Re-naturalizing sugar: narratives of place, production and ...

Re-naturalizing sugar: narratives of place, production and ...

Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2003

Re-naturalizing sugar: narratives of place, production

and consumption

Gail M. Hollander

Department of International Relations and Geography, Florida International University,

University Park Campus, Miami, FL 33199, USA


This article analyses the inter-relationships among food consumption practices, marketers’

representations of sugar, and the history and political economy of sugar production. It

focuses on the ‘supermarket narratives’—stories regarding place and production that

appear on commodity packaging—used to market sugar in the USA. It explores how

competition within the sweetener industry, as shaped by the material qualities of sweeteners,

has given rise to supermarket narratives that seek to differentiate sugars on the basis

of ideas of place, freshness and environmental sustainability. It also examines how, at the

same time, sweetener users have co-operated to maintain and increase consumption in the

USA. The article begins with a discussion of historical patterns of sweetener consumption

in the USA, and then looks at the genesis of the primary sugar industry lobbying

organization. The case study of Florida sugar producers is used to demonstrate the

historical antecedents of supermarket narratives and the contemporary geographical

specificity of the political economy underlying supermarket narratives.

Key words: sugar, Florida, food system, political economy of consumption.

Food that comes with a story … represents a not-soimplicit

challenge to every other product in the

supermarket that dares not narrate its path from

farm to table. (Pollan 2001: 11)

A central concern of food system theory has

been to reveal causal linkages among the social

relations of production and consumption in

diverse geographic regions. Harriet Friedmann

(1978, 1982, 1990, 1993) developed a critique of

the current food regime that sought alternatives—in

terms of scale and substance—to the

ISSN 1464-9365 print/ISSN 1470-1197 online/03/010059–16 © 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd

DOI: 10.1080/1464936032000049315

global food system. Food system theory has

proceeded apace over the last quarter century,

building on these two inter-related themes:

revealing the complex interconnections within

the food system and highlighting trends that

portend alternatives or resistance to it. On the

one hand, scholars attend to transformations

abetted by enabling technologies—for example,

cool chains—that have ‘freshened’ the firstworld

food system, often with deleterious

impacts on food security in producer countries.

On the other, much work has focused on production

that seems to challenge the dominant

food system, such as organics, community-sup-

60 Gail M. Hollander

ported agriculture and quality labelling. One

common thread that both identify is a trend in

the ‘North’ toward freshness and more healthful

diets (Arce 1997; Arce and Marsden 1993;

Cone and Myhre 2000; Cook 1994; Friedland

1994; Morris and Young 2000; Murdoch,

Marsden and Banks 2000).

What has been less remarked on is the persistence

of unhealthful consumption within the

USA, specifically with regard to the per capita

consumption of sugars. That, on average,

North Americans consume 760 calories per day

of added sugars suggests that the ‘shift from

diets based on durable foods and meats’ (Friedland

1994: 210) has been prematurely heralded

and incomplete. Between 1970 and 1997, coinciding

with a 24 per cent increase in consumption

of fruits and vegetables was a 26 per cent

increase in caloric sweetener consumption (Putnam

and Allshouse 1998). 1 Concomitant with

this consumption shift are increasing rates of

obesity, diabetes and corporate investment in

insulin manufacture (Brody 1998; Critser 2000;

Kolata 2000; Nestle 2002).

Accompanying changes in the food system

are changes in advertising and marketing

strategies, captured by the term, ‘supermarket

narratives’, which are ‘stories about the “means

of production”’ that attempt to lend transparency

in a ‘troubled and opaque … food system’

(Pollan 2001: 11). Supermarket narratives—the

stories regarding place and production that

appear on product packaging—are a particular

form of ‘liberation marketing’, the selling of

commodities ‘as an expression of the consumer’s

sense of social justice, environmental

consciousness, or moral virtue’ (Pollan 2001:

11). Commenting on this, Arce and Marsden

note, ‘information about the production and

content of green commodities in supermarkets

has created a new cultural landscape’ (1993:


Supermarket narratives can be seen as a

response to the globalization of production

systems and consumption relations. Globalization

has given currency to the question of ‘what

space hides’, that is, ‘the mysteries of things

unknown because done by others or misunderstood

because known only by others’ (Sayer

and Walker 1992: 5). The dilemma is that ‘if

we consider it right and proper to show moral

concern for those who help put dinner on the

table, then this implies an extension of moral

responsibility through the whole intricate

geography and sociality of intersecting markets’

(Harvey 1990: 423). However, invoking

issues of morality while space continues to hide

production from consumers creates a premium

for putatively ethically produced goods that is

otherwise unrelated to production costs. Marketing

strategies that purport to reveal the

social, moral and ecological relations of production

in hidden spaces speak to and profit

from consumers’ imagined geographies, in a

process Cook and Crang call “‘double” commodity


that on the one hand limits consumers’ knowledge

about the spatially distanciated systems of provision

through which food commodities come to us; but,

on the other, and at the same time, also puts an

increased emphasis on geographical knowledges

about those widely sourced food commodities.

These geographical knowledges—based in the cultural

meanings of places and spaces—are then

deployed in order to ‘re-enchant’ (food) commodities

and to differentiate them from the devalued functionality

and homogeneity of standardized products,

tastes and places. (1996: 132)

The examples of marketing strategies that

deploy geographical knowledges while emphasizing

freshness, environmental ‘friendliness’

and social justice are numerous and seemingly

increasing. Sugar, as this paper explores, is no

exception to this trend.

