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The Anthropology of Food: Core and Fringe in Diet

Author(s): Sidney Mintz and Sharda Nayak


Source: India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2, FOOD CULTURE (JUNE 1985), pp.
193-204
Published by: India International Centre
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23001544 .
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LECTURE : FOODSUBSTANCE AND FLAVOUR

The Anthropology of Food: Core and Fringe in Diet*

Sidney Mintz

Introduction by Sharda Nayak

i1
have great pleasure in welcoming Dr. Sidney Mintz, today's speaker,
on behalf of the United States Educational Foundation in India, which
I have the honour to represent.

Dr. Mintz is headof the Department of Anthropology at Johns


Hopkins University. Before that, he taught for many years at Yale. His
favourite topic is aptly embodied in the title of his latest book :
"Sweetness and Power".

Sidney Mintz

Tonight I should like to bring together through my theme, Core and


Fringe, two remarkable changestransformationsone could almost
say revolutionsin the history of human nutrition; and to do so by
describing a central feature of the eating habits of the vast majority of
human beings, both alive and dead. In effect, this is a story which,
while primarily historical, has, I believe, important cultural or anthro
pological relevance.

As much as ten or twelve thousand years ago, the earlier success


of members of our species was in domesticating plants and animals.
The term "domestication", while commonly used, is rarely defined in
terms of its central feature: to gain control over the reproduction of
another living thing. Some ten to twelve thousand years ago, for the
first time, human beings began to gain control over the reproduction
of animals, and soon thereafter, we believe, over plants as well.

*This lecture was delivered at the India International Centre on January 8, 1S85

193

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194 SIDNEY MINTZ

From the point of view of the evolutionary success of our species,


its success in dominating the environment, the most important of such
domesticates, or cultigens, as they are sometimes called, were grain
foods and root foods. By mastering the characteristics of these
different sources of energy for their own bodies, they began delibera
tely to shape nature to their own ends; and they took a tremendous
step forwardtowards stable subsistence in the control of their own
environment. It was with domestication that settled human populations
first became realistically possible.

It is well
known that during the preceding millions of years of
human existence, the major patterns of life were hunting food and
gathering food, both animal and vegetable. Such patterns persisted,
and they persist even to this day: for instance, among the Eskimos of
the Polar north; among some of the Indian tribes of the tropical forests
of the New World; and even, I believe, among the primitive groups in
the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, we know of societies, so-called
pastoralists, shepherds or herderists, who exist largely on the pro
ducts on the meat, the milk and the blood of their
of their flocks:
animals. And we know of fishing peoples, peoples in Oceania and
on the north-west Pacific coast of the New World, who live mainly on
fish. These kind of adaptations preceded the invention of agriculture;
or accompanied it as minor forms, and, I shall try to show, followed

it, in a different form.

Most humansocieties have had at the centre of their diet a com


plex carbohydrateby which I mean a starch food. These people, who
lived primarily on meat or fish products, or by gathering, constitute
marginal or deviant cases; whereas those whose food intake tends to
be arranged around some cultivated starch food, represented a large
majority of all those human beings who ever lived.

Let me suggest some of the foods we would include in this list of


starches or, as they are called, complex carbohydrates: sorgum, rye,
raggy millet, rice, maize, wheat, barley, buckwheatthese are known
to most of you. On the other hand, there is an equally short list of so
called root crops or rhizomes, where we would include the so-calied
Irish potato (which actually was domesticated in the Highlands of
Peru), yam, cassava, sweet potatoes, taro, and the like.

Let me make a couple of general observations about these major


human foods. All these foods must be cooked before they can be
eaten which makes them different from most fresh vegetables, and
from fruits, generally. are seasonal foods
Secondly, they mostly

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF FOOD 195

which means they have specific planting periods and specific harvest
periods. Most of them have to be replanted yearly; you cannot simply
leave them in the ground as perennials and harvest them year by year.
(There are a few exceptions.) Thirdly, the root crops, such as potatoes,
on the one hand, and the grains and rice, on the other, are quite con
trasted in terms of the way they are planted, the way they are cared
for, and the way they are harvested.

