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Sugar Snake: an introduction.

*Content Note: This article contains references and historical engravings related to slavery and coerced labour*


Sugar is a shapeshifter, a snake, a slippery character that fluctuates between liquid and solid, crystalline and glassy, sticky and dry. It is seductive but poisonous, infantilised and sexualised, glamorous and special, yet cheap and every day. It preserves and it corrupts. It is simultaneously a fundamental food, luxury food and junk food.

On exploring sugar as a material, I expected to get caught up in the beauty and sensuality of the many forms it takes, but what I found was more of a history of power and human technology through the seductive yet corrupting influence of this multifaceted substance. Its effect on our societal and bodily structures and our imaginations, continues to be powerful in people's everyday lives across the world.
I am interested in listening to materials with other people. Paying close attention through our senses to notice how they act upon us and the world around us. The workshops and conversations we have had as part of this project have brought up unexpected perspectives on sugar and how it affects our world. The research also made me more aware of the corrupting power of greed, and increasingly ashamed of our British Imperial identity and it's resultant structural inequalities, which is based on deeply racist attitudes. Worryingly, these attitudes have re-surfaced today, and many people still seem to take pride in this identity of white-sugar supremacy and power.

Through visual research I have begun to see a pattern emerge in the forms I encounter, a morphology of sugar. From sugarloaves to the design of granular silos, from sugar beets to the refining plants, from the sugar work tools of patisserie chefs to colonial architecture built with the spoils of sugar.

Small Morphology

The people I have interviewed throughout this research process couldn't quite categorise sugar. It seems to be neither animal, vegetable or mineral. It appears as all those things. It has got me thinking about sugar as an 'archetype' substance, an exemplar of the extraordinary in the everyday, and the magic in the material we're made of.

I asked 'Where does sugar happen?' 'What does it do?' The answers I have received and the research I have encountered has revealed sugar is at work in and upon our bodies and on our economies and social structures. It is also a powerful force in the collective imaginations of many cultures. It works on our desire for mollification or comfort, for energy or brightness, for power and money, and for mastery over bodily illnesses. People feel conflicted about it. Sugar is like the snake eating its own tail, it is both substance and agent, subject and object. Within all of this, I like to think about the everyday forms in which sugar appears on our tables, the way it functions in our bodies and how it is animated by our different activities.

When I approached the material, I split my investigations into three parts.


Sugar as we know it is a carbohydrate – a construction of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules. When you burn sugar with sodium bicarbonate, a carbon ‘snake’ appears. As the pile of materials react and burn, the hydrogen and oxygen get ripped from the mix, sending water vapour and pure carbon curling out from the top of the pile. The carbon snake that slowly unfurls is a visual and textural manifestation of the energy contained within sugar's structure.

Sugars exist everywhere, intangibly dispersed in the cells of all living things. Its creation is responsible for all the oxygen on the earth, powering life. Four billion years ago, cyanobacteria, a kind of algae, began to photosynthesise creating vast amounts of oxygen on the planet, and enabling other life-forms to develop. The photosynthesis process takes in carbon dioxide from the air, then uses solar radiation to break it up, combining the carbon with water and converting it into chemical energy - sugars.

Sweetness comes in many forms, but sucrose has historically held the most power over us. Sucrose, the refined white or brown table sugar we are familiar with, is made of glucose (starch sugar), and fructose (fruit sugar). It is most concentrated in the stems of sugar cane or the roots of sugar beet. Other plants produce edible sugars but can't provide sucrose in the same quantities. To extract it, harvested sugar cane or beet is crushed and slushed, the juice is boiled and clarified, before being crystal seeded. Lacing or seeding the syrup with sugar crystals, the structure spreads and fractures into minute cubic snowflakes which grow and mesh together to form faceted cube-like grains.

Sugar comes from the Sanskrit word Sukkar meaning gravel; sharp and grainy on the tongue and crunchy between the teeth.

