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[Weekender] Before sugar became the enemy

It seems almost like the world has turned against sugar. In March, the U.K. announced a plan to impose a new tax on sugary drinks.

 (123rf)
(123rf)

In 2014, Berkeley city council in California introduced a “soda tax,” becoming the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to pass penalty taxes on the sugar-sweetened beverages.

South Korea has also joined the move to reduce sugar intake. In April, the government said that it aimed to cut down on the amount of sugar consumed by Koreans to 10 percent of their daily diet by 2020. It plans to require manufacturers to specify the level of sugar in their products.

But it is only in recent times that sugar has become known as a harmful substance.

When sugar was first discovered by the people of New Guinea in around B.C. 8,000, it was considered as a panacea for illness and the epitome of wealth.

The 12th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas famously wrote “eating sugar is not breaking a religious fast because it was a medicine taken to aid digestion,” when confronted with the question of where consuming sugar should fall fasting rules.

A renowned anthropologist Sidney Mintz said in his book “Swiftness and Power,” one of the most influential publications about food history, that sugar served at dinner was used as an indicator of the wealth of aristocrats in Europe.

Sugar enjoys similar popularity in present-day South Korea. The Shinsegae Museum of Korean Commercial History shows that sugar was one of the most sought-after gifts during holidays, alongside flour, eggs and sesame oil. People often served sugar water to guests at home.

“As recently as the 1960s, there were not enough dietary supplements to make you felt reinvigorated. People were drinking sugar water when they felt tired and sick. It is pretty much the same as getting a glucose injection,” said a public relation official from the Korea Sugar Association.

The origin of sugar in Korea dates back to the 13th century. It first appeared in the literary work “Pahanjib,” authored by poet and politician Lee In-ro in 1260 during the Goryeo Dynasty. Historians said that sugar was introduced before then and came from China. Back then, it was a luxury product used by elites.

It was only in the early 20th century that the public gained access to sugar. Sugary cookies and pies, imported from Japan, were introduced to the people. In 1922, the first sugar refinery was established in Pyongyang by a Japanese company.

The Korean-owned sugar company was built in 1953 by Lee Byung-chul, founder of Samsung Group. CheilJedang, which has now become the biggest food company here, was capable of producing 25 tons of sugar per day by processing raw sugar, which was given to the war-torn country as foreign aid.

The massive production eased the nation’s reliance on imported sugar. Back in 1953, Korea had imported all sugar from Japan and elsewhere. But the proportion of imported sugar dropped several years later and only 7 percent of sugar was imported in 1956.

With more sugar being produced, its consumption soared too. According the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, the amount of sugar consumed has increased almost 20 times over the past 60 years. In 1953, Koreans on average ate 984 grams of sugar a year, but the amount rose to 22 kilograms in 2012.

By Yeo Jun-suk (jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)
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