Not only does the case of sugar provide a

contemporary example of double commodity

fetishism, but it also illustrates that the process

has historical antecedents. The marketing of

sugar has been founded for centuries on moralistic

narratives and geographic knowledges.

Sugar was the first mass-consumed commodity

produced at a distance from consumers and

has long raised moral questions for consumers,

first with regard to slavery. An early example

of liberation marketing was sugar bowls distributed

in the 1820s by the East India Company

inscribed: ‘East India Sugar Not Made by

Slaves’ (Deerr 1950: Plate XXII). Similarly, in

the 1830s, consumption of beet sugar—a

European product cultivated by serfs—was

promoted as ‘the product of white and free

labor’ (Williams 1984 (1970): 388). Sugar, then,

raises questions both about the ‘newness’ of

market narratives and the need to provide

some historical depth to the idea of double

commodity fetishism.

In addition to its importance for understanding

the historical context of supermarket

narratives, sugar is also important for understanding

the contemporary food system. The

US food system is structured around durable,

value-added foods of which caloric sweeteners

are a central, often unrecognized, component.

Much as space hides the social relations of

production, processed food conceals both the

individual components of which it is comprised

and, for a time, biophysical impacts on

consumers’ bodies. A US Department of Agriculture

(USDA) publication warns:

Sugar is ubiquitous and often hidden. In a sense,

sugar is the number one food additive. It turns up in

some unlikely places, such as pizza, bread, hot dogs,

boxed mixed rice, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce,

lunch meat, canned vegetables, fruit drinks, flavored

yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, and

peanut butter. (Putnam 1999: 12)

Re-naturalizing sugar 61

This ‘hidden’ aspect of sugars reflects the

change in the destination of processed sugars

that accompanied the development of the durable

food system. Whereas in 1909, most sugar

was used in home consumption, by 1999 less

than a quarter was. Sugar sourcing has shifted

dramatically as well, with the establishment of

commercial high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

production in the USA in 1967. In 1970,

sucrose (cane and beet sugar) and corn sweeteners

(corn syrup and HFCS) accounted,

respectively, for 83 per cent and 16 per cent of

total caloric sweetener use. The corresponding

figures for 1997 were 43 per cent and 56 per

cent (Putnam and Allshouse 1998). The impact

on sucrose producers was mitigated because

this shift occurred in an expanding sweetener

market, enlarged not only by population

growth but also through an increase in annual

per capita consumption from 120 pounds in

1970 to 158 pounds in 1999.

The US sweetener industry today is based on

multiple sources and regions, including domestic

cane from Florida, Hawaii, Texas and

Louisiana, overseas cane suppliers, beets from

over a dozen US states, and corn sweeteners

from the Midwest. Producers compete for market

share while simultaneously finding collective

interest in maintaining and increasing

overall sweetener consumption. As this paper

illustrates, competition is often based in the

geography of global production, with the

various regional production complexes

vying for position. Supermarket narratives

reflect not only consumer preferences, but

are also one expression of the intense competition

among sweetener producers. Underlying

the supermarket narrative depicting sugar as

fresh, natural and healthful is a complex system

of production with vested interests in

specific places and production practices. Interpreting

the narratives deployed to market

sugar requires that we examine the geography

62 Gail M. Hollander

and political economy of commodity production.

Recent literature on the culture of consumption

exaggerates the power of consumer choice

in shaping the market and overlooks the role of

the state in mediating the linkages between

production and consumption. Miller, for example,

posits the ‘First World housewife’ as ‘global

dictator in recognition of the sheer

authority that the collective decision-making,

which she stands for, now exercises’ (Miller

1995: 34). ‘She’ not only determines the fate of

developing countries, but also ‘commands the

progressive activity by which consumption is

used to extract culture as the self-construction

of humanity’ (1995: 34). For several reasons,

Miller’s characterization is insufficient for theorizing

food consumption practices. First, his

desire to shift attention from bureaucracy and

market leads him to underestimate the role of

the state in shaping the terrain in which consumer

choice occurs. Information about food

commodities is filtered through dietary advice

that is regulated and promulgated by the state.

Second, though his ‘housewife’ practises ‘thrift’

on behalf of her household, his analysis posits

a lone adult consumer and fails to conceptualize

the multiple, changing and relational identities

of consumers. For example, in the case of

food, children are key consumers and the

explicit target of marketing (Nestle 2002;

Schlosser 2001).

The politics of food consumption are shaped

by numerous contradictions, among producers,

between the state and producers, within and

between state agencies, and in consumer behaviour.

Mintz poses several ‘contradictions’ in US

food consumption habits, of which two are of

particular relevance here. The first is found at

the level of the individual, ‘the oscillation

between Baskin Robbins and the jogging track’

(Mintz 2002: 31). The second is at the level of

the state: the struggle between the obligation to

protect citizens from harm and the political

risk of restricting freedom of choice in consumption

(Mintz 2002). More specifically, the

bureaucratic structure of the state can produce

contradictions between and within agencies. As

Nestle explains, there is a ‘conflict of interest

created by the USDA’s dual mandate to protect

agriculture and to advise the public about diet

and health’ (Nestle 2002: 53). The marketing of

food products represents a special case of consumer

‘choice’ as decisions are made in the

context of the active and integral role of the

state from the point of production to the point

of consumption. Moreover, industry lobbyists

directly influence and advise the state agencies

that purportedly provide objective, scientifically

based dietary advice.

My purpose is to explore the inter-relationships

among food consumption practices, marketers’

representations of sugar, and the history

and political economy of US sugar production.