As you know, almost all grains can be sown broad cast; maize is
a major exception. Roots, of course, are generally planted from cuttings
or slips, as they are called. And these differences in the character of
the crops have implications for the way the societies are organised, in
terms of cultivating, harvesting and preserving the crops when they
are picked.

Beyond these matters, it is interesting to notice that the


centrality of a particular foodsuch as wheat, maize, rice or potatoes
in the diet of a people is paralleled by its importance in the ritual, the
symbolic, and even the political life of the people who cultivate it. The
calendar of the food becomes, in some important ways, the ceremonial
calendar of the people who cultivate it. The first fruits become the
epitomy, the symbol, of birth and rebirth. The description of life itself
often becomes the description of the life of the plant.

In short, these particularly important plants become symbolic


vehicles, semantic vessels, for the expression of the human feelings
of those who cultivate them.

I don't need to tarry long on this association, but I think some


parts of it need to be noticed. The way human beings weave together
the concrete, material expressions of their existence, such as the
character of a plant and the science needed to cultivate it, and put that
together with the cognitive, the ideological, the aesthetic quality of the
human mind, is distinctively human. The dances of people may mimic
the movement of the plant as it grows. A woman's coiffure, her hair
do, may change from puberty to adulthood to symbolise the change
from one state to another. Death may be associated with the appea
rance of the plant when the plant dies.

So, in the course of life, the life of a people, the life of the plant
is invoked to express or dramatise the character of changes in the
course of mortality. The colour of the plant, its shape, its texture, its
reproductivity, is carried over into the ritual, the dance, the music, the
costumeand, indeed, the speech itself, of a culture. When you think

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196 SIDNEY MINTZ

about a society organised around wheat, or rice, or millet, you can


immediately see how this reflection is carried on in the aesthetic life
of the people.

But that is not my subject tonight. I want to deal with something


much more prosaic but, I hope, of interest. The inclination to treat
some one such major starch as the core of the diet can sometimes be
carried to unusual lengths. Other foodsflesh, fish, fowl, fruits, nuts,
vegetables, seasoningswhich may be nutritively essential, will also
be consumed. But the users of a central starch, such as wheat, will
usually view all those other foods as accompaniments. Even if neces
sary, they are additions to the major starch food.

One of the most eloquent describers of this relationship is the


British social anthropologist, only recently deceased, Audrey Richards.
Many years ago, half a century ago in fact, she expressed this contrast
between the central starch and the foods that accompany it, in two
historically important studies on a people in then Northern Rhodesia,
South Africa, called the Bemba. I quote from Richards' work because
I think it describes so well what I am trying to get at, with this idea
of a central starch. She writes:

For us it requires a reaf effort of imagination to visualise a state of society in


which food matters so much and from so many points of view, but this effort is
necessary if we are to understand the emotional background of Bemba ideas as
to diet. (These are the people called the Bemba.) To the Bemba, each meal, to
be satisfactory, has to be composed of two constituents: a thick porridge,
(which she calls ubwali in Bemba) made of millet, and the relish umunani of
vegetables, meat or fish, which is eaten with it. Ubwali is commonly translated
by 'porridge', but this is misleading. The hot water and meal are mixed in
proportion of three to two to make ubwali, and this produces a solid mass of
the consistency of plasticine, and quite unlike what we (meaning the English)
know as porridge. Ubwali is eaten in hunks, torn off in the hand, rolled into
balls, dipped in relish and bolted whole. Millet has already been described as
the main constituent of Bemba diet, but it is difficult for the European, accusto
med as he is to a larger variety of foodstuffs, to realise fully what a staple crop
can mean to a primitive people. To the Bemba, millet porridge is not only
necessary, it is the only constituent of his diet which actually ranks as food. I
have watched natives eating the roasted grain off four or five maize crops under
my very eyesonly to hear them shouting to their fellows later, "Alas, we are
dying of hunger! We have not had a bite to eat all day."

The importance of millet


porridge in native eyes is constantly reflected in
traditional utterance and
ritual. In proverb and folk tale the ubwali stands for
food itself. When discussing his kinship obligations, the native will say, "How
can a man refuse to help his mother's brother, who has given him ubwali all
these years?" Or: "Is he not her son? How should she refuse to make him
ubwali?"