Single Crystal Sugar 1

In this crystalline form, sucrose was first used as an ayurvedic and then Arabic medicine, and like other Materia Medica, it was traded along the spice route with Europe. It became a luxurious and valuable seasoning, and its popularity was harnessed by southern Europeans who started to cultivate sugar cane in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Cyprus and Andalusia, Algarve and Madeira, eventually expanding to their fertile colonised territories in the Americas throughout the 18th century.
The rise of sugar; from a medicine to a spice to a major part of our diet, and the corresponding rise in the wealth and power of the empires that cultivated the cane - British, Dutch, Portuguese and French - was made possible by colonial rule and the enslavement of millions of indigenous and west African people. The colonising powers dramatically expanded the already existing Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in order to supply the labour required for the large-scale production of sugar, a move that has informed the making of the modern world.

Sugar money helped fund the British Industrial Revolution, creating thriving port cities where enslaved people, sugar and rum were traded, as well as wood, cotton, tobacco, coffee, rice and ginger from the Americas. The great wealth made from the natural resources of colonised land, and the exploitation and ownership of people and their labour value as property, led to the development of modern capitalism. A big industry grew in slave finance, sourcing and transport. By 1800, there were over 70,000 people transported from Africa per year. Financiers became spectacularly wealthy.

We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor both black and white, both here and abroad.

Martin Luther King Jnr. The Three Evils of Society, address delivered at the National Conference on New Politics August 31, 1967.

The Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s left Europe without access to affordable sugar. The British held a firm monopoly on Caribbean imports. France aimed to make Europe free from the need for tropical trade and developed sugar beet farming and refining technologies at home. Napoleon encouraged new research with sugar beets, and by 1815, thousands of acres were put into production with hundreds of small factories initiated across Europe, Russia and Scandinavia. By 1850 sugar beet had flooded the British market and became cheap calories, used in every Briton's cup of tea and pot of jam. Today home-grown beet sugar accounts for 60% of our consumption.

Sugar therefore creates structures of both power and powerlessness, a symbol of wealth and oppression. The knowledge of its power over us as consumers of sugar - our bodies, our desires, our imaginations – has resulted in prospectors creating their own powerful structures, built on greed, exploiting stolen bodies and territories as commodities. The power of sugar has further informed the ongoing hierarchies of human rights.

A number of articles in this edition of Feast explore the history of sugar and its power structures. Caitriona Devery's text 'Bittersweet Beet. A history of Irish sugar', details Ireland's nationalisation of sugar beet production and its subsequent place within the European wide industry. Museumand's film 'White Gold. The story of sugar, slavery and settlement in the Caribbean', introduces viewers to the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and sugar.

FEAST: Bittersweet

As part of Feast: Bittersweet – an evening exploration of sugar at Manchester Museum, with Museumand, I hosted an experimental exploration of sugar. Visitors were invited to explore how sugar was historically made, and how it is produced today. I was interested in the different forms sugar takes, how much visitors knew about them and what they felt about them as well as the other materials that were used in the process of sugar production - from clay to quicklime to albumen to bullocks' blood. For more on different forms of sugar, see the Sugar Library I have assembled.

Sugar Creation Workshop Small

We got our hands on a 25 kg pile of brown sugar, and cooked up molasses candies with pastry chef Terri Mercieca which we pulled and shaped into snakelike forms. We explored the methods of making sugar in the plantations and factories, using boiling pans and sugarloaf moulds.

Conical sugarloaves have been produced in clay moulds since before the medieval period. They are most likely to have originated in India, as raw sugar is still produced using terracotta moulds there today, and this the form endured with the global spread of sugar making. The cone-shape was such a common sight until the later 19th century that everyone knew what it looked like. Mountains and hats were named after it. Even the paper it was wrapped in played a part in domestic life. Most sugarloaves sourced from the Americas were wrapped in blue indigo-impregnated paper which was recycled as a source of dye for yarn or cloth.
I asked potter Darren Ellis to recreate an 18th century sugarloaf mould and collecting jars so visitors could see and understand the process of sugar refining better.

Darren Pots1

As well as being a means to create transportable and tradable masses of sugar, the sugarloaf mould was also a vital part of the refining method. The whiter the sugar, the more desirable and expensive it was. The moulds had holes in the bottom so the syrupy molasses could drain out. This didn't leave perfectly white sugar in the mould, and a process called 'claying' was then used where wet clay slurry was slicked onto the surface of the upturned mould, and the water was wicked though, washing the impurities (along with most of the vitamins and minerals from the plants) and the brown colour out of the hole in the bottom.