I trace these inter-relationships by focusing on

one sector of the sweetener industry, Florida

sugarcane producers. This article represents

part of a larger study of the historical transformation

of the Florida Everglades for sugar

production and the contemporary agroenvironmental

conflict over restoration of the ecosystem

(Hollander 1995, 1999). The analysis

begins by documenting the increase in US per

capita sugar consumption. It then focuses on

the threat of the Second World War rationing

as perceived by producers. This marks the birth

of a sugar industry lobbying arm, intent on,

first, countering state nutrition advice, and,

ultimately, increasing consumption. The next

section explores the fragmented and conflicting

interests within the sweetener industry by concentrating

on Florida cane producers’ lobbying

and propaganda efforts. The final section

moves to the present day with the objective of

relating Florida sugar producers’ supermarket

narratives to the sweetener industry’s lobbying

and propaganda efforts and, ultimately, to the

politics of food in general.

The ascent to a national sugar high

Sidney Mintz has detailed the spectacular

increase in sugar consumption in Britain over

the course of the industrial revolution, as

sugar-laden caffeinated beverages became ‘proletarian

hunger killers’ (Mintz 1985). The first

luxury item to become mass-produced, widely

consumed and globally sourced, sugar had a

distinctive role in commodification and the culture

of consumption (Fine, Heaseman and

Wright 1996; Mintz 1985, 1996). From 1830

until 1930, annual US sugar consumption per

capita increased from 12 to 110 pounds (Ayala

1999). At the beginning of the nineteenth century,

refining technology was crude, quality

varied geographically and prices were high relative

to wages. Between 1830 and 1850, technical

advancements in refining reduced the turnover

time of capital and the risk of failed batches,

homogenized the product and reduced the price

(Eichner 1969). In 1887, with the consolidation

of eight refining corporations, the Sugar Trust

was formed. Sugar refining—at the centre of

legal battles over corporate form—then underwent

a transition from monopoly to oligopoly

following the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890

(Eichner 1969).

Sugar refiners used their political clout to

maintain high tariffs on refined sugars and low

tariffs on raw, a difference critical to their

margin of profit. Tariff structure, in turn,

shaped the material qualities of the US sugar

market. Harvey W. Wiley, USDA Chief Chemist,

lamented: ‘In London, a yellow, crystal

cane-sugar is much in demand for table

use … These unrefined sugars, so desirable and

palatable … might be brought into more general

use, except for the differential duty, which

Re-naturalizing sugar 63

tends to exclude them from our markets’

(Wiley 1898: 694). In addition, the establishment

and expansion of sugar beet production

tilted the US market further toward refined

white sugar. While the final product of beet

and cane industries is identical, in raw form the

sugars differ. Whereas the taste and odour of

raw beet sugar are ‘very persistent and repulsive’,

raw cane sugar ‘has a most a most agreeable

flavor’ (Crampton 1899: 281).

Though sugar refiners were not particularly

interested in domestic sourcing of raw sugars,

much of the rest of the country was. Because

sugar was the only food ‘staple’ imported to

the USA, the USDA researched and promoted

beet and cane cultivation within the USA (Fox

1980). With the incentive of bounties, beet

production in the US West expanded in the

1890s. Then, in 1898, the geography of US

sugar sourcing was transformed when, ‘with

the acquisition of new territory following the

Spanish-American War, the protective principle

was applied over an increasingly larger area

and our new sugar policy recast the economic

physiognomy of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba,

and the Philippine Islands’ (Dalton 1937: 39).

After 1898, sugar production was the primary

locus of US capitalist investment in the Spanish

Caribbean, and sugar became the principal

export (Ayala 1999). Thus, at the turn of the

twentieth century the US sugar system was

comprised of geographically diverse sources

and divergent interests, among them western

beet growers and processors, metropolitan cane

sugar refiners, and mainland and offshore cane


Much as Mintz (1985) delineated for Britain,

increases in supply were met by increases in

demand, feeding Americans’ seemingly

‘insatiable appetite’ (Tucker 2000) for sugar.

The increasing affordability of sugar explains

some, but not all of the increase in consumption.

The doubling of per capita consumption

64 Gail M. Hollander

between 1890 and 1930, from 54 to 110 pounds,

was not merely due to price reduction but also

to changes in the role of sugar, materially and

symbolically, in the food system. A primary

force shaping ideas of food in the USA was the

domestic science movement, which followed

the teachings of W. O. Atwater. Credited with

initiating the first American ‘scientific’ study of

foods and digestion, Atwater, a chemist, was

appointed to head the federal Office of Experiment

Stations (Shapiro 1986). Atwater recommended

that hard-working Americans should

consume more calories than their European

counterparts (Nestle 2002). Turn-of-thecentury

domestic scientists, influenced by his

teachings, saw ‘fruits and vegetables as luxury

items and admired the way fats and sugars

packed a large number of calories into a small

amount of food’ (Shapiro 1986: 76). Two of his

daughters were prominent in the field of home

economics. Helen Atwater, editor of the Journal

of Home Economics, published the writings

of her sister Ruth Atwater, a professor of home

economics who was hired by the National

Association of Canners in 1927. Ruth assured

readers that ‘research has shown conclusively

that commercially canned foods have … added

energy value due to the presence of sugar

syrups …’ (quoted in Levenstein 1993: 15).

