In the 1932 film White Zombie, Murder Legendre, played by Béla Lugosi, controls an entire sugar refinery full of Haitian workers with his voodoo powers. With a campy wriggle of his bushy eyebrows and a particular gesture made by interlocking his hands, Legendre, a white man of French descent, is able to manipulate and control his workforce of mulatto and black Haitians without limitation.
These possessed characters, completely under another person's control, are what the original zombies, based on voodoo folk traditions, look like; this is broadly considered to be the first zombie film.
White Zombie's allegory for the bloody slave and, later, colonial trade that kept European and North American sweet tooth's satiated is what once constituted the dark side of sugar. Today, a more modern trope of zombie films—the all-consuming walking dead of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—defines our increasingly unhealthy relationship with sugar and other sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.
The modern zombie Romero created in his 1968 film, the lurching undead who wants to eat nothing but braaaaaaains, broke with the voodoo roots and anti-colonial critique of White Zombie. But the undying appetite of the undead made a social commentary of its own: The Romero zombie is widely considered to represent American’s mindless consumerism. In the 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, the human-zombie battle unfolds in the retail wonderland of the American mall.
A new report on sugar by the research branch of the banking conglomerate Credit Suisse dates the beginning of our zombie-like consumption of sugar to the same era in which Romero’s movies were first released. Having deemed fat to be the culprit in rising incidents of heart diseases and other chronic problems, sugar was added to an array of foods, many of them “savory,” in order to make new health-conscious, low-fat formulations palatable. And thus a sugar-craving zombie horde was born.
The video Credit Suisse released in conjunction with the report, “Sugar Consumption at a Crossroads,” is, sadly, unaware of its location within the historical arc of zombie narratives. But if you imagine the mounds of sugar obscuring foods like burgers and pickles as brains, the Walking Dead vibe will come through more clearly, I promise. The numbers presented, on the other hand, make the rise in rampant sugar consumption screamingly clear. Globally, the average daily consumption is 17 teaspoons, or a generous third of a cup—up 45 percent compared to 30 years ago.
In the United States? As in most forms of consumption, we’re a global leader: Americans eat 40 teaspoons per person per day of sugar and other high-calorie sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.
The impact of this spike goes far beyond a few extra cavities here and there: Type 2 diabetes is increasingly prevalent, and the same cardiovascular diseases that lead to reducing fats in foods in the 1970s and 80s are still on the rise, thanks to sugar.
And since this is a financial conglomerate we’re getting this information from, of course it comes with a price tag: "Sugar is sweet, but its aftertaste for the global healthcare system is bitter," the narrator says in the crisp British accent of global finance. "Costs to the global healthcare system are estimated at $470 billion."
The report floats a tax, like the one poised to pass in Mexico, as a possible solution. While the comment of Stefano Natella, head of global equity research and Credit Suisse, isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement, it is remarkable for coming from a banking conglomerate (albeit its research arm), a entity that would more often be in line with Big Food companies, who aggressively oppose “sin” taxes on their products, than the good of the public health. "To help fund the growing health costs associated with excess sugar consumption while reducing daily sugar intake, we believe taxation is an option that may soon be tested in some countries," he says.
Talk of taxes, of sugar as an addictive, societally dangerous product on par with tobacco and alcohol, has cloaked much of the average soda-drinking, fast-food-eating American’s diet in a shroud of fear—fear of a plague of obesity and chronic disease that could have a crippling impact on society.
The stakes for slaves working in the cane fields of the Caribbean were far more immediate and deadly than concerns of skyrocketing healthcare costs. But while it took centuries too long, the Murder Legendre-like control white, sugar-hungry nations held over the cane-growing islands of the Caribbean was eventually broken, ending the bitter association between sweet and slavery.
In one scene in White Zombine, a black worker falls to his death in a boiling vat of cane juice while his fellow glazed-eyed workers continue to shuffle around the factory in their zombie haze, the casualty unacknowledged. Perhaps we’ll eventually be able to move past our Romero-zombie relationship with sugar, and avoid another era of such casual casualties brought about by sugar.