The process of moulding and the second refining of the sugar would happen once the sugarloaves arrived in Europe, keeping the pristine final product away from the slave labourers. The sugar plantation, factory and company owners wanted as little white sugar wealth as possible to stay in the Americas. A smear campaign was mounted against brown sugar in the 19th century in the US, when the refined white sugar industry, which did not have full control over brown sugar production, reproduced microscope images of harmless but disgusting looking microbes living in brown sugar, warning that brown sugar was of inferior quality, dirty and even dangerous. Brown sugar came to be seen as lower class, white sugar the preserve of a more refined (white) person. It might be the reverse today, like bread, where the unrefined or raw product is seen as more 'refined', artisan, healthier, or with a more sophisticated flavour than the 'ultraprocessed' food.
But brown sugar is not what it seems. Commercial light, dark or soft brown sugar is white sugar with the molasses added back in at the end of the refining process to create the different texture, colour, flavour and cooking qualities. In the modern process of refining sugar, the raw sugar is washed, dissolved in phosphoric acid, re-boiled, filtered through bone-charcoal or activated carbon, re-crystallised and dried to create stable pure white or translucent granulated sugar.

Sugar's material properties and qualities, in the different forms it takes on today, from natural agave to corn syrup and artificial sweeteners like saccharine and Steviol, make it a powerful signifier of class and privilege, and further reflect the social structures that influence what we eat and by extension, our own material qualities and identities.

East London, by the north banks of the Thames from Whitechapel to Stratford was a major sugar refining district, still evident in the names of streets, buildings and local areas. This industry is described with relish in the 1876 article 'The Wilds of London: At a Sugar Baking' by James Greenwood. I also talked about something of this history in a podcast for 'rial Talk.

The story of sugar's creation - its transformation from its vegetal roots can also be perceived through smell. A friend grew up down-wind of the Suffolk Silver Spoon sugar beet processing factory. She described the shifting smells of her hometown that changed through the different parts of the extraction process:

farty, cabbagey, hoppy, yeasty, boozy, sickly sweet, molasses, rotting vegetables, it smells like home. It mainly smells the same as the sugar beet rotting in the heaps in the fields when the frosts gets in them and they get all mushy. It's weird how the product is so sweet and tasty, and the smell of the process is so bad, but so familiar and comforting. The sugar is white and crystalline and lovely and it comes from this ugly stinky earthy turnip thing.


Sugar is an ambivalent material. It can be transformed in a myriad of ways. Sugars are moulded to the will of the chemist, the chef, and the body. Sugar forms the base of many essential drugs, but also fuels the need for them through problems arising from type II diabetes and obesity - the poison and the cure. Sugar can kill, or cause microbes to over proliferate. It can be made bittersweet, or sickly, it can be energising or dangerous.

Our taste receptors register sugars as pleasurable because our bodies need it to live. Stephen Barrett and Caitriona Devery’s The Sweetest Feeling discusses how we taste sweetness and the irresistible appeal of sugary foods.

Sweetness signifies the calories our brains and microbiome need to grow and work. Milk is sweet, and contains a sugar called lactose, so all mammals are born with sweet taste receptors. Even before we are born we have a taste for sugar. Doctors used to treat the problem of excessive amniotic fluid by injecting a sweet substance into the liquid. The appealing taste would prompt the fetus to swallow more fluid, which was then flushed out through the umbilical cord and the mother's kidneys. Sugar can ease pain in babies through an indirect analgesic effect, stimulating release of opioids produced by the body.
There is some evidence to show that our opiate and dopamine system, our body's reward system, is also involved in stress related eating and binge-eating, giving sugar addictive qualities that are reinforced in our neural pathways the more often it's eaten. This system is meant to encourage the eating of energy rich plants, accompanied by fibre and protein. The body is not equipped to consume the quantities of refined sugar we are exposed to today. Indeed, before sugar became widespread enough to be consumed as a food, it was first a medicinal material.

For the second of my hands-on research sessions, I wanted to co-explore sugar's transformative effects on our bodies and cultures, with some of the people that have contributed to Feast: Sugar. Considering sugar as a food and a medicine, as well as considering the powerful materials sugar can be transformed into, like alcohol and fuel, Dr. Hannah Drayson and I started an exploration of making and tasting that turned into a research session at the Institute of Making. Thinking through the materiality of sugar and the processes involved in the transformation of sugar in the body, we looked at sugar’s relationship to opiates and dopamine, considering the microbiome, fat storage, and insulin production. We also touched upon the sugar fungus - yeast, a transformative agent itself in the history of civilization, being responsible for fermentation in booze, bread and more recently, biofuels.