Thus, sugar entered the diet not only in

desserts and sweetened beverages, but also as a

component of the industrializing food system

promoted by food processors through the educational

messages of domestic scientists. 2

The First World War brought the federal

government and the oligopolistic refining

industry into close co-ordination, when the

sugar industry was mobilized with the passage

of the Food Control Act. At the outset of the

war, Cuba supplied half the sugar consumed in

the USA. When Great Britain also turned to

Cuba for wartime sugar, the USA, UK, France

and Italy negotiated to buy the entire Cuban

crop at a fixed price. When price controls were

lifted at the end of the war, sugar prices spiked

and then dropped, ushering in a period of

depression and deflation. The US response—

like the UK, Australia, and others—was to

enact protectionist policies that stimulated

expansion of domestic sugar crops at a time of

a global sugar glut and record low prices. A

decade later, President Franklin Roosevelt

sought a New Deal solution to overproduction.

In 1934, the Jones-Costigan Act set production

quotas for domestic mainland and insular territories

and foreign territories. Modified as the

Sugar Act of 1937, it was renewed until 1974

for a total of ‘40 years of a thoroughly managed

market for sugar’ (Mahler 1986: 167).

During the Second World War, sugar was

the first food item to be rationed and the last to

be lifted from rationing. The war expanded the

durable food system in numerous ways, not

just because women went into factories, but

also because bakeries received 80 per cent of

prewar sugar levels, while households received

half. While homemakers conserved sugar, commercial

bakeries increased in number and

candy counters burgeoned; thus rationing hastened

the industrialization of the food system

(Bentley 1998). Changes in dietary habits

occurred on military bases, too, where service

personnel were encouraged to buy Coca-Cola

and ‘given vast quantities of coffee and of

sweets of all sort; there were sugar bowls on

every table, and twice a day, without fail, the

meal ended with dessert’ (Mintz 1996: 25).

The war at home: combating the ‘antisugar


Though it would seem that the sugar shortages

of the Second World War held promise of

pent-up postwar consumer demand, sugar

interests—which had struggled with excess

capacity between the wars—feared the

opposite. Producers and refiners identified two

threats to a return to prewar levels of sugar

consumption. The first was substitutionism in

the form of dextrose from corn. Even more

alarming, however, was that because of

rationing, Americans were learning to use less

sugar, and moreover, they were being told by

their Government that this was a healthful

change. The conceptual shift regarding the

place of sugar in the diet was part of the

‘Newer Nutrition’ (Levenstein 1988: 147),

which followed from the discovery of previously

unknown elements, termed ‘vitamines’ in

1912. Between 1915 and 1930, as additional

vitamins were identified, the idea took hold

that certain foods—milk, grains, fruits and vegetables—were

‘protective’, whereas others—

especially refined flour and sugar—were

‘notably deficient in … dietary factors’ (Levenstein

1988). In 1942, the USDA presented the

government’s position that sugar consumption

could be reduced without hardship. Policymakers,

familiar with the newer nutrition, promoted

rationing by explaining, ‘food experts

say you really don’t need any sugar at all’ and

suggesting that sugary foods ‘be replaced by

foods of greater nutritional value’ (quoted in

Sugar Bulletin 1943: 36).

Government efforts to encourage reduced

sugar consumption galvanized sugar capitalists.

Outraged, Ellsworth Bunker, President of

National Sugar Refining Company, convened a

meeting in New York City of ‘interested sugar

groups’. In March 1943 this group—comprised

of cane sugar refiners, beet sugar processors,

and raw sugar producers from Louisiana,

Hawaii and Puerto Rico—incorporated as the

Sugar Research Foundation (later renamed the

Sugar Association). Their stated purpose was

to support ‘research relating to sugar, and any

and all uses [and to] disseminate …

information as to uses, purposes, utility and

Re-naturalizing sugar 65

effects of sugar’ (Sugar Research Foundation

1943). The Foundation was ‘not to occupy

itself with any Sectional (geographic or economic)

problems involving sugar; … the object

of its attention [wa]s to be SUGAR … , and the

use of SUGAR in all forms by the consumers’

(Place 1943, emphasis in original). This focus

on consumption served to unite divergent producing

interests and to avoid charges of collusion.

The choice of the name ‘Research Foundation’

helped to mask the group’s function as

an industry promoter and gave it the tint of

scientific legitimacy. In November 1943 the

Foundation issued press releases, announcing

‘the establishment of a joint research laboratory

at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’

and ‘the appointment of Dr. Robert C.

Hockett, Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry

[at MIT], as Scientific Director of the

Foundation’ (Sugar Research Foundation

1943). With the imprimatur of MIT and Dr.

Hockett, the Foundation was ready to counterattack

the newer nutritionists. 3 Hockett, for his

part, touted ‘the producers of sugar … as public

benefactors’ and regarded the fact that sugar

supplied 15 per cent of the caloric intake of

Americans as ‘a most tremendous achievement’

(Hockett 1944).

Among his first actions as executive director,

Ody H. Lamborn (President of Lamborn and

Co., Sugar Brokers), began a scrapbook identifying

‘anti-sugar propagandists’ and hired a

public relations firm. The firm reported that

‘the primary source of the anti-sugar infection’

was the dietitians, home economists and nutritionists

who ‘are spreading their ideas about

sugar and sweets to millions and millions of

housewives, consumers, young people, and

children’ (Institute of Public Relations n.d.). 4

To ‘combat the infection’, they prescribed immediate

steps—establishing Dr. Hockett as the

foremost scientific authority on sugar, conduct-

66 Gail M. Hollander

ing a public opinion survey, developing publications

and promotional materials—and longterm

strategies, most importantly the

development of mass educational activities,

such as teachers’ manuals and teaching materials,

speaking tours, educational recordings,

radio programming and motion pictures.

