Love Lane Lives

The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

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Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Written by Ron Noon at 10:52 on Monday, May 26th 2014

Five years ago today Professor Robert Lustig a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, gave an hour and a half lecture on the white stuff, and subsequently witnessed its posting on YouTube and watching incredulously as it went viral. What is the bitter truth about sugar and public health? 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

4,722,471 hits to date!

When I was a kid I wanted at least three spoonfuls of sugar in my tea. I never realised that the stuff I also put on my butties was known as sucrose which is a simple disaccharide carbohydrate containing a 50/50 mix of fructose and glucose molecules and a chemical formula of C12, H22, 011. Fructose makes sucrose sweet but it is primarily metabolised by the liver and unlike glucose which is metabolised by all cells in the body, excessive consumption of it puts extra strain on the liver which actually then converts fructose to fat. I knew sweet FA about biochemistry then but thanks to writers such as John Yudkin, Robert Lustig and Australian lawyer David Gillespie and his book “Sweet Poison”, I know a good deal more about what the food industry do not wish the public to know about the toxicity of sugar. Is it really fat that makes us fat? Have we been conned by the 1970s declaration that fat was public enemy number one in our diets? Low fat meant more sugar was put into our processed food to prevent it tasting like cardboard, and sugar, which Professor John Yudkin of the University of London’s Queen Elizabeth College proclaimed in 1972 to be “Pure, White and Deadly” was let off the hook. It had been Yudkin who declared that “if only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned”.

In 1967, five years before Professor Alan Yudkin’s book about the dangers of excess sugar consumption, W.A. Aykroyd a doctor for the World Health Organisation asserted that “there is no single food which has rivalled sugar in its influence on human affairs”. All the more reason therefore to carefully examine sugar or sucrose history and contextualise the contemporary debate in which Robert Lustig, the latest of the sugar busters on the block, is up against the same powerful vested industry interests that set out to and effectively discredited Yudkin’s work over forty years ago. “I am not a pawn of the food industry or a mouthpiece for any organisation. Unlike many authors addressing the devastation of obesity, I don’t have a product line designed to enrich my bank account. I came by these views honestly and through rigorous data analysis. And the data are out there for everyone to examine.” That’s what Lustig argues in the introduction to FAT CHANCE: THE BITTER SWEET TRUTH ABOUT SUGAR but the “science” and the data of which he is a master is not enough I would argue without an historical and social science perspective on this pimp commodity. 

Aykroyd emphasised in SWEET MALEFACTOR that it was not sugar per se which attracted him to researching the white stuff, but rather it was “the sugar islands and the people who live in them today”. I was not attracted to “sucrose research” because of sugar “per se”, or because of sugar islands in the tropical Antilles, but because of the wonderful Albert E Sloane and John Maclean who had valiantly fought the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to keep Henry Tate’s Love Lane refinery open. So this website will always have as its main focus the need to ensure Love Lane lives live on, by documenting as with the film and various blogs, the “lived experiences” of the Liverpool boys and girls from the whitestuff. When they worked on the Lane “bread and butter” industrial relations issues, and then the sugar wars between beet and cane had much more profile than any public health debate over the damage sugar could inflict on our metabolisms. 

There are many different books and articles about sugar and as I digged deeper into sucrose research it was necessary to check out the chemistry, biochemistry and physiology of the white stuff. At the same time I continued to talk in classes at Liverpool John Moores University about sugar as the quintessential slave crop and how it had shaped my own port city’s history. Regrettably that central theme of sugar and slaves has not just been historical as the world of Father Christopher Hartley and the fate of the abject descendants of Toissaint L’Ouverture on the sugar bateyes of the Dominican Republic provides graphic evidence of.

Sugar came from nowhere to be everywhere. There is no biological need for it and Henry Hobhouse’s assessment of sugar’s commercial travelling before Christopher Columbus was “a mere pinch per head for the whole of history”. Why did this addictive substance extracted and refined from sugar cane grass, become by the 16th century, a main marker and emulator of wealth and conspicuous consumption? In the post Columban era it became known as “white gold”, the basis of one of the first truly international industries. It sweetened trades in other exotic tropical beverages, such as tea, coffee and chocolate, and proved in the drive towards modernity and mass consumption to be “Capitalism’s favoured child”. That was the phrase used by Ortez and it is a necessary reminder of the need to foreground sugar and capitalism as an important theme that ought to be explicit in historical and contemporary accounts of its revolutionary impact on diet. Aykroyd’s sage comment on what influenced his “unification” of themes and chapters in Sweet Malefactor was that it depended “on the presence of sugar in the foreground or background throughout, as the hero or villain, more often the villain”. That’s decidedly the emphasis in Lustig’s excellent work.