400 Years of Sweetness : Throughline In the 1970s, a savvy CEO named Dwayne Andreas hit on an idea: take surplus corn from America's heartland, process it into a sweetener, and start selling it to anyone who would buy, all in the name of patriotism. Within a decade, high fructose corn syrup dominated the U.S. sweetener market; today, American diets are saturated with sweeteners, including cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dozens of others.

But Andreas wasn't reinventing the wheel. He was just taking the next step in a 400-year journey that took sugar from a rare delicacy for the wealthy to an inextricable part of our lives, our culture, and our bodies. A journey that began on the brutal sugar plantations of Haiti and eventually went global, confronting us all with an impossible moral dilemma.

In this episode, we journey across centuries and continents to visit the people who've schemed — and those who've suffered — to bring us sweetness.

400 Years of Sweetness

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RICHARD MANNING: Eight times in my life, I've run into grizzlies.


This is Richard Manning, talking to us from Montana. He's a journalist. He's also the author of "Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization." And back in 1996, he was working on a book about the business of agriculture. In the process of reporting that book, he decided he needed to go to the mecca of America's corn industry to meet its king.

MANNING: So I got on the train in Montana and rode the Empire Builder.

ARABLOUEI: A train that took him east, all the way through North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and eventually to a little town called Decatur.

MANNING: Decatur.

ARABLOUEI: Decatur, Ill.

MANNING: Which was ground zero - ADM's headquarters.

ARABLOUEI: ADM stands for Archer-Daniels-Midland. They were one of the biggest farming businesses in the U.S. at that time. And Richard was hunting for an interview with their CEO. So he gets off the train.

MANNING: Check in a motel and put in a call - and I said, hey, I want to talk to Dwayne Andreas. And I got his secretary.


You may have never heard of him, but in the 1970s, Dwayne Andreas was one of the biggest names in the U.S. He was a politically connected CEO of one of the country's biggest companies. He was friends with American presidents and world leaders, and he rarely did interviews. He was mysterious and probably wanted to keep it that way.

MANNING: You know, he didn't have to talk. He had a PR department. They were doing those wonderful ads, and that's all he wanted people to see. He didn't want the curtain pulled aside. There was no reason he'd talk to me. None.

ABDELFATAH: So Richard goes out to get some dinner and, honestly, at this point, he thinks he has zero chance of getting a call back.

MANNING: I had almost no hope of meeting Dwayne Andreas.


MANNING: Go back to my motel room, and there's a phone message.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This is a message for Richard Manning. Please call back to Archer-Daniel-Midland (ph) at 217...


ABDELFATAH: There's no recording, but here's how he remembers it.


MANNING: I call back the number...


MANNING: And I said, this is Richard Manning returning this, you know, call. And I got a secretary, of course. And they said, just a moment.


ABDELFATAH: Richard thought he was just going to get a spokesperson. And if he was lucky, maybe he would get Martin Andreas, the brother of Dwayne Andreas, who would then offer no comment, and then Richard would hang up and do another night or two in Illinois before heading back to Montana. But then...


MANNING: A few seconds later, a voice comes on the line...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Dwayne Andreas) Hello?

MANNING: ...This kind of gruff voice. And he says...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Dwayne Andreas) Manning - this is Andreas.

MANNING: I said, oh, Martin Andreas. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Dwayne Andreas) No, this is Dwayne Andreas.

ARABLOUEI: Wow. You probably had no expectation of that being the voice on the other side of the phone, given how elusive he was.

MANNING: I was floored. I was absolutely floored.

ARABLOUEI: Richard had just gotten an invite from Dwayne Andreas himself to come visit the ADM offices. So he gets in his car and drives there and sees a regular old office building.

MANNING: It looked kind of like 1950s Soviet bloc architecture.

ARABLOUEI: When he walks in, it doesn't get any flashier. But right away, he notices something.

MANNING: There was, at the front door, I think - it was a statue of Ronald Reagan.

ARABLOUEI: The company was also fond of quoting John F. Kennedy in its public materials - you know, ask not what your country can do for you. Andreas worked with politicians from both sides of the aisle as long as it benefited ADM. And then, there was his appearance.

MANNING: Nothing spectacular - he was ordinarily dressed, like a Lutheran minister, with a - I think a blazer or something on.


MANNING: He reminded me of an Irish bartender in some ways.

ARABLOUEI: But when Andreas started talking, Richard saw the businessman come out.

MANNING: Very blunt, very direct and kind of pugnacious - right out front. And right away, it's - this is the kind of source I like - you know? - because I don't care if I disagree with anything he says. It's not the point. The point is, he's going to be blunt with me. It wasn't like frisking a seal.

