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  • Sugar and Modernity in Latin America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives ed. by Vinicius de Carvalho, Susanne Hojlund, Per Bendix Jeppessen, and Karen-Margrethe Simonsen
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci
Sugar and Modernity in Latin America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Vinicius de Carvalho, Susanne Hojlund, Per Bendix Jeppessen, and Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, (editors). Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2014, 172 pages, $29.00 USD or 200 Danish KKR, paperback. ISBN 978-87-7124-110-5.

This book offers a broad view about the production, consumption, and cultural adaptation of sugar as a window to broader issues of agricultural history, industrial capitalism, and the yoke of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. While many works claim to be collaborative, this work – drawing on professionals in the medical sciences, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and agricultural sciences – weaves a unique thread through the fabric of Latin American history in a way that is understandable to a broad readership as well as the veteran scholar.

This agricultural history of sugar production over nearly half a millennium shows that the consumption of this global commodity has gone from a symbol of social class and prestige to one that represents underdevelopment and diminished social standing. The book’s breadth is significant, and ranges from the ever-important issue of adult Type-2 Diabetes (T2D), the poetry of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, the prose of Brazilian José Lins do Rego, the cultural insights of Fernando Ortíz and Gilberto Freyre, and the humanistic insights Jefferson, Kant, and Locke, to the ways sugar has become an integral part of consumer culture in Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.

The eight Denmark-based authors do this with a writing style that will engage scholars and the general public. This is no small task for intellectuals whose native tongue is not English, yet whose native shores are lapped by the Gulf Stream waters that also nurture sugar cultivation thousands of miles away.

Sugar and Modernity in Latin America reminds us that this Old World crop has transformed the Americas in deep ways, and its agricultural history is still being written. C12H22O11 has been harvested (half is still done manually), crushed, boiled, and processed in ways that have left its mark globally. Sugar substitutes, the authors argue, may just be ‘old wine in a new bottle;’ the lingering effects of fatty livers, hypertension, and insulin resistance will not disappear any time soon.

Four major sections structure the eight chapters of this work. Part one, “The Problem of Health,” poses the question about whether health status in Latin America is correlated with sugar consumption. Bendix Jeppesen argues that the inclusion of more stevia (a sugar sweetener) in food production should help lower postprandial blood glucose and total energy intake. Herein lies what he calls part of the ‘second’ sugar revolution: a rise in other sugar- or sugar-like derivatives.

Part Two, “The Preference for Sweetness,” draws on the natural sciences and cultural anthropology in conceptualizing and operationalizing the allure of sugar. Kidmose and Kildegaard show that eating habits, gender and age shape how users perceive sugar’s appeal. Anthropologist Susanne Hojlund in chapter three examines the cultural traditions, history, and local nuances that affect sugar consumption in Cuba. Her analysis shows that even though the island’s per capita sugar consumption peaked in 1991, the nation, [End Page 211] somewhat counter-intuitively, also registered a decline in life-style diseases associated with sedentary, modern living.

Sociologist Ken Henriksen next shifts the scale of analysis to “glocalized practices” of sugar in a case study of Chamula, Mexico. He examines the market economies and religious practices involving Coca-Cola. He tells us that Mexicans consumed an average of 225 liters of the beverage in 2008, in part because of a rise in purchasing power and expendable income. But Henriksen is quick to dismiss this as a mere extension of the Americanization of consumption; instead, he casts Coca-Cola as “a meta-symbol or a meta-commodity, which operates ‘through a powerful expressive and emotive foundation’ (Miller 2005: 55)” (p. 100). The author draws on the works of anthropologist Sidney Mintz, urban geographer David Harvey and others to illustrate how sugar, Coca-Cola, and consumption retain “the...