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF FOOD 197

And yet, Richards learnt that ubwali, this coarse millet porridge,
cannot stand alone, even if it is the very substance and the only subs
tance that the Bemba call food. So she goes on:

But the native, while he declares he cannot live


ubwali,without
is equally
emphatic that he cannot eat porridge without a relish,
umunani, usually in the
form of a liquid stew. The term umunani is applied to stews: meat, fish,
caterpillars, locusts, ants, vegetables, wild and cultivated mushrooms, and so
onprepared to eat with porridge.

The functions of the relish are two. First, to make the ubwali easier to swallow,
and second, to give it taste. A lump of porridge is glutinous, and also gritty, the
latter not only owing to the flour of which it is made, but to the extraneous
matter mixed in with it on the grindstone. It needs a coating of something
slippery to make it slide down the throat. Dipping the porrridge in a liquid stew
makes it easier to swallow.

Thus the use of umunani which, to European eyes, adds valuable constituents
to the diet, is defended by the native on the ground that it overcomes the purely
mechanical of getting the
difficulty food down the throat. The Bemba himself
explains that the sauce is not food.

I think you're beginning to understand the idea projected. Here,


in this great pioneering monograph on the Anthropology of Food by,
I might say, a much under-appreciated scholar, we have an eloquent
introduction to the subject of Core and Fringe.

I have already noted that some important part of the expressive,


the ideological life of a people can revolve around a single starch or
complex carbohydrate, such as raggy millet, which is their principal
food. But as we have seen, it cannot stand alone, no matter how it is
prized. I think any of us here who has tried to eat two or three full
plates of completely unadorned rice or raggy millet knows what 1
mean when I say that there has to be fringe. It does not matter what
the equivalent of ubwali is. For some of us it is the maize tortilla of
Mexico. For others, the tao of the Pacific Islands. For yet others, it's
potatoes. It may be bread. It may be manya cakes. But whatever your
ubwali, you always want to have your umunani with it. In each such
case, there is a kind of 'flavour principle', as Elizabeth and Paul Rosen
have put it. So that we notice in South-East Asia the fermented fish
paste called 'morkman'. Or in the case of India and West Africa and
parts of China, the role of chilli peppers. Or in the case of the Hispanic
Americas, what is called sofrito. In each such case, we find a kind of
flavoured accompaniment.

Flavour in itself is not enough. In addition there must be sub


stance. The contrast between the central core complex carbohydrate,

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198 SIDNEY MINTZ

starch, and the fringe, is always dramatic, always sharp. I recall a


friend from Ireland who said that the major food of the Irish people
was, of course, potatoesbut that you always ate it with 'point'. I
asked what 'point' was. And he said, "Well, I'll tell you. We didn't
frequently have food to go along with the potatoes, so we would take
a piece of salt pork and tie it on a string, and hang it over the table. You
stuck your fork in the potato and you pointed it at the salt pork, and
you ate the potato." (Laughter)

In my own background the central starch was black bread. My


parents were from Eastern Europe. The way that you ate black bread
wasyou cut yourself a very thick slice, buttered it with chicken fat,
spread coarse salt on it, and finally rubbed a raw clove of garlic over
it. This way you could eat about three times as much black bread as
you might have been able to eat otherwise.

There are scores of local variants. No one eats spaghetti without


something on it. Pasta commonly goes at least with oil and a bit of
grated cheese and garlic. So it doesn't matter whether it's cornmeal
or koos-koos or bulgar or millet or yamthough of course to the
particular society in question it matters tremendously. Try to convince
the Russians they should eat rice instead of black bread, or the
Chinese that they should eat black bread instead of rice, and you see
how much it matters. But it matters not from the point of view of the
centre; there is always then a fringe.

Now what of the fringe? These fringes are not ordinarily con
sumed in large quantities. They are hardly ever consumed in quanti
ties equal to those of the starches. And, in fact, if you say to the
eaters of these kinds of diets, whether it be rice, or raggy millet, or
whatever, "How would you like to have a meal consisting entirely of
fringe?" the very idea is likely to be nauseating. People don't think of
that as food way. You do see an increase in the fringe
in the same
on festive occasionsand that's the way you know it's a festive occa
sion; usually at such times you increase the proportion of the fringe to
the centre.

