Living in America, it is nearly impossible to escape the ongoing national conversation(s) about food—from the “obesity epidemic” to the rise of antioxidant “superfoods” to various fad diets to government bans on supersize sodas, the headlines seem to universally declare what Michael Pollan asserted in the introduction to his brilliant, landmark The Omnivore’s Dilemma: America has a “national eating disorder.” But we are not alone in this—our former mother country of Great Britain has just as feverish a menagerie of national dietary anxieties. By far chiefest among the food issues weighing on the British collective consciousness, however, is their peoples’ intake of sugar. A cursory search of the word “sugar” in the leading British newspaper The Guardian’s archives turns up over 40,000 results. A few sample headlines from the last few months alone:
Sugar ‘could be addictive’
Chief medical officer Sally Davies says government should introduce tax on sugar to combat growing menace of obesity
We must end this sweet madness of excess sugar consumption
Eating too much sugar is damaging our health, but the food, drink and farming industries are blocking change
Sugar is now enemy number one in the western diet
Action on Sugar is keen to make the public aware of the dangers and for manufacturers to face regulation
Obesity experts campaign to cut sugar in food by up to 30%
Doctors say marketing ploys to cut calories are ineffective, now industry must slowly lower sugar content of processed foods
Adults should cut sugar intake to less than a can of Coke a day, says WHO
World Health Organisation’s director of nutrition says adults should get only 5% of daily calories from sugar
Clearly, there is a great deal of anxiety in modern Britain about overconsumption of sugar. But 1000 years ago, sugar was entirely foreign to Britain, and just 500 years ago it was an obscure luxury of extraordinary rarity. How did British consumers get from there to here? The story of British sugar consumption’s change over time is both fascinating and rich with connections to a great many other important historical phenomena.
Sugar had appeared in Britain in tiny quantities by 1100, and continued to trickle in intermittently and irregularly for the next several centuries (Mintz, xxix). A Guardian article profiling the British national relationship to sugar summarized the slow increase of sugar’s presence strikingly: “Mentions of sugar are hard to find in Chaucer but common enough in Shakespeare” (“Britain”). The significant history of sugar in Britain does indeed seem to begin in the Elizabethan era, whose namesake queen, tellingly, had blackened teeth by the end of her life from overconsumption of sugar (Mintz, 134).
Queen Elizabeth the First
(Image Source: http://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=elizabeth1)
Tooth Decay. Quite a juxtaposition, isn’t it?
(Image Source: http://www.iapdworld.org/parents/super_pages.php?ID=parents2)
In this time, the queen was one of very few people privileged enough to destroy their teeth in this way: when it first began to be consumed in any quantity at all in Britain, sugar was a conspicuous luxury of the very rich (Mintz, 84). The rich who consumed (very small) quantities of sugar in this time categorized it as a spice alongside other exotic flavorful plant products such as cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg (Mintz, 84). This usage fell out of fashion after the 16th century, which sugar expert Sidney Mintz says marked the peak of sugar-as-spice, just before the “prices, supplies, and customary uses [of sugar] began changing rapidly and radically,” (Mintz, 86). He notes, however, that modern consumers are still familiar with this “condimental” use of sugar, however strange it may seem at first consideration: holiday foods, Mintz tells us, “often preserve what the everyday loses,” and such traditional holiday foods as gingerbread and brown-sugar glazed hams hearken back to very old uses of sugar in Europe (Mintz, 87). In addition to its use as a spice, sugar was displayed by the rich as a decoration: beautiful and edible sculptures were presented with great fanfare at the feasts of the nobility (Mintz 88). The practice of sugar sculpting, too, continues to this day.
