Although added sugars make up about 13 percent of the typical American’s caloric intake, the prevalence of sugary foods and drinks in the human diet is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (Ervin). In fact, around 150 years ago, around 85 percent of Englishmen lived on a diet of a single starch supplemented by a small selection of other foods and lived with the constant threat of hunger (Mintz 13). The increase in sugar supply from the British colonies to England beginning in the mid 17th century gave the nation a taste for sugar, caused sugar consumption to explode, meal preparation time to decrease drastically and allowed for women to more easily enter the workforce.
Human beings have always had an innate taste for sweetness, which was satisfied by products other than sugar cane and sugar beets before their introduction to the masses (Allsop 513). Before sugar plantation proprietors began to heavily import their products from the New World back to Europe, the English people consumed honey as a means to thwart their craving for sweetness (Counihan 92). Honey was so popular that the intake level of this sweetener, “at various times during history may well have rivaled our current consumption of refined sugar” (Allsop 513). Thus, sugar was not always a major component in the typical British diet, but was transplanted into the diet by first making its way into the preferences of the wealthy and elite.
While honey was the ubiquitous sweetener before the 18th century, those in power sought the status of gaining access, paying high prices and displaying sugar in their homes, a process subsequently emulated by those in lower classes, eventually making sugar an essential good of the entire population (Mintz 154). Sugar began to infiltrate the ranks of the common man as prices fell 70 percent between 1645 and 1680 C.E., giving rise to a nation fueled by simple sugars (Mintz 160). The demand for sugar was high, and the plantation owners in the British colonies artificially created this demand with their continuous influx of supply. Although prices fluctuated throughout the 18th century, the driving demand of those back in England kept production levels on the rise, and expanded the regions where sugar was grown (Mintz 160). According to Mintz, “the popularization of sucrose, barely begun in 1650, brought some of it into the hands of even the very poor within a century; then between 1750 and 1850, it…became a necessity” (Mintz 161). In other words, as the common man sought the luxury of sugar originally reserved for the elite, those in charge of production used this opportunity to deliver their product to individuals from every walk of life within society.
The increases in the supply and the decreases in price of sugar during both the 17th and 19th centuries led to subsequent increases in the number of ways sugar was consumed in England. Throughout the history of western cuisine, those with money tended to eat protein-rich foods like meat, fish and poultry (Mintz 193). These foods took a great deal of time to prepare and were not calorically dense (Mintz 193). Sucrose, on the other hand, was extremely high in calories and required little to no preparation. Sweetened preserves, for example, did not spoil easily and were considered pleasing to children’s tastes (Mintz 130). This increased the appeal of sugar as a food, especially for the working classes, who had little time to eat in their industrial society and sought foods with a high energy–to–cost ratio (Mintz 130). Because of this shorter preparation time, women, traditionally in charge of cooking for their household, could then enter the labor force and provide financially for their families (Mintz 130). This coincided with the advent of industrial technologies and an increased demand for female workers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Sugar offered a cheap and satisfying meal to the British people, without the need to sacrifice hours of time during the cooking process.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
Counihan, Carole and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Food and Cuisine. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013. Print.
Ervin, R. Bethene and Cynthia L. Ogden. “Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005-2010”. CDC, May 2013. Web. 12 March 2015.
Allsop, Karen A. and Janette Brand Miller. “Honey Revisited: a reappraisal of honey in preindustrial diets”. British Journal of Nutrition (1996): 513-520. Web. 12 March 2015.
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