Historian James Walvin looks at the history of our collective sweet tooth, exploring how slavery enabled mass consumption of the difficult-to-farm crop and transformed the tastes and health of the Western world.
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.