Following this bodily journey of sugar we explored the history of sugar as a vehicle for other materials or medicinal effects. We recreated Theriac - an early panacea and the origin of the word treacle, sugar pills' usage in homoeopathic pillules, placebos and Manus Christi comfits. A confection from 1600, Manus Christi or hand-of-christ, was a preventative medicine which could include crushed pearls, spices, flower essences, medicinal oils, gemstones, gold and silver leaf. The name Manus Christie was also a specific temperature for sugar-boiling, that would create crystallised hard candies that would soak up medicinal oils, and melt in the mouth, like the texture of sugar-mice.

William MacLehose’s article Theriac, treacle and sugar, from antidote to sweet traces the history of theriac in greater detail.

Theriac Treacle
Transformation Workshop Medium
Playing Cards

On reading about Theriac I decided to make my own panacea - a personal theriac, using every edible remedy in my medicine cabinet - pills, lozenges, tinctures and linctus. The mixture is a strange index of my personal health, or a potential remedy for every ailment I am prone to. In the spirit of Theriac-making I made it as a 'public compounding' in the transformation research session.

Perhaps the Alka-Seltzer was unwise.

Personal Theriac

A series of interviews in this edition explore further the different relationships we have to sugar and its role as a medicine, a fuel and a comforter. Recipes gathered by Museumand from Caribbean women further detail the personal and cultural resonance of puddings, sweet drinks and festive treats.


The idea of sugar, as an alluring desirable sweetness, exists as a cultural construct. It is one of the substances we use as a metaphor in our collective and individual psyche, allowing us to assemble ideas into shapes we recognise, can re-think with. It is an embodied substance, not only in the cells of our bodies and our foods, but in our language and imagination.

One of the origins of sugar's meaning as a source of temptation, poison and cure, starts with the first people on earth eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden. The same story is found in the writings of the three Abrahamic faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The serpent tempts us to eat the illicit sweetness which reveals enlightenment, but also shame, pain and sadness. Sweetness is power but it comes at a cost. We return to the symbol of the snake, beautiful and deadly. It becomes a sign of our ambivalence about our own bodies, our desires, our mortality, eating sweets is still a guilty pleasure.

These stories have a gendered element too. Eve ate the fruit first. Although the blame for The Fall is not on Eve in every interpretation of the story, she has been painted as weak forever more, succumbing to her desire and temptation, and it's the sweetness, the 'honey-trap' of woman that tempts men into sin. Sweetness and embodied femininity are reinforced in our language, we are sweet-heart, sugar-tits, honey-bun. Made of sugar and spice and all things nice. The serpent is sugar, femininity, knowledge, the toxic expectations of us to be virgin, mother and whore - the Pharmakon - the poison and the cure

Sugar works on our imaginations in other ways too, which in turn affects the functioning of our bodies, Anna Plojzsajski, a long distance swimmer discusses the motivating effects of cakes and sweets vs energy drinks and sweetners whilst an introduction to the EC-funded project SWEET explores the risks and benefits of sugar replacements in European diets.

The efficacy of placebo 'sugar-pills' are a phenomenon that we still don't completely understand. What is the relationship between belief and healing? How do properties that we project or imagine onto a substance translate into physiological effects? Such questions are explored further in Hannah Drayson's article Don't sugar coat it.

Sugar Library
Imb Rzqtgy

Throughout my research with sugar I have been developing a Sugar Library, a material archive of the different forms of sugar. I presented this collection at the Institute of Making's open day under the theme Delight and Disgust, each sample of sugar in an apothecary bottle.  Visitors were invited to taste the different samples, to feel and explore the diverse textures and forms each type took.
I was amazed by how differently we each perceive the various forms of sugar, whether people were wary or enthusiastic about eating it, smiled or recoiled from the different flavours, what they compared the taste to, what memories it brought up. I witnessed the visible flood of childhood memories coming back to people as they tasted the sugars; spontaneous stories being shared about being allowed, denied or gifted sugar treats from China to India to the Caribbean, and the associated feelings of guilt, comfort or sadness.

