Leeds exhibition to host history of sugar

Co-curator Dr Iona McLeery from Leeds University.
Co-curator Dr Iona McLeery from Leeds University.
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Modern thinking says sugar is best avoided but a new exhibition hopes to show that sugar can be good, as Neil Hudson found out.

Once upon a time, there was no sugar. There were no hard-boiled sweets, no sugar-coated breakfast cereals, no chocolate drops and certainly no delicate sponge cakes with icing on top and cups of sweet tea to wash them down with.

It’s hard to imagine a world without sugar. It’s something we all take for granted, partly because of its ubiquity. It is on every coffee table, in every cupboard, ever corner shop and visit your local supermarket and it’s odds-on you’ll find a couple of split bags oozing white granules on to the aisle.

Travel back in time just 500 years, however, and sugar was a luxury with ‘superfood’ status.

Leeds academics have launched a mouth-watering new exhibition exploring the history of sugar and the sweet tooth.

The free-to-all display at Wakefield Museum traces the evolution of sweet foods through history, examining their different nutritional roles and reputations within societies dating back to the medieval era, including the story of sugar itself.

The three-year project is being run by academics from the University of Leeds. It aims to make people think a bit more about what they eat today by looking at what our ancestors ate before sugar was discovered.

Iona McCleery is a lecturer in Medieval history at the University of Leeds and co-ordinator of the You Are What You Ate exhibition.

She said: “The aim of the exhibition is to examine why we like eating. What is the historical and scientific basis of food enjoyment?

“Ultimately, we want to celebrate eating sweets and cakes while showing awareness that they must be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

“Medieval people lived shorter lives and that we would not envy, but that does not mean they could not have as much fun with food as we do.

“It would be interesting to know what people in 500 years time made of our modern diet, if people go away from the exhibition thinking a bit more about what they eat, that’s what we want.

“The thing about our modern diet is, it’s something which affects us all but which we don’t necessarily think about in terms of being healthy.

“Life expectancy has increased in general but not for everyone - there are still those people in today’s society whose life expectancy is very short and similar in some cases to people who lived in medieval times. Those people have had the same vaccinations and medical care as the rest of us but for many diet is a major factor – we think diet is something we ought to think more about.”

As part of the £180,000 three-year exhibition, Dr McCleery is running workshops looking at the bones of people who lived in the past, including some from Medieval times, in particular jaw bones, which show tooth decay.

Dr McCleery said: “Sugar is not necessarily bad for you, there’s a reason we like the taste of it, it gives us energy. For babies, it’s one of the first things they taste, because mother’s milk is sweet. There’s even an argument which says sugar fuelled the Industrial Revolution.

“One thing which is certain, however, is it does increase tooth decay and by studying old bones we can plot the introduction of sugar and correlate that with cavities precisely.”

But the three year project is not all about sugar and spice – next year it will focus on the dark side of food, so things like obesity and the increase of diseases such as rickets in children, caused by a lack of vitamin D, a major source of which is sunlight.

Dr McCleery said: “A study in Southampton showed a marked increase in the number of children with rickets and most of them were from ethnic communities. Possibly, one of the reasons for that is children do not play outside as much as they used to – there is also an issue to do with those who cover the skin or wear high factor sun cream.

“Type 2 diabetes is also on the increase.

“Diet can play an important role in combating such conditions.”

Another part of the three-year project involves running food stalls at various events, including the Leeds Loves Food Festival (July 1-3) and the Pontefract Liquorice Festival on July 10.

Dr McCleery added: “We want to educate people, especially children, about food. Some children do not know where potatoes come from, others think things like rhubarb are native to this country, whereas it actually originated in China and was imported here as a laxative. It was only used in pies, tarts and crumbles from the early 19th Century when sugar became cheap enough to afford.

“One of the things I ask people in the workshops is what would happen if no more aeroplanes came to this country.