ARABLOUEI: Frisking a seal.

MANNING: He didn't beat around the bush in the slightest in the interview.


ABDELFATAH: Richard couldn't believe that he was sitting there, jotting down notes, while Dwayne Andreas spoke openly and bluntly about the business of agriculture and politics. Because, as Richard told us, Andreas was the...

MANNING: One guy - he was at the very pinnacle. He was the top person - one person at the top of the pyramid of industrial agriculture. So I could look at this whole system that was on the ground through the entire midsection of the country. And if you trace it up through, you know, the farmer to the guy the farmer sells to, who mills, who goes on up, level on level, you get Dwayne Andreas.

ABDELFATAH: Richard spent hours there with Dwayne, just chatting it up.

MANNING: We would talk about the free market. And he says, well, that's nonsense. There's no such thing as free market in agriculture.


ABDELFATAH: No free market in agriculture. Dwayne Andreas used that philosophy to make ADM a multibillion-dollar corporation. And this didn't just come through selling corn to make popcorn or corn on the cob. He helped devise a scheme to make corn into sugar - a plan that would earn ADM billions and change the way everyone eats around the world.

ARABLOUEI: But Dwayne Andreas wasn't reinventing the wheel. He was the next step in a 400-year process that took sugar from a rare delicacy for the wealthy to a part of our everyday lives, our culture and our bodies - a process that began on the brutal sugar plantations of Haiti and was eventually marketed to everyone, confronting us all with an impossible moral dilemma.


ABDELFATAH: In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we're going to jump through time and space to visit the people who schemed and those who suffered to bring us sweetness.


IRENE: Hi, this is Irene calling from Everett, Wash. I just spent the last couple of months listening to every episode of this podcast. And honestly, I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all of the time that I have, and I'm really sad about it. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part one - the circular trade.




SIERRA: Let's do this.

STEINBERG: Let's do this. OK, so I am in the parking lot of WinCo Foods in Shoreline, Wash., which is just a little bit north of where I live.

ARABLOUEI: This is Anya Steinberg. She's a producer here at THROUGHLINE. And we recently sent her on a mission to the grocery store.

STEINBERG: OK, so what we're doing right now is I'm going to take you guys grocery shopping with me - and basically just a normal grocery trip, but I'm going to see, like, how much sugar I would buy in a week's worth of groceries.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, that's right. Anya is going on some Willy-Wonka-type journey into the deep abyss of American sugar shopping.

STEINBERG: And the best part of this will be that I look like an idiot walking around the store talking to myself.


ARABLOUEI: Well, not totally to herself - she's got a few of her roommates, Nelly and Sierra, who you'll hear in the background, with her. OK, so here's the mission exactly. They have to check the nutritional label of everything they throw in their cart, and then, at the end, basically tally up the total grams of sugar in the food they bought - simple. So they started with the produce.

STEINBERG: Bananas. They're for smoothies.

Do you want a lemon?


STEINBERG: OK, grab one. I don't know. You can have even more than one (laughter) - daughter.

SIERRA: I don't know.

ARABLOUEI: But then they went to the other aisles of the store - the place where all the processed foods are - the breads, sweets, cereals, drinks. And this is where it got interesting.


STEINBERG: We're going crazy. Grab some Arizona iced tea. Yes.

SIERRA: Is that too much?


I'm not seeing any of the salsas that I like, and now I'm sad.

I used to have a Reese's Puffs addiction.

I'm going to get some bread.

That's a lot.

This one has five.

Oh, my God.

NELLY: Five grams?

STEINBERG: Five grams.

That's a lot.

SIERRA: I got some stuff.


NELLY: Yeah.

STEINBERG: Wasabi peas.


In the bulk section...

Honey mustard?

Barbecue chips.

NELLY: Sugar.

STEINBERG: OK, this ice cream has about as much sugar in one serving as the yogurt does.

NELLY: No way.

STEINBERG: And this is...

NELLY: Holy sh**. That's crazy.

STEINBERG: Who knew?

NELLY: Who knew?

STEINBERG: I might as well just eat ice cream with granola instead of the (laughter)...

NELLY: That's what I'm saying.

STEINBERG: Why do I even try to be healthy?

ARABLOUEI: And when they were done, they went to the checkout. They added up all the sugar...

STEINBERG: Mac and cheese - four grams of sugar.

Hot dog buns - three grams of sugar.

Tomato ketchup - four grams of sugar in a tablespoon.

Nature Valley granola bars - 11 grams of sugar.

Honey Nut Cheerios - 12 grams of sugar.

ARABLOUEI: ...And this was the result.