The taste and the texture of the fringe usually contrast noticeably
with the smoothness or grittiness or blandness or dryness of the
cooked starch. They are usually blendable substances that can be
eaten when the starch is eaten; they go with it. Commonly, they are
liquid or semi-liquid or soluble. Often they are oily. And small quanti
ties of these supplements will change the character of substantial
quantities of liquid. And then, if the solid food is ladled into them,

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF FOOD 199

you have a complete meal. Anyone who has eaten a Chinese mea!
and discovered towards the end that he still has lots of rice and only
a bit of sauce knows that the sauce can be spread very far over the
rice. That's the contrast between fringe and core.

These supplemental foods generally contain ingredients that we


find unusual, even if we eat them. They can be sun-dried, or fermented,
or cured, or salted, or smoked. Sometimes they're partly putrefied:
certain kinds of fish paste, certain kinds of cheese are semi-rotten.
They have a taste that contrasts with the starch, and they have a
manufacture that is likely to contrast with the starch. They can be
fish, or flesh, or fowl, or insect. Sometimes they're grasses, such as
watercress, or chives, or mint, or seaweed. They can be lichens or
mushrooms, or other kinds of fungi. They can be dried spices. They
can be fruits, sometimes fresh, sometimes preserved. And commonly,
they sting; burn; intensify thirst; stimulate salivation; cause tearing;
or irritate the mucus membranes. They can be bitter, sour, salty, or
sweet. They usually taste very different, and they often smell very
different from the starch itself. And there is absolutely no doubt that
they greatly increase the consumption of the core, that they are what
makes it possible to live, as it were, on the core.

I'd like to return now to my earlier comments on highly-contrasted


diets: these marginal hunters and gatherers in the early episodes of
our history of the human being; the shepherds or pastoralists or dairy
ing peoples; and, on the other hand, the diet of what are today the
most privileged segments of the Western world, where the diet is not
very heavy in oils and meat.

The hunters and gatherers have been with us since the beginning
of human society. But the heavy meat-eating patterns characteristic of
modern United States, or Australia, or Argentina, are actually quite
different from those early patterns; and not simply because those who
do the eating are not the ones who do the hunting or the raising.

II

My argument is that these new patterns, heavy meat patterns of the


West, are only a couple of centuries old at the most. They originated
with the privileged ruling groups or classes of the societies in which
they are found. In fact, they percolated downward in a very slow
fashion.

To tell this part of the story, I need to turn back to Europe,

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200 SIDNEY MINTZ

Europe of about the mid-seventeenth century. At that period, in


Western European society, the diet characteristically was of the sort
I have already described: a central starch available generally not in
sufficient quantity, with a tiny fringe of contrasted tastes. In this
sense, Europe in the seventeenth century did not differ substantially
from most of the world at that timeor, for that matter, from most of
the world today. I am not an authority on the food of seventeenth
century England, but I have tried to find out what the diet was like at
that time, and there was this same principal dependence on starchy
foods: wheat, if possible; oats or rye or barley when wheat was not
available. Privation was common and, though rare, famines did occur.
Brian Murphy, an economic historian of England, says that between
the end of the fifteenth century and the middle of the seventeenth
around 1650one year in five was a bad year; people didn't have
enough to eat and there was some starvation.

In the next 75 years, from 1650 up to 1725, there was one bad year
in four, when the British people did not have enough food. So the
period from about 1500 until the early decades of the eighteenth
century were not years of food plenty in Western Europe. And the
central component of the diet was starch, particularly wheat.

It is my contention that the most important changes in the


nutrition of ordinary people, beginning around 1650, were not on the
gradually increasing quantities of either starches or other foods, but
by a somewhat surprising alteration that originated in the expanding
mercantile role of Great Britain and the West in world commerce. In
other words, our notion of a gradually increasing consumption of
high protein foods, which is the notion of an improving standard of
living, does not, 1 think, accurately reflect what happened in Western
Europe between 1650 and, say, 1900.

From 1650 onwards a whole class of special foreign foods, some


that were slightly known before, others that were diffused by the Age
of Exploration beginning in the fifteenth century, came to play a role
in this second transformation of nutrition. Let me mention what I
regard as the main foods in my story, which were responsible for this
change.