“The question came about after the volcanic ash cloud grounded planes last year and it’s worth thinking about, because we all expect to eat things like tomatoes all year round, but really they are seasonal produce.

“Things like apples are imported from thousands of miles away and for the most part were probably picked six months earlier, so they are not fresh, whereas there is a huge apple growing industry right here in Yorkshire - the problem is if you show those apples to people, they don’t fit the stereotypical image they have of a juicy apple, even though they are fresher and probably more tasty.

“Whenever we do food stalls at shows, we take with us a selection of seasonal vegetables and recipe suggestion cards for people to take away.

“It’s all about enjoying food and improving diet at the same time.”

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice runs until October and forms part of the You Are What You Ate project based at the University of Leeds and is funded by the Wellcome Trust, a global medical research charity based in the UK.

It aims to inform people about a healthy, balanced diet by displaying the enjoyable side of eating, focusing on fashions and customs linked to feasting and entertainment.

The exhibition will also contain a fun ‘hands-on’ twist – visitors will be able to take home modern and medieval recipe cards, allowing them to try for themselves the wide variety of historic ingredients and dishes on show, while also being invited to take part in activities such as crushing cinnamon.

It will involve school activities, stalls, exhibitions and other events.

The global journey of sugar and cinnamon, from plant to plate, will also be revealed, starting with the story of medieval trade and finishing up with modern trends in nutritional research.

Professor Gary Williamson of the School of Food Science & Nutrition at the University of Leeds said: “Part of the reason medieval people lived far shorter lives than us was because of disease and unhealthier environments; their diets were not necessarily unhealthier.

“People in the UK still die far younger than average despite the advantages of modern medicine – we should think seriously about diet as a factor.

“Our aim is to encourage public debate and personal reflection on modern eating habits through exploration of the dietary choices of the past.”


* Sugar was first discovered in Polynesia, and later India, more than 2,500 years ago. When Persian Emperor Darius invaded India in 501BC, he wrote of “the reed which gives honey without bees”. The new foodstuff was greatly treasured and the process of its refinement kept a closely guarded secret.

* It was the expansion of the Arab empire in 642AD which saw sugar production significantly expanded and it was soon being grown in other Arabian controlled countries, across North Africa and Spain.

* Sugar was only “discovered” by Western Europeans during the Crusades in the 11th Century. Crusaders talked of a new spice which was pleasant to the taste. Sugar first made its way into England in 1099.

* The increase in international trade saw sugar beginning to be imported, although it was still a luxury item only for the well-off – in 1319 it cost two shillings a pound – about £45 in today’s money.

* However, it was Christopher Columbus who played the most significant role in the story of sugar – he took sugar cane plants with him to the Caribbean in 1493 and found the climate there so favourable that an industry was quickly established. The work was labour intensive and mostly done by slaves, with the final produce being brought back to England to be refined – by 1750 there were some 120 sugar refineries making about 30,000 tons of ‘white gold’ a year.

* It was as a result of the Napoleonic Wars an alternative to sugar cane was discovered – sugar beet, circa 1750. When Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe, the French looked for alternatives and found sugar beet, which replaced sugar cane as the main source of sugar on continental Europe. However, beet sugar only came to Britain during the First World War, when cane imports dried up.

* Today the world consumes about 120m tons of sugar a year, increasing by about two million tons a year.

* Sugar is a natural preservative, for example, jam is just fruit preserved in sugar.

* It is also a quick source of energy, while foods like bananas and breads also contain sugar but this is released more slowly.

* Sugar is used extensively in medicines to mask their otherwise obnoxious taste.

* A can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar and a can of Pepsi 41 grams – roughly equivalent to about seven teaspoons or 13 lumps of sugar per can.

* The Sugar and Spice & All Things Nice exhibition opened earlier this month at Wakefield Museum and will run until October 1, Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am-4.30pm. Contact: www.leeds.ac.uk/youarewhatyouate for more information.