STEINBERG: We bought 1,434 grams of sugar total, and that's a week's worth of groceries.

ARABLOUEI: For Anya and her roommates, this works out to about 71 grams of sugar per person per day. That's about the average for most Americans, but it's also nearly triple the number the American Heart Association recommends.


ARABLOUEI: Sugar hasn't always been in everything. In fact, for most of human history, most people only really had a few options to sweeten food - things like honey or dates. But once sugar started spreading, it went fast.


ARABLOUEI: Sugar cane was first cultivated in New Guinea and Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. Then, it made it to South Asia and the Middle East. And by the Middle Ages, in Baghdad, one of the biggest, wealthiest cities in the world, there was a legit cookbook containing recipes that use sugar. There's a saffron rice cream, actually, that sounds incredible. Eventually, sugar reached Europe and West Africa, but this was not for the average person. Sugar was for the rich.

ELIZABETH ABBOTT: A status symbol - very, very wealthy people stuff.

ABDELFATAH: This is Elizabeth Abbott.

ABBOTT: I'm a writer and an historian.

ABDELFATAH: And she wrote a book called...

ABBOTT: "Sugar: A Bittersweet History."

ABDELFATAH: Elizabeth says that sugar was used by rich people to flex - to show off their wealth.

ABBOTT: For example, you might have a feast, and all the cutlery and all the dishes would be made out of sugar.


ABBOTT: And then, when you were finished with the food, you would eat the plate and eat the cutlery. You might have a life-sized statue of an elephant or a forest or a castle made of sugar.

ABDELFATAH: People were willing to pay anything for it, especially in Europe.

ABBOTT: They craved it, and there was a demand for it. And that demand, of course, was welcomed and exploited by producers of sugar cane or would-be producers of sugar cane.


ABDELFATAH: Sugar cane grows best in warm, tropical climates, so European traders needed to go to Africa or Asia to get it. In the 14- and 1500s, Portuguese traders tried to establish their own sugar plantations on islands off the coast of West Africa. And when the Europeans began to colonize the Americas, they brought their sugar plantations with them, and this triggered one of the darkest chapters in human history.


ARABLOUEI: It was the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean that really kickstarted the transatlantic slave trade. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were brought to produce the sugar that would be sold to Europeans.

ABBOTT: And then it started filtering down. And the idea was, if we can get poor people to eat it, we'll sell way more. So instead of selling it to rich people at a very high price, we'll sell it to way more people, but we have to have a lower price. They can't afford it otherwise.


ARABLOUEI: It was that desire to sell more sugar faster in the European market that started the process which leads to our worldwide cultural addiction to sweetness. Because it's in the 1700s, in the Americas, where sugar became an internationally traded commodity - more and more available to more and more people. In fact, at one point, in the early 1700s, nearly half of the world's sugar was produced by enslaved Africans on one island in the Caribbean.

NATHALIE FREDERIC PIERRE: Planters in Saint-Domingue, which is colonial Haiti - they are able to develop algorithmic formula that says that it is cheaper to work an enslaved African to death within seven years than to invest in purchasing a fresh saltwater African from Africa.

ARABLOUEI: This is...

PIERRE: Nathalie Frederic Pierre. I am an assistant professor of African diaspora history at Howard University.

ABDELFATAH: Nathalie's specialty is Haiti in the 1700s. She says that sugar plantations on the island are where early forms of modern industrial agriculture were born. Sugar cane was planted, harvested and processed on these massive plantations, where life for the enslaved was brutal.

PIERRE: Part of the reason their life spans were so short was because of the hectic and frenetic pace of processing sugar cane into sugar.


ABBOTT: Sugar is a very difficult crop. It's known as the thirsty crop, and it's very demanding.


ABDELFATAH: In Haiti, on the western half of Hispaniola, it began with clearing the land.

PIERRE: It's one of the largest Caribbean islands, but it's also very mountainous. So we just need to imagine the labor it took for enslaved African people to clear mountainous land to create pathways for these mega plantations to be created.

ABBOTT: It was all on the backs of slaves. They had to work until they literally couldn't anymore.

PIERRE: Enslaved people are waking up before dawn - so this is anywhere between 3:30 a.m., the latest 6 a.m. You're up. You're on the fields.

ABBOTT: They had to work from, you know, before sunup to after sundown.


ABDELFATAH: Half a million people were enslaved in Haiti. Generation after generation would endure these unimaginable conditions to make sure the world got its sugar.


ABBOTT: It was hot. It wasn't just the weather. There was so much burning. Imagine, on top of the heat, you have to be burning cane and burning fields and so on. And you're fleeing rats and snakes. You know, it was awful.

