Sugar from Spice to Probably Not Everything Nice

Sugar has evolved to become a high-grossing global food of today. Sugar’s current dominance, though, was not wrought overnight but by its gradual diversification and popularization. Over a lengthy course of time in Europe, while sugar’s consumption overall acquired an near exponential trajectory, the attitudes regarding sugar were created, developed, and are constantly being conflicted and reshaped even today. Sugar’s increasing availability becomes a primary driver for its industrialization, expansion, and thus popularity worldwide.

While being vastly used as for spice and medicinal usages for centuries before in regions like the Middle East and North Africa, sugar was almost completely unknown to peoples of Europe. It wasn’t until 1100 AD when sugar enters Europe predominantly being utilized as for medical and spicing purposes (Mintz, 80). With continued use of sugar within Europe, more purposes were utilized for sugar. Very quickly sugar attained five primary functions by which it can be defined: as spice, as medicine, as decorative material, as preservative, and as sweetener. Though once nonexistent, sentiments toward sugar began Sugar usage steadily increased such that, interestingly in the 12th century, it became even a qualm of fasting laws as Catholics considered if sugar was to be classified as a food or not. This versatility that is inherent in sugar was the primary propellant to its increase in favorability amongst the people and its becoming a staple in European society over the coming centuries as illustrated in the graph below.

From Sweet Diversity via the Normal Eating blog.

The inverse relationship between the price and consumption of sugar is clear and expected. Previously, only the rich and royal possessed sugar; but as the functionality of sugar increased, demand also increased and prices dropped which only further accelerated sugar’s consumption rate. The increasing consumption and availability of sugar as illustrated above corroborates the evolution of sugar toward being recognized as a valuable food item, and it denotes the widespread desire and reception of sugar by most people within Europe.

Pouring into the 20th century at full force, sugar has completely inundated the food industry and has become an essential constituent of most processed foods, especially as the industrialization of sugar becomes more advanced. It is at this time in the earlier portions of the 20th century that sugar reaches it’s highest point of universal acceptance as it saturates media and pop culture. Popular examples of such sugar saturation include Mary Poppins the book series (1934) by P. L. Travers and the musical film (1964). In a segment of the film, Mary Poppins the world’s greatest nanny sings “A Spoonful of Sugar” as she uses her magic to complete house chores while bringing wonder to the eyes of the children under her care.

In this musical number Mary Poppins teaches the children to find the delight in seeming unsavory experiences like chores as she sings that “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The function of sugar as medicine is utilized in the song to associate sugar with pleasure or delight. Moreover, Mary Poppins’ use of sugar draws a not so subtle connection between sugar and magic. Such examples in media in the earlier portions of the 20th century sensationalize sugar especially amongst the youth, enhancing further the public’s positive opinion on sugar.

However, toward the later portions of the 20th century, scientific inquiries targeted sugar in regard to its effects on health. Research from the 1960s to 1980s would prove sugar’s adverse effects on health with consequences such as excessive weight gain and tooth decay. Dissemination of such off-putting findings would certainly impact public opinion of sugar negatively. Big sugar industries perceived these impending climate changes of the sugar economy as a cue to interject themselves through visible publicity management via superficial and disingenuous advertisements and studies but also through scandalously covert strategies. What is now being collectively called “The Sugar Papers”, a large body of documentary evidence has surfaced relatively recently, showing big sugar industries’ heavy involvement and influence of research on dental decay. Amongst the collection of hundreds of industry documents, it is clear that a large sugar industry trade organization composed of 30 international parties knew as early as 1950 that sugar caused dental decay. Yet sugar industries extensively allied themselves with health organizations such as the National Institute of Health to strategize and devise solutions favorable to these industries that did not involve reducing sugar output to the public by law (Nestle).

Click the image above to see similar advertisements.
Advertisements by big sugar and cereal companies. Click the image above to see similar advertisements.

Though these are examples of sugar industries’ engagement predominantly with American society and public opinion, it can be extrapolated that the comparable situation was occurring overseas in Europe, specifically England. Regardless, sugar has become an inextricable part of people’s lives but which still leaves people wondering what to make of it.

It is because of interference in the proper conduction and output of research that still to this day many misconceptions and misinformation exists in regard to sugar and people’s bodies. Delaying the attainment of crucial information about the detrimental effects of sugar that immediately impacts one’s life expectancy was the mechanism by which sugar maintained its lofty position in the public’s view. However, the release of more truthful and complete information, even in the form of the above video, will cleanse the public’s collective palate in regard to sugar.

Works Cited

Barbara Sally Humphries. “Spoon Full of sugar – Mary poppins.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 24 May 2008. Web. Retrieved 12 March 2015.

Hersh, Jonathan, and Hans Voth. Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2009. Normal Eating. Web. 13 March 2015.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Nestle, Marion. “Study documents sugar industry influence on dental research in the 1960s and 1970s.” Web blog post. Food Politics.11 March 2015. Web. 12 March 2015.

Oatman, Maddie. “10 classic ads from the sugar and cereal industries.” Web blog post. Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress. Web. 12 March 2015.

Sugar is Killing Us. “Sugar is Killing Us.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. Retrieved 13 March 2015.


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