The degree of ubiquity of sugar in the modern American diet would have been staggering to any European citizen in centuries past. One need only look to Candy Crush, an incredibly popular mobile game thematically designed around solving puzzles with sugary candy in a sweet-based kingdom, to understand just how prevalent sugar has become in diets and even pop culture. How did sugar transition from a luxury good to an omnipresent culinary additive across the span of a few centuries? Sidney Mintz describes how “in 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters […] by no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories of the English diet” (Mintz 5-6). While this summarizes the transition nicely, immeasurable context is omitted by considering this statement alone. Due to low production costs stemming from the overseas plantation system, supplying sugar to the British public became an increasingly easy task. As a result, a relationship of mutual causality emerged, with the explosive popularity of both sugar and chocolate from the 17th century onwards being nontrivially linked to sugar’s use as a common additive in imported luxuries like cacao.
To contextualize sugar’s rise in England, it is important to first understand how it came to arrive there. The most notable production method for sugar was its export from cane sugar plantations in British colonies in the Americas. While other nations followed suit, the British were uniquely effective at this – as Mintz writes, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went further and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar” (Mintz 38). Due to low labor costs resulting from the mass employ of slaves on these plantations, production cost was relatively low for a good that was a relative luxury. From 1655, when sugar was originally introduced in England, to 1753, consumption of sugar rose from around 1,000 hogsheads to 104,000 hogsheads (Mintz 39). This implies that price had been driven down as a result of plantations becoming more efficient and widespread, and the resulting effect was that sugar became more common in English diets.
While plummeting sugar costs certainly helped enhance sugar’s popularity in England, they cannot be held solely accountable for the magnitude of its rise. Rather, luxury imports such as chocolate (as well as tea and coffee) served to amplify the effects of lowering sugar prices in the 17th century, providing a new vessel for the introduction of sugar into the English diet. Mintz speculates that this connection makes sense due to the inherently bitter nature of these imports; adding sugar tempers the bitter flavor with sweetness, which tends to be appreciated by everyone whereas bitter tastes often need to be acquired (Mintz 109-110). This is the first half of the link of mutual causality between chocolate and sugar – without the prevalence and availability of sugar, the rise of chocolate in England would not have been possible.
Here, the other half of the link of mutual causality between chocolate and sugar becomes more apparent. Sugar’s rise in popularity is partially attributable to the availability of new, uniquely bitter products like chocolate to which it could be added during the production process. Additionally, the spread of these products was timed extremely conveniently with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The availability of new manufacturing processes opened doors for combining sugar and chocolate in ways that proved exciting for consumers. For instance, in 1828 Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a proprietary means of alkalizing and pressing cocoa to create cocoa powder, which could be easily combined with sugar in production of chocolate. This “made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form” (Coe and Coe, 242). Consumer chocolate production followed, with Joseph Fry manufacturing individually packaged chocolate bars in 1847, and John Cadbury founding his company in 1824 in Birmingham to introduce variety in the types of available confections. Later innovations such as Rudolphe Lindt’s conche near the end of the 19th century helped streamline the addition of sugar even further, with the conche being used to distribute mixed ingredients better, to remove granularity, and to reduce particle size (which may have been important when adding something that begins as granular as sugar) (Coe and Coe 251).
With a new set of manufacturing techniques and an exciting array of more affordable chocolate confections, sugar was solidified as a staple of the British diet by the dawn of the 20th century. Of course, experimentation and implementation at scale have only expanded in the years since, with massive corporations such as Nestle, The Hershey Company, Lindt, Mars, and others dominating commercial markets. Nevertheless, the current state of the industry never could have been possible had sugar and chocolate both not arrived in the fashion that they did. Each depended on the other to grow its own popularity, laying out a relationship of mutual causality that harmonized to the tune of rapid growth across a few centuries.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
Schroeter, John Henry. “Our Richmond Heritage.” Richmond Jamaica. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.richmondjamaica.com/heritage.html>.
(USER) Spencer Chocolate. “Chocolate Conche.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKQiaKrh1_o>.
“Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and Fructose.” Office of Science Outreach. Indiana University. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.indiana.edu/~oso/Fructose/Fructose.html>.