A key strategy of the Foundation was the

establishment of sugar research awards, administered

by the National Science Fund of the

National Academy of the Sciences. Publicity

regarding the competition and the announcement

of awards served to cast the relationship

between science and sugar in a positive light.

Recipients included academics from paediatrics,

chemistry, physiology, dentistry and

bacteriology, researching topics such as sucrose

chemistry, metabolic rates, vitamin uptake and

food processing. Gala awards banquets were

held, to impress the home economics and

nutrition editors of widely read magazines and

newspapers with the scientific import given to

the study of sugar.

Florida sugar and the propaganda of production

Although the Sugar Research Foundation

sought to unite divergent interests, one faction

of US sugar producers—a relative newcomer to

the industry—did not participate in this campaign

for consumption. Prior to and during the

Second World War, the Florida industry waged

a separate lobbying campaign. At that time,

one company—United States Sugar Corporation

(USSC)—was responsible for 96 per cent

of Florida’s output, so corporate and geographic

interests closely corresponded.

Because they were based on historical levels

of output, New Deal production quotas were

especially restrictive to the Florida industry.

Incorporated in 1931, USSC was slowly

expanding, within the limits set by seed cane

propagation, when the Jones-Costigan Act was

passed. USSC executives sought increased

quota allotments by waging a propaganda campaign

that emphasized regional comparisons. In

contrast to the Sugar Research Foundation

campaign that avoided ‘sectional problems’,

USSC’s propaganda highlighted geographic differences

in labour and technology for political


During the late 1930s and early 1940s, USSC

published a series of illustrated booklets contrasting

the Florida industry with other sugarproducing

regions. The booklets, intended for

wide distribution to sugar consumers, were an

elaborate form of liberation marketing. Some

Notes on Offshore Conditions criticized the

industries of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto

Rico for low wages and ‘deplorable living conditions’

(USSC 1937) and faulted the Hawaiian

industry for labour shortages. Other mainland

producers were not spared. Photographic illustrations

contrasted horse-drawn ploughing in

Louisiana with ‘Cultivating Sugar-Cane with

3-Row Disc Cultivators, The Everglades,

Florida’. Florida Sugar promoted USSC’s

attempt ‘to bring to agriculture the viewpoint

and technique that has placed the American

industrialist so far ahead’ (USSC 1936). A section

entitled ‘Our Men Wear Shoes’ favourably

compared the standard of living of Florida and

offshore cane workers. Subsequent booklets

elaborated this theme, with charts comparing

ownership of consumer items by Florida and

offshore workers. The Fruit of the Cane

detailed the spatial organization of USSC, with

eleven plantation villages ‘strategically located

throughout the property to keep the employees

close to the center of their activities’ (USSC

1940: 10). In these booklets, corporate paternalism

blended with a neoplantation ideology to

reinforce the overarching theme: that the

Florida industry was the most agroindustrially

progressive among US sourcing regions, deserving

of a greater share of the US market.

In July 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower

‘temporarily’ suspended Cuba’s sugar quota

and lifted the restrictions on domestic producers.

Sugar capitalists, invested in Cuba, were

attracted to Florida by its latent potential for

development and its access to the US sugar

market. Within five years, the Florida industry

was transformed. To the existing two mills in

the area, eight new mills were added and cane

acreage increased five-fold. Some of the new

investors, such as Alfonso Fanjul, were

backed by the sugar brokerage firm,

Czarnikow-Rionda, which also supplied capital

to a group of Florida farmers for a co-operative

sugar company. Noting that the price paid

by one group of Cubans for 16,000 acres of

‘virgin swampy land’ in Florida was three

times what the USA had paid Spain for the

entire state, a Spanish-language Miami paper

declared that ‘the state of Florida should give

thanks to Fidel Castro for its internal sugarbowl

expansion’ (Avance 1961, author’s translation).

Supermarket narratives, liberation marketing

When production quotas were reinstated in

1965 the Florida industry was again concerned

with its public image. By then the industry’s

use of offshore workers for harvest was under

scrutiny and executives identified labour as

their ‘Achilles heel’. During the 1980s, as the

Florida industry continued to import 10,000

workers annually for the harvest season, public

attention focused on cane-cutters’ living and

working conditions. At the same time, the

industry came under increasing criticism for

polluting the Everglades.

By 1991 Florida Trend reported ‘the industry

Re-naturalizing sugar 67

is under siege like never before … The 1990s

will be the sugar industry’s decade of reckoning’

(Resnick 1991: 41). Arrayed against ‘Big

Sugar’ were industrial sweetener users, consumer

groups, labour advocates, foreign governments,

environmentalists and government

officials. As the politics of sugar sourcing and

Everglades restoration merged, environmental

organizations and major sweetener users

formed The Coalition to End Welfare to Big

Sugar. Hershey, Coca-Cola, the Sierra Club

and the Audubon Society joined forces, though

their agendas differed. Sweetener users wanted

to purchase sugar at world market prices,

whereas environmental organizations sought to

downsize the Florida industry. Prior to the 1995

Farm Bill the Coalition published The Bittersweet

Times, headlined ‘Aliens Earn Millions

in Gov’t Bonanza’ referring to the Fanjul family,

which owns the largest sugar company in

Florida, Flo-Sun. Opponents portrayed the

Florida industry as greedy, foreign, un-American,

big business—run by and for ‘Sugar


The Florida sugar industry provides 20 per

cent of the US sugar supply; of that, approximately

75 per cent is produced by the two

largest companies, USSC and Flo-Sun. Under

attack, they chose disparate public relations

and marketing strategies. USSC emphasized

community, family, farming and nation so as

to counter the image ofsugar barons’ (Sanchez

1995). Their website, titled ‘An integrated family

of agribusiness companies’, stressed two

themes: the industrial aspects of sugar production

and company ties to community (USSC

2001). In 1998 USSC began a marketing campaign,

announcing a ‘New Sugar Breakthrough!’

