From Cane to Grain: History of Sugar Pt. 2

Right, so where were we on the whole “History of Candy” thing? Oh, yes. Right. Sugar cane had been domesticated in New Guinea, and through trading routes and human migration, it ended up in what is present day India. This would be around 500 BC or so.

So how did we get from the sugar cane to granulated sugar? This is where we start getting some evidence of what people were eating, and we can actually point at written records and say “hey, look at what they were talking about.”

With sugar, the first written record comes the Mahābhāṣya a commentary attributed to a gentleman who went by the name of Patañjali who wrote on the selected rules of Sanskrit grammar. The commentary mentions sugar repeatedly, often in combinations with other foods such as “sugar and rice” “Barley meal and sugar” or even a fermented drink flavored with ginger and sugar.

The difficulty surrounding this evidence is twofold. For one, it’s uncertain if Patañjali is mimicking the examples of the the text he was commenting upon, or if he was using his own examples. So rather dating these examples during his lifetime, it opens up the possibility that these “recipes” could have existed several generations before Patañjali had been born.

Secondly, these examples do not express whether the use of sugar was through cane/cane juice/cane sugar (i.e. Naturally crystallized sugar) or through granulated sugar. What we do know through this document is that sometime between 450 BC and 150 BC, sugar, in some way, was being used regularly in food.

Around 327 BC, when Nearchus, a general of Alexander the Great, was traveling around the Indus region, wrote of ” a reed in India (that) brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made though the plant bears no fruit.” This seems to indicate that cane juice and sugar cane were prevalent.

It is also in this era that the European travelers of the time start to come across sugar, enough so that it is commented upon by the learned of these ages. Galen (who I’ll re-introduce soon), and Pliny wrote comment upon it, and Dioscorides wrote of sugar around 80AD:”There is a kind of concreted honey called saccharon, found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix, like in consistence to to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth, as salt is. It is good for the bellu and the stomach, being dissolved in water and so drank, helping the pained bladder and reins.”

Setting aside the point whether Dioscorides was talking about granulated sugar or not (and one could make the argument either way), there are two points he makes here which are definitely worth noting. For one, he talks of sugar coming from Arabia Felix, which is let’s us know that some sugar was being grown in what is today modern Yemen.

The second point is more crucial – He was recommending sugar as a medicine. This was probably already an established method of using sugar during his time, and most likely prior. But for us, this use of sugar as medicine for health benefits is one we’ll see repeated again and again throughout history. Everything from the Vitaminwater I talked about on Monday, to Cough syrups and cough drops use some variation of sugar (or sweeteners) to this day. The role of the apothecary and doctor which helped promote the use of sugar is far greater than the role of the everyday cook or chef.

But back to the point – when do we have evidence of the start of the granulated sugar era? Clear evidence doesn’t arrive until 500 AD with the Buddhagosa, who uses the production of sugar as a metaphor within his written work pertaining to morality.

What this means is that sometime between 500 BC and 500 AD, a process evolved in India that helped create the product we know of today as granulated sugar. The evidence is mostly circumstantial, but it’s far, far better evidence than the supposition we have for honey, nuts and other products prior to these eras.

As a side note, most of this information comes from Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney W. Mintz. If you want to read about how a luxurious product affected a multitude of cultures over the course of two millennium, this is the first book you should read.