By: Anna Oakes

It’s Valentine’s Day Weekend, and there’s one flavor you’re likely to find everywhere, filling the supermarket and your pharmacy aisles. Even across a (social) distance, we use sugar to show our love, from boxes of chocolates to those weird-tasting “be mine” heart candies to our names for each other: honey, sugar pie, sweetheart, and jellybean (maybe). Sugar means love, but too much of it, or too little, carries a different range of emotions. Its bitter absence describes loneliness, resentment, and pain – while in excess, it brings illness (“sickly sweet”) or cloying sentimentality (“saccharine” isn’t usually considered a good thing).

Even when it’s not Valentine’s Day, sugar and all its paradoxes are ubiquitous in our food. Delicious, addictive, and versatile, sugar is notorious for the damage it does to our metabolisms and our environments. Its history isn’t sweet, either. Historically, Europe’s hunger for sugar drove the enslavement of millions of people from Africa, and the colonization of the Americas and Pacific. As Sidney Mintz begins his book, Sweetness and Power, “America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant [sugar and coffee]; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.” Even the visual, and symbolic, purity of white refined sugar depends on a less-than-innocent process. Sugarcane’s brown color and so-called impurities are, to this day, filtered and bleached through bone char, the product of burning animal bones and compressing the ashes. 

As our appetites have grown – Americans consume about 17 teaspoons of sugar per day – so have sugar’s contradictions. The sugar industry is notorious for its dubious practices, but there’s other innovative and exciting work being done. We’ve chosen some of our favorite HRN episodes that explore the facets of this perplexing and essential crystal, from the sweet to the bitter. In “Raising Cane,” farmers are working to restore purple heirloom varieties of sugarcane; “You’ve Got VD!” is a fresh look at the holiday itself; and “Sweet Temptations: How Sugar Captivated Tastebuds and Global Trade” features an interview with Dr. Marion Nestle, outspoken critic of the sugar industry.

 V-Day

Life’s a Banquet Episode 115: You’ve Got VD! Hey ya sex pots! It's VD, and we've got a very special ep, overflowing with bath water and NECCO wafers! Tune in for the sensual history of boxed chocolates, and stay for the XXX behind the scenes look at conversation hearts. So whip up some lava cake and inflate your girlfriend, it's Life's a Banquet, the podcast!

 

Meat + Three Episode 64: My Twisted Valentine: Our stories this week dig into some hard truths associated with Valentine’s rituals. Kevin Chang Barnum tells us about the anxieties within the dairy industry. Ruby Walsh speaks to Tasha Marks, food historian and artist, about the legacy of the sugar sculpture. Jess Krainchich provides some hope in an interview with ethical chocolate company, Fine and Raw. And finally, Kat Johnson travels to Alabama to bring us a story of an unusual delicacy: deer heart tartare.

History

 A Taste of the Past Episode 202: Sugar and its Dark History: Host Linda Pelaccio is talkin' sugar and its checkered, dark past with guest Andrew F. Smith, author of "Sugar: A Global History." Andy relays how sugar has held its incredible value as a global commodity up against its darker legacies of slavery and widespread obesity. Tune in to hear a layered and definitive tale of sugar and the many people caught in its spell-from barons to slaves, from chefs to the countless among us born with that insatiable devil, the sweet tooth.

Sweets

Meat + Three Episode 101: Sweet Temptations: Part of our global trade mini-series, this episode focuses on all things sweet! The history of sugar comes with some bitter truths. Stories include the problematic journey of the cocoa bean from West Africa to chocolate products in the U.S., farmers pushing back against “Big Sugar,” cultural appropriation at the National Date Festival, and the intertwined history of Silk Road merchants and the first domesticated apples.

 

Life’s a Banquet Episode 40: Candy Man, Candy Man, Candy Man!: In this sticky sweet episode, Bretton and Z are getting ready for Jesus' homecoming by talking all things CANDY! It's colorful, it's sweet, your grandmother always has the worst kinds, it will rot your brain! We unpack the insane highs and lows of the most famous candy movie of all time, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," plus Bretton eats Pop Rocks and drinks a Coke and explodes and dies on the air!

 

All in the Industry Episode 232: Penny Stankiewicz, Sugar Couture: Penny Stankiewicz is a pastry chef, cake artist and founder of Sugar Couture. Strongly influenced by her years as a filmmaker, Penny strives to tell a story in every cake she makes. Penny’s background in the visual and culinary arts makes her uniquely poised to create artistic creations in flour, sugar, and butter. A strong visual language, sugar skills, and knack for storytelling coalesce into the ability to combine disparate images into one cohesive “cake story.”

The Sugar Industry

What Doesn’t Kill You Episode 198: Sugar Industry Threw Fat Under the Bus: Newly revealed documents show how the sugar industry skewed public perception toward fat and away from sugar as the source of obesity and health problems. Marion Nestle, currently writing a new book on the subject, shows how they developed this campaign and ran with it over the course of decades.

 

Let's Get Real Episode 61: Cereal Is the Devil’s Work: Erica Wides is diving into a big bowl of sugary cereal to tell listeners that cereal isn't real food. Tune into this episode to hear how industrial agriculture has taken over the Midwest to turn grains into corn syrup clusters. How have we been brainwashed to believe that breakfast cereals are a necessary part of every morning?

Growing Sugarcane

A Taste of the Past Episode 294: Raising Cane: Kat Johnson shares a panel she moderated at the 2018 Charleston Wine + Food festival, when she welcomed Jerome Dixon and Doc Bill Thomas from Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms, Chef Sean Brock of Husk, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills to talk about the repatriation of Purple Ribbon Sugar Cane to Sapelo Island, home of the Gullah-Geechee community Hog Hammock.