and urging consumers to ‘Try the

New Sugar Bursting with Goodness’. The

‘breakthrough’ was not the product—granulated

white sugar, unchanged for over a century—but

the red, white and blue packaging,

68 Gail M. Hollander

signifying that the contents were not foreign

but American.

Flo-Sun chose a very different strategy in the

politically contested and economically competitive

world of sweetener production. Well aware

of consumer concerns for freshness, health, and

ethical and sustainable production (Rosendahl

1996), the company constructed a particular

supermarket narrative. In contrast to USSC’s

patriotic tints, their earth-toned website depicts

a stylized sun leading to topics such as ‘Natural

Living’, ‘Cooking Naturally’, ‘Environment’, to

emphasize consumer lifestyle and the environment

rather than community and agroindustry

(Flo-Sun 2002). Though Flo-Sun produces

nearly 10 per cent of the sugar consumed in the

USA, the website, which features their product

line, ‘Florida Crystals’, makes no mention of

refined white sugar but instead lists speciality

sugars, such as Demerara, Light and Dark

Muscovado, Milled Cane, and Certified

Organic. Demerara and Muscovado have historic

connotations that predate the industrial

revolution in sugar refining. Their image is of a

more natural, less processed product.

Products such as milled cane and certified

organic serve not only to bring the company

into the high growth sector of the food market,

but also create an image of the Florida sugar

product as natural and the industry as part of

nature. A distinctive agronomic characteristic

of sugarcane, with social and geographic implications—that

it must be milled within a day of

harvesting—is here touted as a unique ‘freshness’

characteristic of Florida Crystals. In fact,

the entire production process of industrial

sugar refining is recounted on product packaging

as supermarket narrative: ‘Florida Crystals

Natural Sugars are milled on the day of harvest,

with one simple crystallization. The juice

is pressed from sun-ripened sugarcane, washed,

filtered and crystallized—all right on the farm’.

Here we learn that no additives or preserva-

tives have been added, which should not be

surprising since refined sugar is the most chemically

pure substance ingested as a food and has

been imbricated throughout the food system

precisely because it is a preservative.

Integral to Florida Crystals’ promotional

narrative is its marketing claim to be the first

crop of certified organic cane ever grown in the

United States and the ‘only American-made

certified organic sugar available in the natural

foods industry’. Flo-Sun has been an aggressive

pioneer in the re-naturalization of sugar

because the product not only caters to a niche

market, but also performs important public

relations services, offering a narrative that

appeals to consumer interests in natural,

healthful, and sustainable commodities and

production systems. There were accompanying

shifts in the production process, in that Flo-Sun

produced the first organic sugar in the country.

In addition, the vertically integrated company

was able to simplify processing to produce a

less-refined sugar that could be placed on

supermarket shelves at competitive prices.

Competition within the ‘natural’ sugar sector

is growing. In 1998, Imperial Holly Corporation,

which ‘had been working for six months

to enter the organic sugar market’ (Darwin

1998) bought Wholesome Foods, a sugarmarketing

firm. Because they source internationally,

they are able to add a dimension of

liberation marketing that Florida Crystals cannot:

the imagery of third-world peasants struggling

to enter first-world markets. ‘Through the

application of resources and technology,

Wholesome Sweeteners seeks to improve the

quality and productivity of the growers it relies

on. By doing so, these growers realize additional

income from their crops giving them the

opportunity to improve their standard of living’

(Wholesome Foods 2001). In their pictorial

depiction of production conditions, they have

reversed the propaganda strategy used earlier

y the Florida industry. Whereas in 1940 animal

power connoted backwardness, Wholesome

Foods’ oxcart-images are employed to

suggest progressive social change through consumption


In Spring 2001 sugar packages appeared in

supermarkets proclaiming: ‘The right choice,

for you and America’s Everglades’ (Everglades

Foundation 2001). Apura Everglades Sugar,

‘pure American sugar, NOT grown, or refined,

in America’s Everglades’ (Everglades Foundation

2001), was marketed by an environmental

organization and producers in Louisiana,

Texas and Paraguay. Their slogan, ‘Fight Sugar

with Sugar’ reveals their intent to challenge

Florida Crystals in the premium and organic

sugar market, using supermarket narratives to

appeal to consumers to ‘help restore the Everglades

to the harsh uninhabitable Hell nature

intended it to be’ (Everglades Foundation

2001). Here we see a tortuous process of ‘double’

commodity fetishism, as sugar is ‘reenchanted’

with geographic knowledges

invoked to invert Florida-paradisiacal imagery

and displace consumption to supposedly

‘greener’ locales. Florida Crystal’s strategy of

melding ideas of sugar, nature and Florida is

turned against it in an escalating battle—over

resources and market share—in which nature,

imagined geographies, ideas of sustainability

and freshness are deployed in supermarket narratives.


