Sugar has played a key role in the history of humanity since it was domesticated on the island of New Guinea approximately 10,000 years ago. The New Guineans picked the cane and ate it raw. They, like billions of people afterwards, were hooked and the sugar cane was featured prominently in their myths. Thereafter, sugar spread slowly from island to island before finally making its way to the Asian mainland around 1000 BC. Approximately fifteen hundred years later in 6th century AD, it was being processed into a powder in India and used as medication for a range of symptoms from headaches to impotency. By 600 AD, sugar had spread to Persia, where the rulers routinely entertained guests with sugar laden elaborate desserts. When the Arab armies conquered the region, they immediately fell in love with sugar and the Muslim caliphs made a great show of sugar. It is often said that sugar “followed the Koran.”
The Arabs adopted sugar production techniques from India, perfected the refinement, and created an industry. In the Middle Ages, sugar was a rare luxury in Europe and was imported from the Middle East at monopolistic prices. British and French crusaders returned to Europe with “sweet” memories of sugar. The lure was so strong that according to some historians, the age of exploration was in essence, a hunt for fields where sugarcane would prosper. On Columbus’ second voyage, he carried along cane and ushered in the era of “big sugar” and “big slavery.” The Caribbean islands and Central and South America all had a suitably tropical environment for its growth. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, approximately 11 million African slaves were imported to America and more than half worked on the sugar plantations. The annual sugar intake of the average Englishman rose from near zero in the early 17th century to around 18 pounds in the early 19th century. By 1750, sugar surpassed grain as the most valuable commodity in European trade. It made up a fifth of all European imports and in the last decades of the century four-fifths of the sugar came from the British and French colonies in the West Indies.
Aristotle stated more than 2000 years ago, “it is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.” However, the incessant “gratification of our desires” might not be conscious but directed by ancient pre/subconscious neural pathways. In fact, ~95% of brain activity is beyond our conscious awareness. These reflexive or intuitive pathways are much of what shapes our behaviors and writes our memories. They enable “fast and frugal” decision making which was critical when our brains evolved in a time of constant external danger and scarcity. Our brains (like the remainder of our body) are naturally selected for these perilous pre-historic times. For greater than 99% of our history, energy sources were at a premium and survival was dependent on phenotypes that enabled more efficient and effective energy identification and extraction. These traits were naturally selected and were so powerful that only individuals who possessed these phenotypes survived.
One such phenotype is the anatomically vast and dopamine-dependent mesocorticolimbic pathway. It is the system that is responsible for wanting more (in anticipation of future scarcity) and is a powerful motivator. This hypothesis known as incentive salience, states that “dopamine related neural systems that mediate ‘wanting’ interact with hedonic [opioid/liking system] and associative learning components to produce the larger composite process of reward.” These systems are associated but distinct. Dopamine depleted rats ‘like’ rewards and know the rewards they like, but fail to ‘want’ the rewards they ‘like.’ ‘Wanting’ happens both consciously and unconsciously and ‘unconscious wanting’ often subverts our best thought out plans. The dopamine system is anatomically large and activation of this network in itself is a high. For example, when it is stimulated, subjects report that everything and everyone seems brighter and more desirable. In fact, dopamine’s anticipatory joy is so powerful a motivator that people become addicted to it even if there is no downstream pleasure associated with it. Substances such as sugar have the potential to hijack the dopamine system by increasing dopamine production and upregulating dopamine receptors. Approximately, 30% of individuals are more dopamine reactive and prone to addiction.
Is it any surprise that the addictive properties of sugar combined with its omnipresence has turned us into a society of sugar devouring zombies? The market economy, in tandem with the cultural traditions of our society, has intensified the dopamine wanting system and we live in a state of constant dopamine frenzy. Governments – alarmed with the increasing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to excess sugar consumption – are implementing a sugar tax in attempts to engineer external controls and disincentivize sugar consumption. However, once a cultural mindset is established and habits ossified they becomes self-reinforcing and subconscious in a vicious positive feedback loop. Breaking these cultural habits will not be as simple as imposing a tax. Once these feedback tracts have been laid down, they are notoriously resistant to change and even more difficult to eradicate. For example, it has taken almost 40 years to decrease tobacco prevalence from 40% in 1965 to 20% in 2014. Despite the vigorous anti-tobacco campaign and the clear link between tobacco and various diseases, 60 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. The ancient Greeks recognized the dangers of unfettered desires and Plato utilized the concept of sophrosyne – it means to have self-control, self-knowledge, forethought; temperance, restraint, moderation. According to the Greeks, when all of the above are brought together, it creates a life of harmony, peace, and happiness.