The overconsumption of sugar in modern Western society and its potential adverse health effects are well documented. What makes this phenomenon particularly interesting is that sugar was not meaningfully present in European diets some 400 years ago. In Britain, few people had even known of its existence. The monumental increase in British sugar consumption between the 17th and 19th centuries can be directly linked to its transition in becoming primarily a sweetener additive to New-World products such as tea and chocolate.
There was a significant documented increase in the consumption of sugar during the 1700s and 1800s. The presence of sugar in Britain was first recorded in the 12th century. Initially, it was a valuable spice that was enjoyed only by the nobility and members of the king’s court. In fact, sugar and other spices were symbols of grandeur and consuming them confirmed one’s elite status. (Mintz 75). With the establishment of colonies in the Western Hemisphere in the 16th century, cane sugar production began and sugar became more available to the British population. The rise in consumption was drastic and rather expeditious.
In the late 17th century, sugar was largely omitted from the common English individual’s diet. 150 years later, the average consumption of sugar in Britain had swelled to almost 35 pounds per year. By 1900, sugar constituted one-fifth of the calories in an English person’s diet. (Mintz 5) It is evident that increased production was able to bring down the price of sugar. Although sugar prices did decrease threefold over those two centuries, the increased affordability of sugar was not the sole reason for it becoming such a staple of the English diet.
The emergence of products such as tea and chocolate in British society prompted the changing role of sugar as a sweetener, which increased its use by the population. Tea (which originated from China) and chocolate (Mesoamerican origins) were commodities produced in the New World and relied heavily on the colonial slavery system to sustain their profitability. There are several theories behind why sugar was first added to tea and chocolate. Both these drinks are naturally bitter and sugar was a way to assuage the harsher taste. (Mintz 109) Another rationale was that tea’s and chocolate’s stimulant properties were enhanced by sugar. The hot infused drinks began to be preferred over the traditional English beverages- cold alcoholic drinks. (Smith 187-188) As tea and chocolate became more popular choices to beer and other spirits, sugar, by virtue of its inclusion in the drinks, became more widely consumed. It is important to highlight these changes relate to when the products were still only enjoyed and consumed by the more elite levels of society.
As tea and sugar became inextricably linked, tea (and by extension, sugar) became popularized among the masses. A study conducted by Sir Frederick Eden in 1797 found that the average family devoted 10% of their food budget to tea and sugar. (Mintz 116) This dependence on sugar is notable considering that sugar had not been featured in most persons’ diets only a century before. Even the poorest used tea to moisten bread and give their meal more flavor.
This 1846 painting by E. T. Parris illustrates sugar’s coupled association with tea as well as the product’s popularization in British society. The empty barrel of sugar has been sold directly next to a tea dealer. Additionally, the children are seen jumping inside the barrel, potentially to see if there is any sugar left. This all exemplifies sugar’s growing importance in everyday diet.
Likewise, chocolate’s mass production and popularization in 19th century Britain also contributed to the increase in sugar consumption. With the invention of the hydraulic press by Coenraad Van Houten in 1828, sugar could be more easily added to the newly created cocoa powder. (Coe & Coe 253) In 1849, the British chocolate manufacturer, Fry’s, created the first chocolate bar, which contained sugar.
The bar was marketed to the public and enjoyed widespread popularity among all social classes. The introduction of milk chocolate at the turn of the 20th century would further promote chocolate and its additive, sugar.
By 1900, sugar was firmly ingrained as a staple of the British diet. This was attained due to the introduction of tea and chocolate to British society as well as sugar’s role as the additive sweetener in both products. The popularization of sugar was drastic and speedy. One could say that the British developed a sweet tooth seemingly overnight.
Picture Sources (in order of appearance):
Canter, Sheryl. “Normal Eating® Blog.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
“The Sugar Hogshead.” British Museum, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
“Chocolate Nostalgia.” Not Delia Chocolate Nostalgia Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
Richardson, David. “The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748-1776.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17.4 (1987): 739. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Smith, Woodruff D. “Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.2 (1992): 259-78. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.