Is America Too Sweet On Sugar?

It seems fair to ask: who's responsible for America's love affair with sugar? Historian Sidney Mintz says you could blame Christopher Columbus.

"Sugar cane was brought to the New World by Columbus on his second voyage," he said.

Cultivation of sugar cane dates back some 12,000 years to New Guinea. By the time of the Greeks, it had spread to Europe.

"There's a description going back to Alexander the Great," Mintz said. "One of his generals writes about finding it in India. He talks about this reed which has this sweet juice in it."

Until the 17th century, sugar was a luxury, only for the rich, who considered it a spice, and sometimes a cure-all.

"In fact, it was mainly used as a medicine at that time," Mintz said. "It was a major ingredient in medicines for the black plague and it was also used by a surgeon who combined the powdered sugar with powdered gold which you'd blow into the eye for eye health."

Soon people began putting more into their mouths than their eyes. Demand grew, and that, says Dr. Mintz, indirectly led to the rise of slavery because sugar cultivation required intensive labor.

"Very difficult and demanding labor; free people wouldn't do it," Mintz said. "I would go so far as to say that the most important reason that slavery was introduced into the New World on a large scale is sugarcane."

By the 19th century, sugar was providing quick, cheap calories to the new factory workers. Commoners were lapping it up — and we're still lapping it up, 200 years later.

Connie Bennett thinks it's time to put on the brakes.

"I tell people, 'Don't believe me, just don't believe me,'" she said. "'Then test it out for yourself. Go a week without sugar and refined carbs, or maybe even two weeks and then just watch yourself like a lab rat.'"

It's a tough sell, but the anti-sugar crowd insists that life without sugar's fleeting pleasures — or its empty calories — really is twice as sweet.