Before it took the global market by storm, sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) was first domesticated and then introduced to the world by ancient explorers from Papua, New Guinea. These courageous navigators explored thousands of miles of open ocean in the South Pacific, from Easter Island to Tahiti, in canoes. On these long journeys, they carried native plants such as sugarcane and taro.
“Life of Living Death”
Former slave and civil rights activist Fredrick Douglass’ term reflected the fact that the average lifespan of an enslaved person upon arrival to a sugar plantation was just seven years. The introduction of coffee and tea to Europe in the early 1600s transformed sugar from an expensive treat to a daily necessity, causing demand for the sweet substance to skyrocket.
Over the course of 400 years, increased demand for sugar fueled the enslavement of nearly 11 million Africans for sugarcane plantations alone, primarily in northeastern Brazil and the Caribbean. Sugarcane cultivation and processing was notoriously brutal and inhumane. Long hours in blistering heat and other oppressive conditions were known to kill enslaved workers faster than any other kind of agriculture. Today, chronic kidney disease is becoming endemic among sugar laborers in Central America, likely caused by heat stress, exhaustion, and extreme dehydration.
Bad Calories, Good Calories
Sugarcane provides the highest concentration of calories by area of cultivation of any plant in the world, but all calories are not created equal. The human body digests and gets energy from calories differently based on what they come from. Calories from sugar contain few additional nutrients, while calories from complex carbs in sweet potatoes or healthy fats in avocados offer the body greater energy.
An energy provider for Austronesian navigators; a medicinal substance in the ancient ayurvedic medicine of India; and a potent symbol of wealth among Arab countries, sugar has served many purposes. Around the world, sugar is more than just sweetness—it is also power.
Check out these fun facts about sugarcane!
- Sugarcane plants take 9 to 24 months to grow to maturity, depending on the climate. These plants are the raw material that produces 80% of the world’s sugar.
- Every year there is a Sugar Cane Festival and Fair in New Iberia, Louisiana. This event celebrates Louisiana sugar cane farming and the production of raw sugar.