It’s easy to forget the first time we tried something truly unique, like buttercream frosting on a parent’s finger or strawberry ice cream instead of the usual puréed vegetables. But that first happiness doesn’t always last. In the first few minutes of a YouTube video from February 2011, a baby named Olivia can be seen staring into the camera with rapt interest. As her brother Daniel moves the ice cream cone closer to her, she flaps her arms and bends her back.
Since sugar is needed to make energy for our cells, it makes sense that we developed a taste for sweet things. On the other hand, our sugar intake, how we get sugar into our bodies, and where we get sugar from have all changed a lot over time. Before agriculture, sugars in our ancestors’ food probably came from whatever plants and animals were available at any given time and place.
Sugarcane was first grown around 6,000 BC in New Guinea, where the sweet juice was gotten by biting and sucking on the stalks. Indians learned how to turn the juice of a tropical grass that had been grown there since 500 B.C. into crystals. In the 11th century, emigrants and monks brought sugar to China, Persia, northern Africa, and finally Europe.
Sugar was a luxury in Europe for more than 400 years, until production became so efficient that “white gold” became much cheaper. Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the New World in 1493. During the 16th and 17th centuries, European powers grew it all over the West Indies and South America. In England, the number of pounds of sugar eaten went up by a factor of 1,500 between the 18th and 19th centuries.
By the middle of the 1800s, both Europe and the Americas thought that refined sugar was a must-have. Sugar is now added to a wide range of prepared foods, like bread, cereal, crunchy snacks, candies, soft drinks, juices, salad dressings, and sauces.
So, if you were curious, sugar might be as bad as Lustig says. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup may cause insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and, in the long run, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity because of how we process and use fructose and how much of it we eat today.
Even if they are bad, the effects may not show up for a long time. It takes some time to do. We won’t really know for sure until we do long-term research.