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Review: Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Elizabeth Abbott

sugar a bittersweet historySugar is ubiquitous in Western cooking these days, but this wasn’t always the case. Abbott explores the history of sugar with us, from its earliest discoveries and uses to the exploitation of slaves in its cultivation down to the current explosion of sweetened drinks and fast foods. Enlivened with a number of pictures and copious sources, Abbott takes us through a journey that definitely is bittersweet, and which continues to be exploitative in countries around the world today.

I’m always fascinated by these histories that take one subject and use them to explore bits of everything else. In Sugar: A Bittersweet History, the main focus was definitely on one thing; slavery. Most of the middle of the book was taken up by the horrors of sugar slavery in many different parts of the world. Like the American slavery I’m more familiar with, even after slavery was abolished, people were still treated virtually as badly with rights in theory only for years afterwards, and unfortunately this sad trend actually continues. I’m glad the sugar I’m buying is fair trade, but it does make you think about the origin of the sugar in other products.

I read this book over a period of two or so months, because I read it on my phone whenever I didn’t have any other reading material available. It was surprisingly readable in this format, mainly because it’s broken up well into different sections. The time periods are organized well, and even the very long section about slavery is compartmentalized into different places in the world. This was actually also very interesting, because Abbott goes around the world exploring the fate of these people and also the determination of those who eventually freed them. The British campaign to end sugar slavery played a particularly large part in the book.

The book ends with an exploration of our current sweetener culture and the origins of fast food around the World’s Fair. I found this history of various sweets around the world to be absolutely fascinating, and the most readable part of the book, if not perhaps the most important. Now, of course, with an obesity problem in the US and the UK in particular, the blame has come down on sugar and various other sweeteners, which may change sugar’s future significantly.

One part that stood out to me in this latter section was the association of women and sugar – how sweet things were often marketed at women who were the “weaker” sex and not particularly able to avoid temptation, even though both sexes (obviously) enjoy sugar. This is actually a salient point that still stands, as I feel like quite a bit of sweet marketing is still targeted at women. I’m not sure I like that now that it’s been pointed out to me, and it’s something I’ll be paying attention to in future, in addition to ensuring I only buy and use fair trade sugar.

Recommended for anyone interested in sugar slavery or the history of sugar.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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