By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Recently, I wrote about the origins of sugar and its place in history. Much like illegal drugs, sugar’s trade value, sale and production helped shape and shift nations throughout Europe and the Americas. In more recent times, even the two industries’ production has grown strikingly similar.
The process of refining sugar has improved dramatically over the last 150 years, and is now fairly complex. Today, sugar refining is the interstate that takes us all to sweet, chewy, crunchy happiness.
The frontage road that merges with our sugar interstate is the refinement of modern drugs—cocaine, specifically. Not only does sugar affect us in virtually identical ways as cocaine, but even the road map that gets us there is comparable.
Why compare sugar to cocaine? Well, let’s start with sugar.
After harvesting the stalks of cane, which can be grown in all seasons, they are crushed to extract the juices in large ringers not unlike the smaller ones once used for ringing out laundry. At this stage it is a thick, impure brown syrup we call molasses.
Next, the liquid is settled out and the acid content reduced with the addition of lime. Then, the syrup is boiled until crystals form. Already formed crystals are added to the mixture to help new crystals form more quickly in a process referred to as “growing.”
Finally, the contents of the boil are spun, again, not unlike a larger version of your washing machine, until the last bit of liquid and newly grown crystals are separated. It is these new crystals that are ready for packaging.
In a similar vein, coca leaves are continuously stripped from the coca plant year-round. They are finely chopped and mixed with either kerosene or diesel fuel. Next it is mixed in a machine that also resembles a washing machine. This mixture is combined with lime to reduce its acidity and, at this stage, is basically a brown paste.
An assortment of chemicals, one of which is sulfuric acid, is added to the paste to neutralize it, which alters its color from brown to off-white. This white paste is dried and processed into the white powder that ends up on the street.
And if those two processes aren’t congruent enough, one could argue that at times they have even been symbiotic. After all, in its infant years until the early 20th century, 1903 to be precise, Coca Cola contained cocaine. Coca Cola is still made with the coca leaf, albeit now with leaves scientists deem “decocainized.”
The documentary film “Fed Up” warns of the dangers of the many foods, mostly processed, Americans consume on a near daily basis. It warns us of the health risks we face from consuming trans fats, processed foods, and larger and larger portions.
But it was one father’s comments that stuck in my mind like a wad of Bazooka Joe bubble gum. This father said he tried not to buy it, but his son was relentless in his pleading. That he would then try to hide it, but his son would always find it. That his son was just going to get it from his friends or at school anyway. That his brother would sneak it to him. That reminded me of my own younger years trying to sneak beer, but this particular father was not talking about alcohol or drugs. He was talking about sugar.
In the coming weeks, I will delve into the health risks and modern-day challenges sugar presents to our well-being as humans.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.