Secretary’s Report for 25th January 2022

Chairman Peter Wilson welcomed Professor Martin Curzon for his 10th appearance before the Forum. His speaking record with us stretches back to November 2008 when he gave a talk on Arctic Dentistry – was freezing the lower jaw mentioned?

This time it was about sugar, honey and all things nice – so dentistry could play a role in the dialogue.

Sweetness was the main topic and is identified by humans through receptors on the tip of the tongue. Salt and sour are identified much further back in the mouth and consequently rank secondary to sweetness which overrides most other tastes. This was borne out by Martin’s tip on how to quell the burning feeling of a hot curry. “Take a teaspoon of sugar – it will kill it dead!”

In medieval times, sweetness was obtained through honey which itself was a by-product in the production of beeswax used for candles. The Doomsday Book of the 11th century surveyed every town and village south of Northumbria as a basis for taxation. It included a count of the number of hives in each locality. Therefore the volume of honey produced in Britain was well known. However, as a sweetener, honey was not ideal. It was liquid, not easily transportable or long-lasting and alternatives were sorted out.

One alternate was sugar cane, a species of the grass family then found in India. It produced sucrose in the stalk which can be crystallized and then safely transported in bulk. Spice merchants from India began to trade in this sugar, which was considered a luxurious and expensive spice. Later, in the 18th century, sugarcane plantations were established in the Caribbean, South American and Pacific island nations where the climate was ideal. The need for sugar crop labourers became a major driver of migration from Africa, some through indentured servitude but most as forced slaves. Large quantities of cheap sugar could now be shipped across the Atlantic to satisfy European demand.

Because of a British Royal Navy blockade of sugar going to Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, sugar made from the beet-root was researched and developed in France and Germany. By 1840 France had 58 factories producing large quantities of sugar and, to this day, continental Europe relies mainly on sugar beet. In Britain, sugar beet production started in the 1920s because of supply difficulties caused by the 1st World War and it still constitutes 40 % of UK sugar production set to satisfy EU import quotas.

Whilst sugar provides the sweetness kick that we all crave, it needs to be combined with other ingredients to produce a palatable product. When mixed with white flour and baked it made biscuits and cakes. When mixed with cocoa and milk it produced chocolate.

Frequent snacking on these products, however, brought about diverse health problems like tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, etc To alleviate such problems, powerful artificial sweeteners which did not promote decay or calorie intake were researched and developed. These sweeteners occupied little volume and needed the addition of bulking agents to maintain the product size. Generally, this did not produce a matching taste or texture in the finished item and the use of sugar in manufactured food and drinks is still prevalent.

Martin recounted experiments he made whilst researching diet by using rats. He demonstrated that, when fed a daily basic diet plus several sugary snacks, the rats contracted tooth decay. However, when fed a basic diet with only 2 sugary snacks, there was no tooth decay.

So, he had one more tip to conclude his address, “Don’t consume more than 2 sugary snacks a day”

In thanking Professor Curzon, Richard Wright characterised his presentation as “Easy Listening” – full of interesting facts and anecdotes and much appreciated by the 26 members present.

Next week on Tuesday, February 1st we will welcome Eric Jackson to speak on “The History of Grave Robbing” Could a visit to Harlow Hill Cemetery be on the cards? !!

Recorded by : RICHARD WRIGHT

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