ABDELFATAH: Then, it was time to plant.

ABBOTT: Everything was very, very, almost industrially done. Everything was in a straight line, must be this far apart. White supervisors would go through the land, and they'd mark it off with sort of knotted strings. And you had to do it there. And you had to do it really fast, and you had to do it really well. It had to be a certain depth and a certain width. It had to be really well done, or you'd get, you know, in serious trouble and whipped if you did it wrong.

The next step was readying the soil for planting cane tops. They would have to - it wasn't just to put the cane top in there. They had to put it in with manure, seaweed or sludge - something that would fertilize it - before they covered it with earth.

ABDELFATAH: After a year, the sugar cane was ready to harvest, which began another brutal phase.

PIERRE: These sugar cane stalks are, on average, between 5 feet to 12 feet long. These are massive stalks of cane.

ARABLOUEI: And how were they cutting them down?

PIERRE: They were cutting them with machetes.

ABBOTT: Every inch of what you did every second of your day, pretty much - programmed and timed and counted. It was all quantified.

PIERRE: This was causing a lot of enslaved laborers' limbs to be cut off accidentally because of the pace of the labor.

ABDELFATAH: Once the sugar cane stalks are harvested, then they're processed into sugar on site, at the plantation, in facilities that contain dangerous cauldrons with boiling water.

ABBOTT: So they had to boil it. And this was where the head boiler - if he made a mistake, he could ruin an entire field of sugar.

PIERRE: These mills were very, very dangerous. You have to stay alert in order to not lose a limb or to not fall into it because, in order - like, I want to give you the image of the English chimney sweep. Like, you need to really get in there. And if the other person who is attending to part of that milling machine is - lapses for 30 seconds, you're in there, and you're being mauled.


PIERRE: So in many of the images we have from the 18th and 19th centuries, you see all of these enslaved laborers who are disabled as a result of processing sugar.


ABBOTT: On large plantations, the cutting, milling, boiling, distilling cycle went on day and night for five months. So if you had different fields being planted at different times, it never stopped. It was said by sugar scholar Sidney Mintz to be probably the first, you know, assembly line in history.


ABDELFATAH: And the proto assembly lines of Caribbean sugar plantations helped fuel the burgeoning economies of Europe.

PIERRE: Slavery in the Americas is one of the engines that birthed modern capitalism, in that the cash crop production of coffee, indigo, tobacco, sugar generate massive amounts of wealth for European countries. Sugar is a calorie-dense product that European monarchs and then governments quickly come to learn function as stimulants to keep their workers alert.

ABBOTT: The Industrial Revolution meant that people were - they were working 12, 14, 16 hours away from home. They couldn't - they physically couldn't do it if they didn't have, you know, sustaining food.

PIERRE: The calorie denseness of sugar surpasses something like cabbage, which was a staple of the European diet before this cash crop emerges. Some historians have argued that sugar enables the Industrial Revolution in Europe. And it's this circular trade. It's all linked to each other, and it's generating massive profits.

ARABLOUEI: Now it's the 1970s. We're in farm country in the U.S., and here, the farming has turned into a kind of factory driven by machines, fertilizers and pesticides. Here, sugar doesn't fuel the profits. Instead, it's crops like wheat, soy and corn. Producers are thriving, but, of course, there's also a cost.

MANNING: And it's done by factory farming, which means that you strip the ground down to zero. You put a very highly engineered seed on top of a specific amount of water and a specific amount of fertilizer, and you take off those crops at the end. It's all about high yield of corn.

ARABLOUEI: Since World War II, farmers had increasingly relied on big corporations to sell at the scale they needed to, companies like Archer Daniels Midland, aka ADM, run by Dwayne Andreas.

MANNING: It was also beginning to be the era of contract farming, where people like ADM would go to farmers and say, here's a contract. Here's exactly how you will grow the wheat. Here's how much fertilizer you will apply to it. Here's the price we will pay you in the fall when you produce. So they are essentially robots. And that area of industrial agriculture was the habitat for ADM, that they could then exploit that because they had control. They had regularity. They had predictability. And they had uniformity.

ARABLOUEI: And they had corn.

MANNING: It was corn that you can keep forever in a bin and grind up and sell as a bunch of different products and processed food.

ARABLOUEI: Dwayne Andreas was basically a corn dealer.

MANNING: He had intimately come to know it for 20 or 30 years and learned how to play that game perfectly.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, Dwayne Andreas plays the game and wins.

PATRICK: This is Patrick from Frankfort, Ill., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. So I work in a warehouse, and unloading shipping containers and loading boxes around all day can be pretty taxing work, but it's a lot more palatable when I know that I can sit down and watch and listen to some really compelling history. You know the story.