First of all, the caffeine stimulantscoffee, tea and chocolate


unknown in Western Europe before the middle of the seventeenth
century; all of limited nutritive value; all of them stimulants. And, I
might add (because it will come up again), all of them commonly
consumed hot, in hot liquids.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF FOOD 201

Secondly, tobacco. Now of course tobacco is not a food. But it


is a substance that basically affects appetite. It can be chewed; the
juice can be swallowed; it can be taken as snuff; it can be smoked.
And it is an appetite-suppressant.

Thirdly, a number of new alcoholic beverages, including gin, but


from my point of the story and, in particular, rum.

And finally, sugar. That is, in the technical term, sucrosethe


sugar extracted from palm and from beet, but most of all from cane,
cane-sugar; the sugar that chemically is Ci2H220u the sugar that is
commonly referred to as a simple carbohydrate in contrast to the gra in
and roots foods which are complex carbohydrates.

These exotic introductions entered European taste primarily via


the privileged classes and royalty. Sugar was known in Europe from
at least the eighth century; the written records show that it was
reaching England in the twelfth century; it was used as a spice, as a
preservative, as a medicine, and otherwise. But it was a luxury; in the
thirteenth century it was worth more than its weight in silver: a pound
of sugar cost more than a pound sterling. And in the year 1226, in the
early part of the thirteenth century, we have a letter from Henry III to the
Mayor of WinchesterWinchester was the centre of big international
fairsin which the king says: "Would you please obtain for me three
pounds of sugarif so much can be had at one time." That rings
strangely, I'm sure, on Indian ears, where sugar is almost 2000 years
old. But in the case of Western Europe, sugar was exotic, a luxury.

For the next four centuries, though the use of sugar by royalty
and by the privileged classes of Western Europe increased vertiginou
sly, the absolute quantities involved were still very small. Only from
1650 onwards, when England begins to produce these various com
modities within her own colonies, does sugar consumption reach a
take-off. In Great Britain, the consumption of sugar increased 400 per
cent in the last four decades of the seventeenth century. It increased
again 300 per cent between 1700 and 1740. It doubled between 1740
and 1770.

One authority has it that between 1663 and 1775, slightly more
than a century, while the population of Britain rose from about 4
millions to about millions (less than double), the consumption of
sugar probably increased twentyfold. After the eighteenth century,
these increases were every bit as staggering. By the mid-nineteenth
century, all Britons had become big sugar consumers, and the per

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202 SIDNEY MINTZ

capita consumption of sugar continued to rise until World War I and


after. When Lord John Boyd Orr wrote his book on British Nutrition in
the 1930s, he indicated that the most important change in British
nutrition thennot 1650, not 1750, but in 1930had been the fivefold
increase in sugar consumption.

There is another datum I should bring in on this story of sugar,


and it has to do with who consumed the sugar. As I've indicated, in
1650 it was mostly the privileged classes. But in subsequent centuries
this food descended, as it were, to more and more people in ever
larger quantities. The data is incomplete and the research is continu
ing, but what we do know is extremely interesting, The consumption of
meat in working families in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth
century was primarily by fathers, whereas the consumption of sugar
was primarily by mothers and children. So that within the family we
must also notice a curious distinction. To quote Dr. Edwin Smith, a
nutritionist writing in 1863:

The important practical fact is, however, well established, that the labourer eats
meat and bacon almost daily, while his wife and chiidren may eat it but once a

week, and that both he and his household believe that to be necessary to enable
him to perform his labour.

Mrs. Pember-Reeves, a very careful observer of diet, in her book


"Round about a Pound a Week" writes:

Meat is bought for men, and the chief expenditure is made In preparation for

Sunday's dinner, when the man is at home. It is eaten cold by him the next day.

So what we notice about this shifting nutrition in the British working


family is that while sugar increases markedly over this period of several
centuries, the people who eat it are mostly women and children; and
that though there is some increase in meat consumption the meat is
consumed primarily by adult males.

