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British Expat Newsletter:
14 May 2008

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Sugar
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” as Julie Andrews sang (in a most delightful way) in the film Mary Poppins. It’s odd that such a sweet substance should have caused so much bitter controversy over the years – and indeed centuries.

The story of sugar began in the East, possibly in the South Pacific, with the discovery of the sugar cane as something pleasantly sweet to chew on. But it was in India that the deliberate farming of sugar really took hold. (The word “sugar” itself ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word sharkara.) Alexander the Great recorded the making of “honey without bees” in his bid to conquer the entire known world in the fourth century BCE. Seven centuries later, the Indians discovered how to crystallise the juice they pressed out of the cane; the Arabs took the secret with them into Europe; and by the early sixteenth century the Portuguese were cultivating sugar cane in Brazil.

Sugar soon became one of the major components of the “triangular trade”, by which ships sailed with cheap manufactures (and firearms and ammunition) from Europe to Africa. Their cargoes were then sold, and the proceeds used to buy slaves – or the slaves were simply abducted from their tribes. The ships then sailed, tightly packed with their human freight, on the notorious “Middle Passage” to the Caribbean, where the slaves that had survived the journey – often fewer than two-thirds of them – were sold to plantation owners.The final leg entailed the purchase of sugar, rum and molasses produced by the plantation owners for resale in Europe. (This goes some way to explaining why the Tate part of Tate & Lyle was founded in Liverpool, one of the major ports at the European apex of the triangle.)

There’s a great deal of bitterness among black communities today about the way in which their ancestors were treated – so much so that Tony Blair famously expressed “deep sorrow” for the iniquitous trade in 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, although he stopped short of a full apology. But that’s not the only legacy of the trade.

Many Caribbean countries still rely upon the sugar plantations as a mainstay of their economies. To a certain extent, this dependency has been buttressed by the 1975 Lomé Agreement and its successors, in which the European Economic Community (as it was then – now the EU) agreed to give duty-free access to its markets to its member states’ less developed former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific – the so-called ACP countries. The Agreement was seen as a way of ensuring that these former colonies avoided economic collapse in the difficult years following independence, but had the side-effect of removing any incentive for them to diversify their economies.

The shift away from protectionism to free trade, culminating in the founding of the World Trade Organisation, has meant a rude awakening for the ACPs. Although on the one hand the large self-subsidisers – like the EU (under the Common Agricultural Policy) and the US – have been forced to dismantle at least some of their subsidies, they’ve also been forced to abandon some of their preferential trade terms for the very poorest countries. Sugar has been a particular case in point, where major sugar producing countries (including Brazil and Thailand – both still developing countries in many respects – but also comparatively wealthy Australia) have argued against the EU’s system of preferential quotas and tariffs exclusively for the ACPs. The fear is that the ACPs won’t be able to compete effectively with these much bigger players. And no-one’s yet come up with an effective answer, although “fair trade” schemes may go some way to alleviating the economic shock.

But sugar’s also had effects on agriculture closer to home. This started back in the nineteenth century, when Britain’s blockade of Continental Europe during the Napoleonic Wars meant that Europe no longer had enough cane sugar imports to meet demand. Napoleon ordered the building of mills and refineries in Europe to process beet, thus starting a branch of agriculture which now has France and Germany each producing over 25 million tonnes of sugar a year. By the 1930s, as the Second World War loomed, the British government foresaw the possibility of a German North Atlantic blockade and organised the existing beet producers in Britain into the British Sugar Corporation. Beet production is now fairly widespread across the Midlands and East Anglia, although this may change – and the face of the landscape with it – with the winding-down of EU subsidies.

Meanwhile, sugar itself is receiving something of a bad press among nutritionists. Promoted in the 1960s as “pure energy”, it was already being described as “white poison” by the more diet-conscious in the 1980s. It’s been lambasted for containing no nutritional benefit beyond the raw energy content – which translates quickly and easily into fat. (It’s ironic that the attempt to “improve” food by removing impurities, virtually 100% successfully in the case of sugar, has resulted in a product that’s widely condemned for being unhealthy.) Research has shown that it may be addictive, and it’s been associated with a growth in diabetes cases. And though it gives you energy, it doesn’t make you energetic – in fact, it may even make you feel more lethargic.

Does that mean we should all stop putting sugar in our tea and on our cornflakes? Nice try, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough to eliminate it from your diet. It’s included as an ingredient in vast numbers of processed foodstuff, often buried in other terms like “hydrolysed starch” or “corn syrup”, to say nothing of the various -oses (maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose – the list goes on…). Some of them you’d expect, like soft drinks, biscuits, children’s breakfast cereals and sweets; some of them are a bit more unexpected, like baked beans or (Julie Andrews again) cough medicine; and some of them are downright surprising, like soy sauce or ready meals.

So if you’re determined to cut down on sugar, then your best bet is to cut down on processed foods and cook for yourself from fresh ingredients. If you’ve got the energy for it…

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is great – Dave used to enjoy it out of the tin (officially the UK’s oldest branded packaging) as a kid! You can read all about it at their site.

You can read more about the effect on ACP countries of the changes in trade rules on Oxfam’s site.

Parents might find the Chew On This! site useful – it’s aimed at secondary school pupils aged from 11 to 14 and gives an idea of what part sugar plays in nutrition.

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • the strangest breakfast
  • raw marinated salmon log
  • aged offshore companies
  • 1761 a family of itinerants from navan were refused entry to dublin
  • mouse ordinateur keybord unite central
  • my cat seems angry with me
  • catweazle bbc frog
  • what is a parsons nose in a christmas play
  • climbing plant day
  • leap fart and whistle

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine


“I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?”

– William Cowper, poet (1731-1800) in “Pity for Poor Africans” (written 1788, published 1800)


A dietician is addressing a large audience in Cambridge. “The material we put into our stomachs is enough to have killed most of us sitting here, years ago. Red meat is awful. Sugar is even worse. None of us realises how many germs and pesticides there are in our drinking water. And even vegetables can be disastrous. But there is something that is perhaps more dangerous than anything else.” The dietician peers into the crowd and asked, “Can anyone here tell me what lethal product I’m referring to?”

A handful of people in the audience raise their hands.

“Yes, you, sir, in the third row,” says the dietician. “Please give us your answer.”

The man grins and blurts, “Wedding cake!”

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