OLIVIA CHILKOTI, BYLINE: Part 2 - the medium is delicious.

ARABLOUEI: In the 1700s and 1800s, as Haiti was producing massive amounts of sugar, the price of the commodity dropped. For working-class people, it became first accessible, then essential. Many factory families lived almost completely on sugared tea, bread and jam. But here's the thing. Even though all of this sugar was being consumed in Europe, it still wasn't enough to take up all the supply being produced on sugar plantations. So companies in the sugar trade were going to need to figure out new ways to package and sell their product, and that is where the marketing comes in.

ABBOTT: It - really, the history of sugar is in many ways the history of fantastic marketing, of people who had an interest in selling more of this product figuring out ways to get people to consume more sugar.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: (Reading) Lowney's Chocolate Bonbons is the gateway to the good graces of those who love the good things in life. Lowney's Chocolate Bonbons contains only the choicest chocolate and purest cane sugar.

ABBOTT: For example, in the 1840s, before you started having mass sugar everywhere, hard candy was one way of getting into people.

CHILKOTI: (Reading) Mothers, give children Klein's. Let them have it every day for their recess lunch. Teach them to enjoy it.

ABBOTT: It's delicious. It lasts quite long. You can sell it in individually really tiny quantities. You could get people addicted to it. You could start with children. And there was now the concept of marketing to children. This is very, very new.

CHILKOTI: (Reading) Aside from being the most deliciously tasteful chocolate candy, Klein's has real nutritive value. Every bar the children eat is equivalent to drinking a tumblerful of sweet, creamy milk.

ARABLOUEI: All the marketing they were doing in magazines and newspapers was having an impact. They were changing the way we speak. Sugary products were being connected to the idea of happiness or love, a sentimental value that matches the physical feeling you get when you eat sugar.

ABBOTT: Before, you didn't court someone with candy. You courted them with brushing your teeth, maybe, and washing your hands and being nice and maybe memorizing some poetry. Now you would bring them something, some chocolates, and in a box - I mean, my God, you were absolutely irresistible.

KATAYAMA: (Reading) Tell her now. Tell her often. Love does not live by calendars alone. Give Whitman's chocolates. It's the thoughtful thing to do.

ABBOTT: Look what you call people, sweetheart, sugar, honey. We call people that because that means we like them, right? You don't say, I wonder what he means by sweetheart. You know? He doesn't mean you piece of s***, right? He means something wonderful.

ABDELFATAH: These advertisements were among the first of their kind, right there at the birth of modern marketing. And one of the first innovators was a company called Cadbury. Yeah, that Cadbury, Cadbury eggs. It was first established in 1824 by John Cadbury in Birmingham, England. He began by selling tea, coffee and hot chocolate from a small store. But over time, Cadbury grew into a multinational corporation that sold all kinds of sugar-filled products, from Easter eggs to milk chocolate bars. And almost from the beginning, Cadbury understood that the way a product was presented and marketed was essential.

ABBOTT: How about the box of chocolates? How about it being beautiful? How about it being meaningful? How about it being gorgeous? How about it being expensive, tied with a ribbon?

ABDELFATAH: In 1861, Cadbury created fancy boxes, a decorated box of chocolates. And in 1868, they were sold in boxes in the shape of a heart for Valentine's Day. These quickly became an iconic symbol of love.

ABBOTT: This is a very clever thought that marketers today would probably be very, very envious of if they sat and parsed exactly how it was done.

ABDELFATAH: Over the course of the 19th century, Cadbury became known for clever advertising and beautiful packaging. Its chocolates were sold around the world. But there was another thing about John Cadbury and his family. They were Quakers, and they were abolitionists.

ARABLOUEI: Abolitionists were at the top of a business dominated by slave trade sugar. Now, there's no direct evidence that the Cadburys bought slave sugar, but they did buy cocoa from a Portuguese colony that used indentured servants after slavery was outlawed, and eventually, under public pressure, they stopped. But the Cadbury moral dilemma points to something we must all contend with. What level of brutality and exploitation will we accept as a society in order to get the things we want but do not need? - a question that haunts every part of this story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The nation's meat market and bread basket. Five of the plains states are part of the corn belt.

UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: Farming has gotten a lot more complicated since I was a boy. We're sure more mechanized now.

ABDELFATAH: This is from an educational video made by Coronet Films in the 1970s that was shown to kids in some schools around the country.


UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: And those decisions we used to make by experience or the Almanac or just feelings in our bones - well, now we make some of them with the help of college professors and computers.