Now in what form is the sugar consumed? Some of you may know
the English word treacle, which is the equivalent of the American
word, molasses. Treacle was consumed in puddings, and on bread,
and in various kinds of baked sweets as well; also in drinks. The
major form in which it came to be sold in the nineteenth century was
a Tate & Lyle product called "Golden Syrup". Golden syrup is sold
as if it were honey; in fact on the can there is a depiction of a Biblical
scene with bees on it. But the bees have nothing to do with golden
syrup: golden syrup is plain sugar syrup, completely unrelated to

honey.

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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF FOOD 203

Another form, of course, was in condensed milk. The proletarian


pudding of Britain was a can of condensed milk boiled until the
substance within gelled.

Jams were extremely important; particularly when women went


out to work and no longer baked bread. The British began to eat bread
baked in stores and sold; and jam became a perfect substitute for
butter which was more expensive. Jam was known as an important
food because the more of it you put on the bread, the more bread the
children would consume.

We have here the various uses of sugar, and its role in modernity;
that is, getting women out of the home and into the factory was
accompanied by new kinds of quick or convenience foods. As early as
the middle of the nineteenth century, we have a harbinger of the pre
sent. What has this to do with Core and Fringe? My contention is that
the first serious alteration of the ancient Core-Fringe relationship in
the diet of stable, agricultural, western societies, such as Britain and
the Netherlands, was not by gradual increases in high-protein foods,
but by the substantial addition of sugars and soon thereafter of fats,
particularly margarine. Indeed, the world picture for the last century
has shown steadily contracting complex carbohydrates, steadily ex
panding fats and sugars.

Sugar and fats are particularly attractive because they shorten the
time of food preparation, especially when women are working outside
the home; because they impart richness, the sensation of richness to
food. (This is of course expressed in American fast food all the time:
we use words like "flnger-lickin' good";-'the variety of American des
criptive terminology for foods that have been deep-fried and that often
carry sugar in their batter.) And also because they provide what, for
lack of a better word, I shall call "heat". In part I mean temperature,
but not just temperature. When one thinks of the remarkable combi
nation of tea, imported from India after the middle of the nineteenth
century, on the one hand, and sugar, imported from the West Indian
colonies worked with slave labour, on the other, and thinks about
this as the major proletarian drink, one sees that, among other
things, it gives to a loaf of cold bread the aspect of a hot meal. These
foods give heat not just in the sense of temperature, but also in the
sense of transforming the food into a more agreeable package.

I am arguing that in the beginning and middle of the nineteenth

century, and as a consequence of changes that began several centuries


earlier, a second revolution in nutrition had begun to occur, now

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204 SIDNEY MINTZ

moving people away from the ancient Core-Fringe equilibrium toward


a new pattern of modernity.

To conclude, I would like to make a few remarks about American


nutrition at the present time, because 1 think that we see there a kind
of ultimate development of this pattern probably to be followed by
yet another.

Today, Americans are consuming, in total, if we allow poundage


for the use of artificial sweeteners (that is to say, for cyclamates, for
saccharine and for pheno-avalin), if we equate their consumption with
pounds of sweetness rather than the tiny mini-ounces that we con
sume of those things, the total sweetness consumption per capita in
the United States stands at about 135 pounds per year, per person.
About a third of a pound per person per day.

Much of this sugar is contained in prepared food. And much of it


does not taste sweet. Americans among you may know a food called
"Shake-and-Bake" which is a powdered substance used to bread
meats when cooking them. "Shake-and Bake" is 52 per cent sucrose.
Sugar appears, of course, in American ketchup as an important
ingredient; in salad dressing; and, for that matter, 1 per cent sugar
appears in salt because it is supposed to keep it from hardening,
concretising. Sugar is also used in bread to extend shelf life. If any of
you have flown in American 'planes where you are served with your
coffee a substance called "coffee whitener"you will, on reading it,
discover that it consists mostly of sugar.

This is how sugar has penetrated at least the American diet very
significantly. It is doing the same in many other developed countries
of the West. Had I the time and the knowledge, I would like to contrast
this with the pattern of sugar consumption in India, which is far
older; and surprising though it may seem, the Indians plainly consume
far less sugar than the Americans, even though they are the world's
biggest sugar producers. But I shall leave that for another day.

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