Ulbe Bosma at Harvard Book Store


The World of Sugar:
How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics,
Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years


April 19, 2023
7:00 PM ET


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store welcomes ULBE BOSMA—Professor of International Comparative Social History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam—for a discussion of his new book The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. He will be joined in conversation by SHARMILA SEN—Editorial Director and Director of Special Initiatives at Harvard University Press.


A Return to In-Person Events

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About The World of Sugar

For most of history, humans did without refined sugar. After all, it serves no necessary purpose in our diets, and extracting it from plants takes hard work and ingenuity. Granulated sugar was first produced in India around the sixth century BC, yet for almost 2,500 years afterward sugar remained marginal in the diets of most people. Then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How did sugar find its way into almost all the food we eat, fostering illness and ecological crisis along the way?

The World of Sugar begins with the earliest evidence of sugar production. Through the Middle Ages, traders brought small quantities of the precious white crystals to rajahs, emperors, and caliphs. But after sugar crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, where cane could not be cultivated, demand spawned a brutal quest for supply. European cravings were satisfied by enslaved labor; two-thirds of the 12.5 million Africans taken across the Atlantic were destined for sugar plantations. By the twentieth century, sugar was a major source of calories in diets across Europe and North America.

Sugar transformed life on every continent, creating and destroying whole cultures through industrialization, labor migration, and changes in diet. Sugar made fortunes, corrupted governments, and shaped the policies of technocrats. And it provoked freedom cries that rang with world-changing consequences. In Ulbe Bosma’s definitive telling, to understand sugar’s past is to glimpse the origins of our own world of corn syrup and ethanol and begin to see the threat that a not-so-simple commodity poses to our bodies, our environment, and our communities.

Praise for The World of Sugar

“The world history of sugar and the world history of capitalism are tightly linked to one another. Ulbe Bosma, in this first truly global account of a most crucial commodity, takes us to the fields of Indian peasants, the countinghouses of Chinese merchants, the monopolizing efforts of New York industrialists, and the rebellions of enslaved sugar workers in Cuba to chart how something as mundane as sugar came to play a crucial role in the making of the world we inhabit today. Attentive to local specificities as much as to Earth-spanning connections, to culture and capital, power and poverty, this book is global history at its best.” ―Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History

“Sugar may play a unique role in the slow-motion tragedy that is the worldwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes. The World of Sugar is a remarkably researched, comprehensive, and indispensable book for everyone who wishes to understand how sugar and the sugar industry have shaped the world in which we live.” ―Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar

“How is it that a chemical that has no nutritional value, that is inherently poisonous, that is responsible for morbidity and mortality, and that is breaking the health care budget of every developed and developing country is the seminal thread running through human history for the last 3,000 years? The World of Sugar narrates the critical events that made sugar the dominant force in world politics from antiquity to our own era. In this magisterial history, Bosma offers a much-needed cautionary tale about how addiction leads to societal downfall. As we watch newer addictions destroy the climate and Earth’s inhabitants, we would all do well to learn the hard lessons of sugar.” ―Robert Lustig, author of Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine

Sharmila Sen
Sharmila Sen

Sharmila Sen

Sharmila Sen is the Editorial Director and Director of Special Initiatives at Harvard University Press. She was formerly a member of the Harvard English department faculty. Sharmila is also the author of the award-winning Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America (Penguin, 2018). 


Ulbe Bosma
Ulbe Bosma

Ulbe Bosma

Ulbe Bosma is Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History and Professor of International Comparative Social History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His books include The Making of a Periphery and The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia.

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