ABDELFATAH: By the late 1970s, the farming industry in the U.S. had become a huge, complex system, and the federal government was underwriting most of it by providing subsidies. Subsidies are basically sums of money granted by the government to industries. And this encouraged farmers to produce more and more every year.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because so much of the food you buy has been freeze dried, homogenized, sterilized, emulsified, stabilized, pressurized and advertised.

ABDELFATAH: Subsidies tend to favor large-scale operations that grow only one thing. And in the corn belt, it was, well, corn. Billions of dollars in subsidies meant American farmers could pump out billions of bushels of corn a year. This transition from local to massive industrial agriculture was one that ADM CEO Dwayne Andreas knew all too well. He grew up in it.


MANNING: He was rags to riches. He was just an ordinary Iowa guy who got involved in early kind of embryonic forms of agribusiness.

ARABLOUEI: Dwayne Andreas was born in 1918, the fifth of six children in a Mennonite family. He grew up on his family's farm in Iowa. Farming was in the water, and business was in his blood. Dwayne never finished college. Instead, he dropped out to work at a family business that they would eventually sell to the agricultural giant Cargill. And that launched his journey into the industry of agriculture.

MANNING: And then he worked his way up in the business at a couple of different companies before he actually bought into ADM and then ran that up into what it became.

TOM PHILPOTT: You know, this guy is, like, a high roller who explicitly figures out how to make money from government programs.

ARABLOUEI: This is Tom Philpott.

PHILPOTT: I was, for many years, the food and agriculture coordinator for Mother Jones magazine, and I'm now a researcher at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University.

ARABLOUEI: Tom says Dwayne Andreas understood the game. He figured out how to leverage tax breaks and government subsidies to reap profits for ADM.

PHILPOTT: His political connections are just, I mean, absolute legend. At least starting in the '80s, he was hearing this critique that, you know, your company is based on corporate welfare. You are a creature of the government. He did not give a damn. He would almost embrace that.

ARABLOUEI: He was like the Forrest Gump of 1970s politics. He was everywhere. He even had an indirect role in the Nixon Watergate scandal. Andreas was close to Nixon, and a $25,000 check he'd written to a Nixon fundraiser ended up in a bank account used by the Watergate burglars.

PHILPOTT: There wasn't, like, a memo on the bottom of the checks that said, use this to break into the Watergate to - you know, but he wrote that check.

ARABLOUEI: And he did all of this strategically.

PHILPOTT: This is, like, a very smart investment for him. Like, you invest a dollar in politicians; you probably get $20 back in profits. ADM was unusual in Washington because they hired no lobbyists in Washington. And that was because they didn't need to. Dwayne Andreas was essentially their walking, talking lobbyist.

ABDELFATAH: And when crisis struck, Andreas was ready.

Coming up, Dwayne Andreas gets a gift from the agricultural gods, uses his political chops to turn corn into sugar and fills our bodies with a new kind of sweetness.


THOMAS HOWE: Hi, I'm Thomas Howe (ph), and I'm calling from my taxonomy lab in Ester, Alaska. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Part three - the fifth century.

ARABLOUEI: In the 1970s, the U.S. was shaken by a crisis.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: Oil prices have been more than doubled by the oil producing nations of the Middle East.

ARABLOUEI: Some countries in the Middle East imposed a strict oil embargo, drastically limiting the amount of oil they exported to the U.S. Gas prices shot through the roof. And as we all know, when gas prices rise, American voters get pissed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have said to myself and to others that this is a Pearl Harbor again as far as the United States is concerned because of the fact that it envisions a whole change in our lifestyle, a whole change in the way this country has been built.

ARABLOUEI: Americans were demanding that the U.S. become less reliant on Middle Eastern oil.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: Many energy planners fear that this reliance could have grave foreign policy and economic problems for us in the years ahead.

ARABLOUEI: And that meant the American president, Jimmy Carter, had a problem he needed solved quickly.

ABDELFATAH: Luckily for President Carter, where much of America saw crisis, one man saw an opportunity.

PHILPOTT: And so Dwayne Andreas sells Jimmy Carter on this idea of subsidize me to make ethanol.

ABDELFATAH: Dwayne Andreas was close with Carter, and he proposed solving the energy crisis with ethanol, a super-pure form of alcohol made from corn. Ethanol could be mixed with gasoline and used as fuel, which could help stretch the U.S.'s oil supply further.

PHILPOTT: Give me tax breaks for every gallon of ethanol I make and I'll improve energy independence.