The Sugar Library contained samples of the following:

This stiff syrup, golden and malty-flavoured is one of the oldest sugars used by humans, perhaps first in China and well before sucrose. It is refined by germinating or sprouting grains, usually barley or rice, and boiling and clarifying the mixture to remove water. It is still commonly used in china today for candies, and is used for the glossy lacquer on the famous Beijing Roast Duck. It is created naturally in our bodies as a product of digestion, and in the bodies of fruits, vegetables, insects and young mushrooms.

A traditional crystalline raw sugar from India and all over Asia, also known as Gur, Panela or Rapadura. Made by casting into terracotta forms as the stirred syrup crystallises, it comes in slabs, pucks or cones, or, as I saw once in a Jodhpur market, chipped off a magnificent person-sized jaggery mountain covered in wasps. As it is not centrifuged like refined sugars, the complex, grassy, acidic and caramelised characteristics of the boiled sugar cane or palm juice are evident on the tongue as it dissolves. Ayurvedic scriptures mention its medicinal use.

Single crystal sucrose
This is a single crystal of pure sucrose that has been allowed to slowly grow to about a centimetre. If you keep adding sugar to water, it will eventually become super-saturated - no more will dissolve. At that point you can drop a single sugar crystal into it which 'seeds' the solution, and the whole batch will start to re-crystallise, and the size of the crystals depends on if it's stirred to keep crystals small, or left untouched to form larger structures.

This is a sugar alcohol, not a true sugar, it's common in sugar free sweets and chewing gums. It's often made from birch trees, the name comes from Xylon: wood in Ancient Greek, but can also be made from the waste materials from growing grains. It tastes pleasant and sweet without the bitterness of other artificial sugars. It also has a strange coldness on the tongue, caused by the large amount of heat energy it uses to melt in your mouth. It contains zero calories available for us, but our gut microbes can get energy from it and go crazy digesting it. This, and its curious effect of drawing water through our digestive membranes, means too much in your gut is not a good idea.

Sodium saccharin, AKA benzoic sulfimide, is a zero calorie artificial sweetener famously discovered by accident, when a chemist put his cigarette back in his mouth after it had been on his lab-bench, and tasted its overwhelming sweetness. We might know it now under the brand-name Sweet n' Low. It was once notoriously thought to cause bladder cancer in high doses, and despite its widespread use since the 70s, was only removed from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hazardous additives list in 2001.

Sugar of lead
Also known as Salt of Saturn, this was the very first artificial sweetener, a material more than bittersweet, it is toxic. The Romans discovered that by reducing grape juice in a lead bowl, the acetic acid (vinegar) reacts with the oxidised lead to form lead acetate, grey vinegary crystals that taste tart and pleasantly sweet - perfect for improving bad wine. It's not known how widespread its use was but there are certainly speculations about lead consumption in the ruling classes of ancient Rome, and its contribution to the fall of the empire! It has also been blamed for the death of Pope Clement II and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Sugar Tasting

Refined sugar in its dormant state - a gem-like rock ready to be animated at any moment -  has an otherworldly character. However, on closer examination it is deeply embedded in our world, revealing horror, folly, duplicity and rot, but also a tenderness of material texture and associations of care. It provokes simple and more complex pleasures. It embodies the eroticism of an idealised femininity, both frosted cupcake proper and pretty, and oozingly lickably lusty. One moment it is sparkling iced perfection, hiding all sins, the next it degrades to an abject, sticky waspy mess.  Sugar's shifting shape allows it to enter into a multitude of associations, form and function pervading popular imagination and our physical bodies. Sugar's various associations, and the playfulness it embodies in our imaginations, is touched on in this edition in the illustration by Rob Bidder and my interview with performance artist Bobby Baker. As much as we know about sugar’s untrustworthiness, its corrupting influence, it still has the power to charm and comfort us when we need it to.

Ellie Doney

Ellie Doney is an artist and materials researcher, currently engaged in a practice-led PhD which explores how cooking and eating together can enable new knowledge across disciplines about embodiment and human-material ecologies. She is interested in how sugar's materiality manifests itself in and out of our bodies.