisfy their desire for sweetness. A very high-value product. In a similar manner to spices, the trade in sugar was largely controlled initially through Venice, and then latterly Amsterdam as sea routes to India replaced the ancient land routes between Europe and the Orient.

It was the movement of sugar to the New World that resulted in it becoming the commodity product it is today. The establishment of the sugar plantations in the Americas coincided with the demise of the European and North African sugar cane industry, partly due to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire which displaced the Arab sugar traders and partly due to a shortage of wood to fuel the energy hungry sugar mills.[3] Sugar cane became established in Jamaica in 1513, and shortly after the other islands of the Caribbean, notably Cuba and Barbados, and in due course in mainland South and Central America and what is now known as the southern United states, especially Louisiana.

The importance of the Caribbean islands in supplying sugar to Europe is well illustrated by the outcome of the Seven Year War (1756-1763) between Great Britain and France – often referred to as the first global conflict. Within the Treaty of Paris of 1763 France conceded all of its lands in North America (‘New France’) to Great Britain so that it could keep its Caribbean colonies of Guadeloupe, St Lucia and Martinique due to their sugar plantations.

With the establishment of the plantations came the mass movement of African slaves to provide the labour through the notorious ‘Triangular Trade’ between the Caribbean, Europe and West Africa.[4] It is estimated that more than 11 million African slaves were transported to work on sugar plantations before the abolition of slavery in 1833 [5]. Subsequently, the plantations owners turned to the use of indentured labour [6] transported to the Caribbean and mainland America from India, China and the Pacific islands. The conditions for the indentured workers were not dissimilar to that of the African slaves.

This history of the sugar industry in New Zealand is closely tied to that in Australia.

Sugar cane had been cultivated in New South Wales and Queensland from the 1830’s but the first major plantations were established in Queensland in the 1860’s. As with the Americas, indentured labour was brought to Australia mainly from the Pacific islands to provide the much-needed workforce for both the newly established sugar and cotton plantations, especially as convict transportation from Europe had ceased in the 1840s.

Between 1863 and 1904, 62,000 indentured workers were brought in from 80 different Pacific Islands to work on the sugar plantations, again in conditions that differed little from that of the Caribbean slaves. The practice ceased in 1904 following the passing of the Pacific Island Labourers Act in 1901 as part of Australia’s new official ‘White Australia Policy’ that not only prohibited any further Pacific Islanders and Asians entering Australia but also enabled the deportation of those currently in Australia.

New Zealand imported refined sugar from Australia throughout the 19th century, but with a growing demand due to the expansion of the European settler population, in 1882 the New Zealand government offered an incentive for a company to establish a sugar refinery in New Zealand. The New Zealand Sugar Company was formed in 1883 by a consortium of New Zealand business people, the Australian Colonial Sugar refining company and the Victorian sugar company, and established what is now known as the Chelsea Sugar Refinery on farmland near Birkenhead; with the site offering a deep water dock within the Waitemata so that raw sugar cane could be brought in from sugar cane mills in Indonesia, Fiji, Queensland and Cuba, and fresh water for the refining process supplied from Duck Creek.

The refinery commenced operation in 1884. The new factory adopted the name Chelsea after the home town in England of Mr. Judd – the factory’s first customs officer. The Chelsea Sugar Refinery remains New Zealand’s only sugar works and continues to import and refine raw sugar from Queensland. It is one of the longest continuously functioning industrial works in New Zealand. Excellent accounts of its history from the 1880s to today and how it stimulated the development of Birkenhead can be found on-line.[7]

The development of the sugar industry over the last few hundred years has now satisfied the demand for a cheap and plentiful supply, as well as changing the course of our global history.

With regard to sugar in our diet two questions are often asked. Firstly, is it the plentiful supply of refined sugar that has driven the reported obesity and diabetes epidemic? Secondly, is this most simple of foods addictive? In the United States there is a good correlation between the increase in obesity since the 1970s and the increase in consumption of refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup in foods and carbonated drinks.

There is also a correlation between the decrease in sugar consumption since 2000 and the the decrease in the rate of annual obesity increase observed in the last decade.[8] What is true of the US also appears to be so in New Zealand.[9] Whether sugar is addictive in a similar manner to, for example, alcohol, tobacco or gambling is controversial. [10] Undeniably we have some form of evolutionary programming to like sweet and fatty foods, and this desire probably served us very well throughout the vast majority of our evolutionary history, but can lead us to excessive consumption in our age of plenty. However true addiction is considered to be associated with neurological changes and complex brain disorders, and there is little evidence that sugar can be addictive in a similar manner to alcohol.

The comparison between the consequences of sugar and alcohol consumption is not restricted to the scientific literature, and maybe the difference between sugar and alcohol has been best captured by the American poet Ogden Nash in 1931- Candy is dandy, but Liquor is quicker… (interpret as you wish).

By High-Value Nutrition Chief Scientist, Professor Richard Mithen.
Photo © Kristine Scherp

[1] Henry Hobhouse Seeds of Change first published by Sedgewick and Jackson 1985. A revised edition published in 1999 by Papermac include an additional plant – Coca – the source of cocaine. ISBN 0 333 73628 1
[2] Sugar cane produces 80% of the world’s sugar but can only be grown in tropical regions. Sugar beet – Beta vulgaris – produces the remaining 20% and is widely grown in temperate areas
[4] The triangular trade consisted of the transport of sugar from the Caribbean to Europe, firearms, cloth and other goods to the west coast of Africa, and enslaved Africans to the Caribbean.
[6] Indentured labour is a system in which people are contracted to work for either no or very low wages for a specific number of years. From the abolition of slavery to the end of WWI Britain transported two million Indian Indentured workers to their colonies.