It’s early 19th century France: you live in a country unhinged by the greatest revolution of all time, and your needs are ignored by the ruling elite. It’s the year 1802 and all you want is Napoleon Bonaparte and a little sugar for your bowl.
This was an era in which Napoleon fulfilled people’s expectations of social ascent and political grandeur; Europe found its master, while French citizens started enjoying treats imported from newly conquered colonies.
After failing to invade Great Britain in 1805, Napoleon introduced commercial warfare to bend the resistance of that ‘nation of shopkeepers’ (to quote the man himself). L’Empereur blocked sea routes to cut off Great Britain from colonial resources but the Brits, never short of a response, responded by blocking all ships to and from France. As a result, less and less cane sugar, a symbol of wealth and prosperity, made it to French shores.
Napoleon knew that the bittersweet taste of blood-soaked victories would not keep his people happy and, most important, calm. A sweet, cheap and industrially producible substitute for cane sugar had to be found immediately.
Aware of the disruptive potential of the sugar crisis, Napoleon offered a 200,000 Francs prize for the production of sugar from grapes; despite the efforts of a myriad of scientists, the project failed. France was looking towards a bitter future, until a senator received a loaf of beet sugar so sweet that he immediately presented it to Napoleon. Legend has it that the Emperor was so impressed that he set out to visit the beet sugar factory of a certain Jules Paul Benjamin Delessert, awarding him a cash prize and making him a Baron.
Napoleon acted quickly, pumping more than 1 billion Francs into beet sugar production, dedicating 32,000 acres of land to the industry and opening schools teaching industrial sugar production. During the Napoleonic wars, more than 300 sugar factories mushroomed all over France; the country became the biggest beet sugar producer in Europe, making white gold affordable for rich and poor. Crisis prevented?
Not so fast! Triggered by the Napoleonic wars, sugar became a day-to-day commodity, essential for our diets. Even though beet sugar has been replaced by sugar cane, sugar consumption has exploded, with European per capita yearly consumption reaching almost 32kg. As a result, we’re now facing a different sugar crisis, with multiple enemies including obesity, diabetes and dental cavities affecting millions of people and health insurance premiums in Europe and beyond. Merci!