Using supermarket narratives, sugar producers

attempt to differentiate their products in the

highly competitive US sweetener market. Competing

with HFCS, they have developed products

such as liquid sugar, used in juices and soft

drinks. Cane sugar producers seek niches that

neither HFCS nor beet sugar can fill, offering

Re-naturalizing sugar 69

consumers a ‘soft, yellow-tinted, unrefined

sugar’ (Wiley 1898: 694) like that described a

century ago. One product, ‘dehydrated cane

juice’, is used in ‘natural’ snack foods. Another

is Florida Crystals’ organic milled cane, a lessrefined

sugar. The corresponding supermarket

narrative presumably holds greater appeal than

would the narrative of HFCS production,

which, if held to accuracy, would depict corn

of undetermined age fermenting for days in

slurry tanks, undergoing processes to saccharify

starch by application of glucoamylase (Thomas

1985). Competing on the basis of minimal processing

and freshness—from field to package in

less than twenty-four hours—cane sugar wins.

This commodity history, and the particular

role of the Florida industry in it, demonstrates

that producers of even the most maligned food

product, 5 sugar, can refashion their product in

accord with new moral concerns. The analysis

presented here shows there is a particular strategy

of sugar marketing that appeals to consumers’

concerns for the environment and

healthful diets. The re-naturalization of sugar

is part of the ‘re-enchantment’ of food in the

marketplace based on cultural meanings of

Florida (‘the sunshine state’), farming communities

and farm families, and nature. Not

only is sweetener consumption rising (Center

for Science in the Public Interest, 1999, 2000) in

the midst of increasing scholarly attention to

and consumer concern for healthfulness and

organics, but also the sugar industry incorporates

these ideas to mirror back in their supermarket

narratives emphasizing ‘freshness’ and

‘sustainability’. Supermarket narratives, which

seem at first glance to untangle ‘the intricate

geography of production and consumption’

(Harvey 1990), are readily adopted by sugar

producers in their marketing strategies to compete

and profit, economically or politically.

This is not to say that the only change in

response to consumers’ concerns is a shift in

70 Gail M. Hollander

marketing strategy. We can acknowledge the

power of the consumer to alter the market and

influence production processes, in this case, the

shift to organic cane production, without losing

sight of how difficult it will be to reorganize

the US food system for healthier diets. As

Nestle (2002: 363) notes, if US consumers made

‘virtuous’ dietary choices, the food system

would be wholly restructured, bringing economic

ruin to major sectors such as corn and

sugar. Capital has been sunk, interests are

vested and shifts in consumer preferences are

not going to easily dislodge them. This is one

reason that the food system literature’s emphasis

on increasing ‘freshness’ limits our understanding

of the structure and functioning of the

system. US sugar consumption per capita has

increased every year since 1983, not coincidentally

following on President Ronald Reagan’s

administration’s declaration of ketchup as a

vegetable in school lunches. 6 Ketchup—a sugary

condiment—is also a harbinger of fast

food, and more importantly, was the synecdoche

of general retrenchment in school

nutrition. Recently, dietary guidelines issued by

the joint advisory committee of the USDA and

the Department of Health and Human Services

were watered down under pressure from the

industry. ‘This year, sugar growers and soft

drink manufacturers scored a victory by persuading

the administration to alter a draft recommendation

from “go easy on beverages and

foods high in added sugars” to “choose beverages

and foods to moderate your intake of

sugars”’ (Marquis 2000).

US sucrose consumption, which declined in

the early 1980s, is now nearly restored to pre-

HFCS levels. Some of the credit for sugar’s

rebound can be given to the Sugar Association

(the renamed Sugar Research Foundation),

which has continued to defend and enhance the

position of sugar in the American diet. For

example, in the 1950s the Association

responded to the threat of artificial sweeteners

with a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote

sugar as an appetite suppressant, funded

by all segments of the industry, including

Florida. 7 Today, the Florida industry accounts

for five of the fifteen member companies that

comprise the Sugar Association. The counterpart

to Dr. Hockett, first Scientific Director of

the Sugar Research Foundation, is the current

President and Chief Executive Officer of the

Association, Richard Keelor, ‘Ph.D., former

Director of Program Development of the President’s

Council on Physical Fitness and Sports,

1972–1982’ (Sugar Association 2002). Whereas

Hockett’s professional stature as a chemist was

invaluable when sugar was criticized for not

having ‘protective’ qualities, Keelor’s expertise

is useful when the health concern regarding

sweetener consumption is obesity rates. Obesity,

according to Keelor, is primarily a result

of sedentary lifestyles rather than caloric


The Association continues to deploy multiple

strategies to maintain sugar consumption levels.

One is ‘early surveillance and rapid

response’ (Sugar Association 2002). When Surgeon

General David Satcher stated that the

American diet is too heavily laden with sugar

and suggested a link between obesity levels and

sweetener consumption, the Association

quickly issued press releases citing expert opinion

that no scientific evidence could prove this

association. A second strategy has been more

insidious: the Sugar Association is a member of

the Dietary Guidelines Alliance, comprised of

industry groups, the USDA, and the Department

of Health and Human Services. From

their position at this table, the Sugar Association

has been able to forestall any dietary

advice that would go against their members’

interest, while gaining the imprimatur of membership

(Nestle 2002). These examples of successful

industry lobbying highlight the

contradictory and pervasive role of the state in

shaping the food system and influencing consumer


After several decades of increase, the sweetener

industry foresees flattening demand. Two

growth markets have been identified. Because

the adult market for soft drinks is stagnant,

‘influencing elementary school students is very

important to soft drink marketers’ (Schlosser

2001: 53). The second is the ‘non-commodity’

sectors of the sweetener market—that is, the

speciality sugars marketed as natural, healthful

and organic. Here the sugar industry can elide

nutritional claims by appealing to the moral,

environmental and health concerns of consumers

with discursive constructions of product

and place that seem to reveal what space

hides. Sugar—which in the nineteenth century

became a consistent, fungible and interchangeable

commodity, chemically pure and inherently

placeless—is now differentiating into a

wide variety of products marketed on the basis

of colour, taste, production relations, environmental

sustainability and place of origin.


