His new book offers a convincing, deep history of this (in)famous product. It is also full of fascinating facts ... The skilful interweaving of the individual’s body and the wider socioeconomic landscape is a striking feature of this text; understanding the high levels of modern obesity demands an awareness of how marketing and retail practices shape our (apparent) dietary choices ... This is something more than just a scholarly text. Walvin draws upon his childhood experiences to inform his analysis and explain how his own views have formed. This gives the book an engagingly personal feel. Indeed, it is rather forceful in places and some readers may feel Walvin blames too many of the world’s woes on sugar ... These ruminations do not, however, dilute Walvin’s message; he reminds us that sugar is an extraordinary product with an extraordinary history. Its production and consumption always have been powerful engines of social inequality. Walvin has done us a service by reminding us of this fact.
The story of sugar and slavery has been told many times ... But Mr. Walvin writes with fresh and righteous shock of the brutality and injustice of a system that enslaved and displaced millions of Africans for profit and to satisfy the sweet tooth of the West ... Mr. Walvin’s sobering final chapters suggest that by the time we noticed how much of a problem sugar was for our health, it was too late to do much about it ... But Mr. Walvin suggests that too much is at stake for the sugar industry to suffer a serious challenge.
The book is an informative history of sugar’s rise from a luxury to a staple, and its ubiquity in modern diets. But in connecting the history of slavery and sugar to the history of sugar’s effect on global health in the 21st century, Walvin relies on the idea of 'corruption' to carry his argument. He has fallen hard for juxtaposing dead teeth and abscessed gums rotted by sugar with the moral corruption of slavery and corporate influence on public life. In the process, he becomes so distracted by bodies—toothless bodies, whipped bodies, fat bodies—that he cannot keep pace with the increasing complexity and deepening inequality of the world sugar helped to make ... he indulges in a stereotype of the U.S. as a nation of the fat, the stupid and the vulgar ... The book ends, then, with an account of social and economic forces, but invoked not to explain how sugar helped to make global capitalism, but to scold its most vulnerable victims.
Walvin’s expertise shines in his handling of the sugar economy and the buildup to global wars when governments were forced to subsidize a product that seemed boundless in light of industrialization, corporatization, and globalization. The story of sugar is, Walvin writes, 'repeated time and again . . . across the centuries, and from one corner of the globe to another,' and, unfortunately, Walvin gets mired in monotonous narratives and recurring statistics, and his bittersweet history lacks nuance.
James Walvin’s new book, Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity, will thoroughly disabuse you of such agreeable associations and may make you reluctant to reach for something sweet ... Walvin, the author of several books on slavery, takes his readers on a roller-coaster ride through 500 years of history ... Sugar is an entertaining, informative and utterly depressing global history of an important commodity ... Sugar could have used another round of edits — it is maddeningly repetitive ... Sugar raises fundamental questions about our world. It does not resolve all those questions, but it provides enough information for its readers to begin to see some answers.
Walvin’s tone is brisk and informative, particularly in chapters on the gradual intertwining of sugar and sociability through such institutions as cafés and factory 'tea breaks.' But the book’s final section on sugar and obesity feels unconnected to its historical argument, and many themes here have been explored in greater depth elsewhere. Descriptions of sugar sculptures and breakfast customs only take Walvin so far: the rise of sugar was so relentless and unstoppable that the book feels devoid of sustained conflict or complexity.