A Dark History of Sugar – Neil Buttery

There’s nothing sweet about the history of sugar. Having already read A Dark History of Chocolate, I had some idea of what to expect. 

Even so, it was horrifying reading chapter after chapter about slavery. Centuries worth of humans enslaving other humans to produce something that was once reserved for royalty but we all now have a taste for. Not content with the human cost of producing sugar, we’ve also done irreparable damage to the environment. 

Interestingly, it turns out a spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.


Besides coating medicines in sugar to make them more palatable, it has also been used to ‘treat’ a number of conditions. One of my personal favourites was a remedy to treat conjunctivitis, “made up of powdered sugar, pearls and gold leaf that was blown directly into the eye.” It’s also been prescribed “to treat diseases of the loins, urinary tract, eyes and chest as well as headaches and inflammation.”

I learned how food manufacturers massage portion sizes so it appears their products contain less sugar than they really do and how they try to hide sugar in plain sight by calling it any number of things on the packaging. 

By 2018 there were at least fifty-six names in use for sugar in ingredients lists. 

This book, exploring both the production and consumption of sugar, was very well researched. It provides a detailed history but, for the most part, it’s just so depressing. 

The World Wildlife Fund reckons that sugar is ‘responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop.’ 

This is not an easy read but it is an eye opening one.

Content warnings include death by suicide, miscarriage, racism, sexual assault, slavery and torture. Images that accompany the text include those that depict slaves being abused and killed and a close up photo of an ulcerated foot.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Pen & Sword History, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books, for granting my wish to read this book. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A Dark History of Sugar delves into our evolutionary history to explain why sugar is so loved, yet is the root cause of so many bad things.

Europe’s colonial past and Britain’s Empire were founded and fuelled on sugar, as was the United States, the greatest superpower on the planet – and they all relied upon slave labour to catalyse it.

A Dark History of Sugar focuses upon the role of the slave trade in sugar production and looks beyond it to how the exploitation of the workers didn’t end with emancipation. It reveals the sickly truth behind the detrimental impact of sugar’s meteoric popularity on the environment and our health. Advertising companies peddle their sugar-laden wares to children with fun cartoon characters, but the reality is not so sweet.

A Dark History of Sugar delves into our long relationship with this sweetest and most ancient of commodities. The book examines the impact of the sugar trade on the economies of Britain and the rest of the world, as well as its influence on health and cultural and social trends over the centuries.

Renowned food historian Neil Buttery takes a look at some of the lesser-known elements of the history of sugar, delving into the murky and mysterious aspects of its phenomenal rise from the first cultivation of the sugar cane plant in Papua New Guinean in 8,000 BCE to becoming an integral part of the cultural fabric of life in Britain and the rest of the West – at whatever cost. The dark history of sugar is one of exploitation: of slaves and workers, of the environment and of the consumer. Wars have been fought over it and it is responsible for what is potentially to be the planet’s greatest health crisis.

And yet we cannot get enough of it, for sugar and sweetness has cast its spell over us all; it is comfort and we reminisce fondly about the sweets, cakes, puddings and fizzy drinks of our childhoods with dewy-eyed nostalgia. To be sweet means to be good, to be innocent; in this book Neil Buttery argues that sugar is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is guilty of some of the worst crimes against humanity and the planet.

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