BOB HOPE: What's Texaco doing in a field of corn? Not growing it. Texaco is making gasohol. It's a mixture of 90% Texaco unleaded gasoline and 10% ethanol made from renewable crops like corn. Gasohol can't replace gasoline...

ABDELFATAH: President Carter supported the idea, and for Dwayne Andreas, it was perfect. ADM had a new stream of tax-exempt business for another corn product and Carter could take credit for addressing gas prices. Crisis was an opportunity for Andreas. But at some point, every crisis comes to an end.

PHILPOTT: Gas prices go from the stratosphere down to really cheap again. Ethanol no longer makes very much sense when the country is awash in gas. He's got this problem where he's invested in these ethanol factories, but there's not enough demand to really keep them humming.

ABDELFATAH: And then Dwayne Andreas comes up with a second sweeter idea.

PHILPOTT: I can use these same factories that I produce ethanol with to create high fructose corn syrup.

ARABLOUEI: High fructose corn syrup. It was originally invented in the 1950s as a sweetener alternative, but it never really got big. By the time Dwayne Andreas stumbled across it...

PHILPOTT: It was a product in search of a use.

ARABLOUEI: ...He just had to figure out how to sell it.

PHILPOTT: So he's got this product and it's a sweetener, and it's really, really sweet. But the problem is that it's too expensive.

ARABLOUEI: He can't sell it at a price that's competitive with regular old cane sugar. So ADM has to come up with another scheme and pull on more political levers to find a way to make high fructose corn syrup a viable business.


RONALD REAGAN: I'm the president of the United States.

ABDELFATAH: President Ronald Reagan steps up to a podium. It's a crisp fall day, and he's wearing a long tan coat over his usual suit and tie. At the podium, he's dwarfed by an enormous metal bin behind him, a bin filled to the brim with corn.


REAGAN: This is quite a show you're putting on here. And what a pleasure it is for me to be back home in Illinois.

ABDELFATAH: He's speaking to a crowd gathered at a family-run farm in the heart of America's Corn Belt.


REAGAN: Year after year here in the Midwest, you produce from your rich black earth about a full harvest called the American equivalent of the oil riches in the Persian Gulf.

ARABLOUEI: Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 and became president in 1981. His presidential campaign was full of patriotism. It was aimed at the hearts of farmers in America's heartland, all across the Midwest. On the campaign trail, he promised to put profit back in farming and put farmers' interests above the world market. In other words, he promised to make America great again. And for Dwayne Andreas, this rhetoric presented another opportunity.

PHILPOTT: Jimmy Carter leaves office in 1980. Ronald Reagan takes over. You know, for most people, that's a big contrast. To Dwayne Andreas, he's just a political power player. He's just as tight with Ronald Reagan. And so he goes to work with his lobbying to create a quota on sugar.

ABDELFATAH: A quota on sugar.


ABDELFATAH: Basically, Dwayne Andreas' plan was to promote the idea of putting limits on foreign sugar to protect domestic sugar companies.

PHILPOTT: There's this history of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. And with decolonization in the 20th century, there's still these awful sugar plantations that are able to produce sugar really cheap. And this sugar is coming in and sort of overwhelming the American market.

ABDELFATAH: Sugar producers in states like Florida are organizing. Like...

PHILPOTT: How can we stop this? And they get a key ally in Dwayne Andreas.

ARABLOUEI: He throws his support behind them like, yeah, absolutely. We got to put Florida's sugar farmers first. We got to slow down the importing of foreign sugar.

PHILPOTT: And so what the sugar quota does is, it says only a certain amount of - and a rather small amount - of foreign sugar can come into the United States. And once you've hit that quota, imports of sugar are banned. And so that is protecting the domestic sugar industry.

ABDELFATAH: But you might be asking...

PHILPOTT: Why would Dwayne Andreas do that?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, why would he help the competition in the sweetener market? It's because he's thinking bigger.


PHILPOTT: It turns out that because there's this quota in place, it raises the price of sugar because American producers are no longer competing with producers in the Caribbean.

MANNING: And so all they did was make high-fructose corn syrup all that more competitive.

PHILPOTT: So the price of sugar rises fairly steeply. And now, suddenly, high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than conventional sugar. And it's also a liquid.

ABDELFATAH: A liquid that could go into pretty much any processed food.

PHILPOTT: And he immediately starts making deals with Coca-Cola and other soft drink manufacturers. You've got to try this stuff. It's cheaper. It's blindingly sweet, you know? You only have to use so much of it.

MANNING: If you were Coca-Cola, you didn't care if it was cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. You didn't care as long as you sold a can of Coke to somebody. So it just became cheaper.

PHILPOTT: And then, slowly, other industries start to find uses for it. It goes into baked goods, TV dinner makers. It just, you know, takes this market by storm.

