The political power of sugar, between delights and dominions

By Claire Legros

Posted yesterday at 5:00 a.m., updated at 4:11 p.m.

This is one of the side effects of the Covid-19 epidemic. Between the start of containment and the end of May 2020, sugar sales jumped by 30% in France, with a premium for powdered sugar (+ 56%) and even more for jam sugar (+ 80%) . Fear of scarcity undoubtedly played a role in this rush. But a survey conducted by the Center for Taste and Food Sciences in Dijon also shows that the period has favored, especially in children, what the authors of the study call the « Emotional eating ». In the closed doors of our confined lives, many of us drowned our end-of-the-world anxieties in the comforting sweetness of homemade desserts.

A safe haven in the midst of crises, an essential ingredient for holidays or solitary and sometimes guilty pleasure, sugar tells, in its own way, the intimate part of the history of men and women, of their joys and their distresses, of their fears. and their hopes. Along with cereals, it is also one of the products which, over the centuries, best describes the history of peoples, the violence of empires and the birth of a globalization of which it is a central player.

Because this ingredient capable of activating the reward circuits in our brains is not only a source of pleasure. Long a marker of social distinction and wealth, reserved for the elites, before becoming omnipresent in our cupboards, sugar is a highly political object, a matter of power. « It is strange that a product which charms childhood and softens old age has been the source of so many political catastrophes », noted, at the end of the XIXe century, the Prime Minister of Queen Victoria Benjamin Disraeli. The assertion remains valid. This passion for taste is linked to the worst plagues in our history, and first and foremost slavery, which has led millions of Africans to deportation and forced labor on American plantations. It is also responsible, a century and a half later, for environmental disasters and epidemics of long, painful, and largely preventable diseases, the main one of which, obesity, is on the front line in the crisis due to Covid-19. .

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For forty years, research in social sciences has tried to shed light on this paradox: how to explain that this ingredient considered not essential to food needs crystallizes passions so much, to the point of shaping landscapes and influencing public policies? How has this commodity, precious and rare yesterday, the privilege of the powerful, turned into a weapon of mass consumption, which mortgages lives and weighs on the finances of health insurance? Tracing the political history of sugar helps to better understand the ambivalence of our behavior towards it and sheds light on the origin of the balance of power to which it is the object today.

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