Sugar Sculpture. (Image Source: http://theparisletter.blogspot.com/2012/05/kings-of-pastry-be-man-this-is-mof.html)
In the 16th century, Mintz points out, merchants also began to participate in the conspicuous display and consumption of sugar in this same way—evidence of changing sugar consumption patterns that also reveal the slowly shifting balance of power from a feudal to a merchant political economy (Mintz 90). One last archaic use of sugar which also has vestiges in the modern day is as a miraculous medicine: sugar was both the “active ingredient” and a facilitative additive in an untold host of medicines (Mintz 98-99). It is interesting to note that medicinal sugar faced the same questioning as medicinal chocolate did when it confronted the Galenic medical paradigm of Europe—namely, what its humoric properties might be, and whether it was “food” enough that eating it broke the fast (Mintz 99) (c.f. my first response paper). The ghost of sugar’s medicinal past still haunts us today in the form of supposed hiccup cures and, of course, songs from Mary Poppins. Sugar does, of course, have physiological properties exceeding those of most foods, just not those that were supposed by the theorists of European medicine. We will return to a discussion of sugar’s psychoactive properties below.
The post-16th-century “rapid and radical” change in British sugar consumption to which Mintz refers has an unsurprising origin: the Americas. Sugar and slaves arrived simultaneously in the British colonial settlement of Jamestown in 1619, and though Jamestown never grew sugar in any quantity, this fact is indicative of the close relationship between sugar, slavery, and European colonization of the Americas (Mintz, 37). (The point is illustrated below by a contemporaneous newspaper cartoon.)
In this cartoon, the planter is speaking; the caption translates to “Say what you like, but you can’t make sugar without the cane!”
(Image Source: The Sugar Museum, http://www.sdtb.de/Colonial-trade-and-slavery.1297.0.html)
European nations were interested primarily in extracting wealth from their colonies, and at the same time that the American south began to cultivate such profitable cash crops as rice, indigo, and tobacco, the colonies in the West Indies were turned into island-sized sugar plantations. Beginning with the island of Barbados in 1640, Britain’s empire rapidly began to produce unprecedented amounts of sugar (Mintz 38). As Mintz says, “sugar steadily changed from being a specialized—medicinal, condimental, ritual, or display—commodity into an ever more common food,” becoming primarily a sweetener and preservative used by the common people (Mintz, 37, 121). This paper will not concern itself with the specific changes in the production side of the sugar supply chain, vital though they are to a comprehensive understanding of sugar’s history, and will concern itself instead solely with British consumption practices. Suffice it to say that massive movements of imperial power and capital—as well as human lives in the form of enslaved Africans—were undertaken to produce ever-more sugar for the hungry markets of the mother countries. A glance at the statistics illustrates the point: England went from importing 1000 hogsheads of sugar in 1660 to importing 110,000 in 1753, and the proportion that she re-exported fell dramatically in the same time. No matter how much the West Indian colonies produced, however, British demand kept up and exceeded it at every point—sugar came, during this time, to “define English ‘character,’” (Mintz 39). By 1750, even the poorest English people took sugar in their tea (Mintz 45). The importance of sugar as a daily commodity is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the conventional sign for a grocer’s shop was a sugar loaf.
A sugar loaf, pictured with the tongs used to scrape off small portions. (Image Source: https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/preserves/)
Examples of grocer’s signs featuring sugar loaves (and tea canisters):
(Image Source: http://www.dobynsandmartin.com/)
(Image Source: http://www.cluesheet.com/All-About-Coffee-XIII.htm)
(Image Source: http://savoringthepast.net/2012/09/27/grocer-advertisement-from-boston-1732/)
Tea was taken with sugar, bread had treacle and jam spread on it, porridge was sweetened with sugar, sweet cakes and breads and puddings became a normal part of the English diet (Mintz 120). In the 19th century, sugar consumption once again tracked a change in the balance of power just as significant as that from the feudal paradigm to the merchant economy—as the merchants lost power to the industrial capitalists, sugar became a staple of the proletariat as both food and drug (Mintz 46, 183). Not only was it a normalized additive to many food items, sugar’s energy-boosting properties as a psychoactive helped people to adjust to the new work schedules demanded by industrial labor (Mintz 181).
As it has remained an unwitting ally of the reigning mode of production since then, we should be unsurprised that sugar consumption has only continued to steadily rise worldwide. Sugar remained cheap and ubiquitous (excepting the economically anomalous world wars) through the 20th century, and today much of the “first world” (for want of a better term) finds itself in a crisis of sugar overconsumption. Bittersweet indeed.
“Britain is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian. Published 10/12/07, accessed 3/14/14. <http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity>
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking Penguin Inc., 1985. London, England.