ABDELFATAH: And what about the sugar industry? Did they realize they were being duped?

PHILPOTT: I think the sugar industry was none too pleased with this development. But they - you know, they made their deal with the devil. And they lived with it.

ABDELFATAH: The strategy works. Within a few years, high-fructose corn syrup captures the sweetener market. It doubled in use by 1985. The American diet was transformed. And sweetness would never be the same.


ARABLOUEI: High-fructose corn syrup isn't used as much today as it was in the late 1980s. But high-fructose corn syrup and other corn-based sweeteners still make up a big portion of the sweetener market. And per capita, Americans are among the biggest consumers of sweeteners in the world. And excessive consumption of these sweeteners is associated with all kinds of health problems, like obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. You could argue that they've changed our bodies, our sense of taste and even the way our societies function.

ABDELFATAH: And it all happened behind the scenes. Industrial agriculture allowed for the mass production and distribution of corn-based sweeteners. The results of that process are delicious, enticing even seductive. Yet, we rarely get to truly understand its costs. And this was the case even back in the 1700s, when the world began its love affair with sugar. While Europeans were chugging their sugar-filled coffee and tea, people on the other side of the world in Haiti were suffering and dying to produce it.


PIERRE: The productivity of sugar in colonial Haiti was a direct result of the violence meted out on the people, who become Haitian.

ABDELFATAH: But the bill for these sins would eventually have to be paid. In 1791, after generations of death and misery, the Haitian people rose up and revolted.


PIERRE: I think there's a direct correlation between that type of violence and the success of the Haitian Revolution. The lived memory of that type of experience...

ABDELFATAH: It created one choice.

PIERRE: Liberty or death.


ABDELFATAH: The Haitian Revolution was, in many ways, a sugar revolution carried out for liberation from the oppressive, violent life that Europe's insatiable demands for sugar and profit had created.

PIERRE: What's ironic about that, in a sardonic sense, is that the same machetes that were used to cut down sugar cane are, during the Haitian Revolution, one of the primary weapons that these formerly enslaved laborers have to fight against the British, Spanish and French militaries.


ARABLOUEI: The Haitian Revolution was the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. It shocked the Western world. This thing, sugar, that provided easy calories and enjoyment was the source of such human misery. It was a moral contradiction that people had to grapple with.

PIERRE: This grappling is one of the most fascinating part of Enlightenment text.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Reading) Alas, said Candide, it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.

ARABLOUEI: The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire wrote a book called "Candide" in which there's an episode where the main character witnesses the horror of a sugar plantation in the Caribbean when he meets a disfigured enslaved man on the road.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Reading) When we work at the sugar canes and the mills snatched hold of a finger, they cut off the hand. And when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg. Both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.

PIERRE: They're debating these things 'cause though they can intellectually philosophize about the relationship between the coffee and the sugar that is at their desk, are you going to give up that? Are you going to - are you really going to give that up?


ABDELFATAH: After the Haitian Revolution, the answer was no. The world did not give up sugar. The machine didn't stop churning.

PIERRE: The technology that sugar planters learned in Haiti, they simply leave colonial Haiti and come to the U.S. They come to Cuba. They just migrate with the technology and, unfortunately, their enslaved people. So there are massive swaths of people who fought in the Haitian Revolution who end up dying in what becomes the Louisiana Territories or in Cuba because capitalism is going to capitalism, and sugar by this point is such a necessary part of the Atlantic diet.

PHILPOTT: The genius of the system is that you don't think about any of that when you're enjoying it. We have this system that is in place that we are all part of. You know, we were born into this system where we have all these really unhealthy foods at our disposal for very cheap. So there's a strong systematic part of it, but systems don't arise out of nowhere. They're made by people. And I think it's really important for us to, as we look at these systems and we examine them - well, who are the people that were behind them? Who are the architects of these systems?

PIERRE: How do you condense five centuries of a product's evolution and then tell the low-income descendants of the initial producers the same product that caused the enslavement of your ancestors is one of the leading causes to the illnesses that predominate? Because there are individual choices, but there are also structures that make those choices feasible.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...



STEINBERG: Anya Steinberg.




KATAYAMA: Devin Katayama.


CHILKOTI: Olivia Chilkoti.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Thames TV for archival tape and to Tamar Charney, Micah Ratner, Sierra Takushi, Nellie Joselyn, Laine Kaplan-Levenson and Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: And special thanks to our voice actors - Steve Moore, Bergen Hoff, Olivia Chilkoti and Devin Katayama. This episode was mixed by Alex Drewenskus.

ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org, or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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