Mary Poppins was Right: Sugar and Medicine

Sure, sure, sure. The song A Spoonful of Sugar is more about approaching tasks with a sunny disposition than about the history of candy, But within its lyrics (“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful ways”) is the basis for one of the few global truths we have on this planet. Namely, sweetening medication was a primary means of delivering pharmaceuticals to a person’s system.

This fact is so important that it is near impossible to understand the history of candy without it.

One of the reasons I believe that many people simply state that the history of candy starts roughly around the same time that sugar reaches a tipping point of sorts in Europe is that they are looking in the wrong place for evidence. Today, we think of candy as a food, and quite rightly. However, for the first fifteen hundred years of granulated sugars existence, foodstuffs made of the sweetener were more likely to be used by doctors and medicine men than they were by cooks and chefs.

We see this in various tidbits of evidence throughout history. Dioscorides (40-90AD) was a a Greek physician, pharmacologist and botanist whose best known work was a five volume “pharmacopeia” in which he writes about sugar,”It is good for the belly and stomach being dissolved in water and so drank, helping the pained bladder and the reins.” Dioscorides didn’t look at sugar as a food ingredient. He saw it as a medicine.

Those with an economic bent may suspect that the reason that sugar was dismisssed by cooks was that of cost, and there may be some truth to that, at least in Europe. But in Southern Asia, where sugar cane grew easily and was more readily available, this was not the case. Yet we still see medical suggestions surrounding sugar over there. Tim Richardson notes in his book Sweets:A History of Candy that there was a second century medical book that called out a drug concoction made of ginger, licorice, long pepper, gum arabic, ghee, honey, and sugar. Sanskrit texts call out that sugar helped improve everything from digestion to one’s sex life.

Now imagine yourself in Persia, roughly around 700 AD. To the west were the Europeans, currently in the midst of their dark ages, but with a plethora of records and documents archived, some of which later influenced Muslim approached to health and medicine. To the east were the Indians and their plethora of Sanskrit texts. One might be so inclined to translate the best documents from each culture and create their own. Which is sort of what happened (I’m being a bit simplistic here for the sake of brevity). Information spread from the Indian to the Persian to the Arabic. And information came the other way, from the Latin and Greek, to the Syriac and Byzantine, to the Arabic and Persian.

The above flow of information (which, by the way, took generations, if not centuries to occur), leads us to the Muslims and their view of medicine. They had their own pharmacopeias, texts of medical formularies if you will, called aqrābādhīn. In it were various recipes for all sorts of medicines, from the liquid to the solid, for everything from the cough to trengthening the heart. And sugar is found everywhere in these books. Sugar is used to provide syrups and juleps its viscous nature. It is used to help give medicines an extended shelf life. As Martin Levey noted in his book Early Arabic Pharmacology, “Mesue junior held that the confection and electuary both have a firm consistency and the the difference between them is that the former contains sugar only when it is to be preserved for a long time. The electuary always contains it.”

A typical recipe would look like this:

Electuary (for a cough) that we compounded

Pine – 5 parts
Gum tragancanth – 2 parts
Crystalline sugar – 7 parts
Sijistan Sweetmeat – 3 1/2 parts

All are compounded until the mixture becomes like honey. Then water is admixed. The does is one to one and a half dirhams. It is useful for a cough that is due to phlegm attached to the lung.

There are recipes like this throughout their formularies. It is this path that takes us from India to the Muslims, and what will eventually lead us into Europe. Because the next part of the history of Candy takes us to Sicily. And that’s where the fun really begins.