Unsweet Truths About Sugar


Natalie & Pamela at Mt. Vernon
Natalie & Pamela at Mt. Vernon

We were visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon home last week. One of the exhibits focused on the food that would have been prepared and eaten on the estate in the late 1700’s. Martha Washington’s “Great Cake” would have been baked by one of the family’s enslaved cooks (I will write a post soon about Hercules) and then served to the delighted family and guests on very special occasions (such as part of a grand Christmas dinner). The cake was so well liked that granddaughter Patsy wrote the recipe down to share. I marveled at the amount of each ingredient in the recipe — eggs (40), sugar (4 pounds*), flour (5 pounds), fruit (5 pounds). It had to have been a GIANT Great Cake.

*4 pounds of sugar would have been 8-12 cups of sugar (depending on how powdered the sugar).

When we returned home, the new issue of National Geographic was at the top of our stack of mail. The cover caught my eye – a picture of a cupcake with a tall dollop of sprinkles-laden frosting – and the red-lettered word “Sugar.”


See more of Robert Clark’s amazing photographs for this article at

I flipped to the table of contents. Rich Cohen’s article “Sugar Love (A Not So Sweet Story)” is the best story about sugar I’ve read. Cohen weaves together history, economics, medical politics, and the undeniable impact sugar has had on our health.  To read the article, here’s the link  —

Below are some interesting facts from the National Geographic article that I noted down.

By the way, even though the Washington’s Great Cake would have contained a lot of sugar, the cake would have been served only once or twice a year.  And… the average consumption of sugar in Washington’s day would have been less than 25% of what the average person consumes today.


In 1700, the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds of sugar a year.

In 1800, the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar a year.

In 1870, 47 pounds.

In 1900, 100 pounds.

Today, the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually or 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.


Sugar was the oil of its day.

From 1870 to 1900, world production of cane and beet sugar exploded from 2.8 million tons a year to 13 million tons plus.


In 1675, Thomas Willis, a physician and founding member of Britain’s Royal Society, noted that the urine of people afflicted with diabetes tasted sweet. 250 years later (1925) Haven Emerson at Columbia University pointed out “a remarkable increase in deaths from diabetes between 1900 and 1920, which corresponded with an increase in sugar consumption.”

In the meantime, many scientists blamed obesity and heart disease on cholesterol caused by too much saturated fat in the diet. As a result, fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. However, Americans are fatter (and sicker) than ever.

Why? The answer lies in the unsweet truths about sugar.


Sweet Sugar –> High levels of triglycerides –> Unsweet Maladies

Table sugar (sucrose) is composed of glucose and fructose. Glucose is metabolized by cells throughout your entire body. Fructose, on the other hand, is processed primarily in the liver. When consumed in large amounts and broken down in the liver, it produces fats called triglycerides. Over time, high levels of triglycerides cause blood pressure to go up, tissues to become more resistant to insulin (hence diabetes), and obesity (especially around the waist).

To make matters more complicated: sugar is addictive. “The reason you’re watching TV is not because TV is so good,” says University of Colorado’s Dr. Richard Johnson. The reason you’re watching TV is “you have no energy to exercise, because you’re eating too much sugar.” In other words, after the initial sugar rush, sugar saps your energy.


Eat/Drink less sugar (today’s 12 oz. soda contains about 10 tsps of sugar).

Stop eating processed foods, which are laden in sugar to extend shelf life and replace taste bled of fat (so that they seem more healthful). Chose fresh ingredients, which makes cooking simpler. In-season ingredients don’t need embellishment (sugar or salt) to taste wonderful.  Learn about healthy fats for cooking (we use mostly olive oil and small amounts of grass-fed butter).

Bake your own treats or pay a friend who loves to bake for “less sweet” treats. Cut back on the amount of sugar in recipes. I almost always cut the amount of sugar in recipes in half. Here’s a recipe I use for 12 delicious pumpkin cupcakes using only ½ cup sugar —

Pumpkin Cupcakes
Pumpkin Cupcakes





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