Man Sized Sugar



I’ve been trying to balance a number of things in my life lately, namely spending more offline time and making things.

One of my most favorite things to do is listen to lectures online while I’m making said things. The topics revolve, but lately, I’ve resurrected my interest in argument surrounding food politic and policy: GMOs, local, seasonal food, eating like yer granny might have cooked.

I have been interested in the cultural & political role of sugar since I realized its role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. We really take it for granted these days that we can just “go to the store” to buy a 5lb bag of sugar for only a few dollars. It’s actually kind of insane, when you think about it.

So this is what happened. A little more than a week ago, we ran out of sugar for our coffee. Coffee is pretty much the only thing we even add sugar to, so I was surprised to think we had run out so quickly; after all, hadn’t I just a month or two back purchased a 2lb bag of unbleached cane sugar? Yes, I had.

After listening to Michael Pollan (lurvez) talk about sugar in a discourse he gave while touring for In Defense of Food, I got to thinking: how much sugar did a person consume at the beginning of the 20th century, when sugar was still relatively expensive to acquire?

I found a relatively interesting statistic at Leite’s Culinaria:

One commodity that crossed class boundaries was sugar. By 1909, America had an aching sweet tooth, with the average person consuming 65 pounds of sugar annually. The culprits: chocolate brownies, apple pie, devil’s food cake and baked Alaska. Sweetened tea and coffee (and its newly invented decaf cousin) also contributed to our ancestors’ passion for sugar.

Sixty-five pounds of sugar is about the size of an eight-year-old child, right?  Seems like quite a bit to me, but over the course of a year, that works out to:

  • 65lb / 12mo = 5.4lbs/mo
  • 5.4lb / 30 days = .18lb/day
  • .18lb = .18oz or about 17tsp or 5T per day. Further, 5T is also a bit more than 1/4C  Excessive for a human, but maybe not excessive for a modern human.

We cook from scratch, Because we don’t really use sugar outside of coffee or making bread.

  • I figure that 2lbs = roughly 64 tablespoons,
  • Coffee (1tsp each, or 2/3T /day total for J & me)
  • Bread (1T every other day)

That means that every 3 days we would use  2T in coffee alone (1tsp/day each – help me if my math is off) which would be about 20T/mo or a bit more than 1C/mo, or about a half a pound per month. So it makes sense that we used half the bag in coffee alone in a 2 month period.

I would use about a 2/3 of a standard tablespoon (not rounded nor heaping) for making bread, and I was doing that every other or every 3rd day. But I didn’t do this every week.

And that’s pretty much all we use granulated sugar for: coffee & bread, or the occasional sweet. With my jams, I usually only make enough for one jar in the fridge, and I use very little sugar because I’m not preserving it, I’m simply converting it from fruit to jam. I always bake with half the called-for sugar and never add it to my tea.

Then I started to wonder: how much sugar does one consume in the Standard American Diet per year? According to the USDA (2000), the average American consumed 152lbs of sugar each year. Another statistic I read was for 2011 and it was 165lbs. That’s a man-sized pile of sugar. Every year. 

I worry a bit that some may find this discussion smug on my part, but I assure you it’s not; I’m simply interested in the habits of societies. When I quit smoking, I used candy to kick the habit, and I have certainly guzzled my fair share of sugary sodas. While I’ll admit to being critical of the Standard American Diet, I understand personally how people become addicted to it, as I have had my own troubles with it. I’m not judgin’.

 My goal  is to take in less than 65lbs a year, the pre-war average.  I think it’s doable. 

Justin & I decided to not buy sugar again, for at least not for a while. We cut out any added-sugar anything in the house (though we still happily consume sugars contained naturally in whole foods, like apples, bananas , oranges or dates). And truth: we’ve eaten a few more bananas lately to curb that sweet habit.


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