I gratefully acknowledge the Florida International

University Foundation in providing

support for research that contributed to this

article. I would also like to thank Carl Van

Ness, University Librarian, Special Collections,

University of Florida, for his invaluable assistance

in navigating the Braga Brothers Collection.


1 The increase in fruit and vegetable consumption may not

be as salubrious as it first appears. Half the vegetable

servings come from iceberg lettuce, potatoes (including

fries) and canned tomatoes. The USDA counts servings

by disaggregating dishes and would assign the apples in

Re-naturalizing sugar 71

a fast food turnover to the category ‘fruit’ when measuring

consumption (Nestle 2002).

2 The message of domestic science regarding sugar resonated

with agricultural boosters, such as W. F. Blackman,

who advised the development of a Florida cane

industry to meet the ‘vast recent increase in the consumption

of sugar’ (Blackman 1921: n.p.). Explaining

what had caused this increase, Blackman noted,

‘chemists and dieticians have emphasized the food value

of sugar in reasonable quantities, as never before’ (Blackman

1921: n.p.).

3 In comparison to other food processors, sugar interests’

funding of scientific research was relatively late. Levenstein

(1988) notes ‘the nexus which developed between

nutritional science and food processors and producers’

during the 1920s.

4 Because of the nature of the professions, the ‘infecting’

professionals were mostly women. Sugar Research Foundation

memoranda recount luncheon meetings to which

these women were invited in an attempt to change their

views of sugar.

5 For example, Mechling and Mechling characterize

aspects of the anti-sugar rhetoric of the 1970s as follows:

‘Sugar’s connection with slavery, with modernity, with

industrial capitalism, with a worldwide commodity conspiracy,

and with the destruction of the health and

cultures of Third World peoples make it a powerful

condensed symbol for a radicalism that calls for a return

to self-control as a prerequisite to the collective, radical

action that will change bourgeois society’ (1983: 30).

6 This trend directly contradicted the goal of reducing

sugar consumption by 40 per cent to account for 15 per

cent of total energy intake as stated in the 1977 Report

of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs

(US Senate 1977).

7 The use of artificial sweeteners has coincided with

increased caloric sweetener use, so it is hard to argue

that they have displaced sugar. Rather, the diet has

become sweeter overall (Nestle 2002).


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Abstract translations

Renaturaliser le sucre: histoires de lieu, production

et consommation

Cet article explore les liens entre les pratiques de

consommation alimentaire, les représentations publicitaires

du sucre, ainsi que l’histoire et l’économie

politique de sa production. Notre emphase porte sur

les ‘récits publicitaires’; c’est-à-dire les récits

d’origine et de production imprimés sur les emballages

et qui servent à faire la promotion du sucre aux

États-Unis. Nous analysons comment la compétition

74 Gail M. Hollander

dans l’industrie du sucre, déterminée par les différentes

propriétés des produits sucrants, a donné lieu

à des récits publicitaires dont le but est de différencier

les sucres à l’aide de concepts portant sur

l’origine, la fraîcheur et le respect de

l’environnement. Nous examinons également comment

les consommateurs de sucre participent au

maintien et à l’augmentation de sa consommation

aux États-Unis. L’article débute avec une discussion

des tendances historiques de consommation de

produits sucrants aux États-Unis et se penche ensuite

sur la genèse des groupes de lobby pour le sucre.

L’étude de cas de producteurs de sucre en Floride

sert à démontrer les antécédents historiques des

récits publicitaires ainsi que la spécificité

géographique contemporaine de l’économie politique

à labase des récits de supermarchés.

Mots-clefs: sucre, Floride, système alimentaire,

économie politique de la consommation.

La re-naturalización del azúcar: narrativas de lugar,

producción yconsumo

Este papel explora las interrelaciones entre las prácticas

del consumo de alimentos, las representaciones

del azúcar de parte de los comerciantes y la historia

ylaeconomía política de la producción del azúcar.

Se centra en las ‘narrativas de supermercados’—las

historias de lugar y producción que se ve en las

envolturas—empleadas en la comercialización de

azúcar en los Estados Unidos. Explora el modo en

que la competencia dentro de la industria de edulcorantes,

formada por las calidades materiales del

azúcar, ha llevado a narrativas de supermercados,

las cuales pretenden hacer distinción entre azúcares,

según nociones de lugar, frescura y si son

sostenibles. También examina como, al mismo

tiempo, los consumidores de edulcorantes han cooperado

para mantener y aumentar el consumo de

edulcorantes en los Estados Unidos. El papel

empieza con un discurso de las pautas históricas del

consumo de edulcorantes en los Estados Unidos y

luego habla del génesis del primer lobby de azúcar.

El estudio de los productores de azúcar de Florida

demuestra las antecedentes históricas de narrativas

de supermercado y la especificidad geográfica contemporánea

de la economía política que subyace las

narrativas de supermercados.

Palabras claves: azúcar, Florida, sistema alimenticio,

economía política de consumo.

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