Sugar: Past and Present

In most developed countries around the world, the sense that sugar is somehow a birthright is ubiquitous. Found in the diet of many western countries, it is an ever-present ingredient in many foods, most of which are pre-packaged or prepared in a fast, convenient manner. The United Kingdom comes to mind as one of these western countries; for example, one cannot help but think of the stereotypical  British custom of High Tea in the afternoon, drinking tea with sugar while snacking on sweet cakes and tidbits before supper. As popular as sugar is today, mass consumption of it was unheard of a few hundred years ago. In Britain, sugar was once hard to find and used very sparingly; this is in stark contrast to how much sugar is prevalent in the present day as well as the alarming rise in preventable diseases.

In his book Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz said “Sugar was a rarity in the mid 1600’s, a luxury in the mid 1700’s and virtual necessity by the mid 1800’s” (Mintz, 1986, pp. 147-148). Over time, as sugar became more popular in Britain, there were five main uses for it: sugar in medicine, sugar as a spice, sugar as decorative art, sugar as a sweetener, and finally sugar as a preservative. Sugar was a rarity before the seventeenth century as it was very difficult to access, mostly because of how much it cost. Although many people in Europe knew about sugar since the 1100’s, it was quite expensive to acquire. As such, for many years it was used in the diets of only the very elite and royalty (Martin, 2015).

The practice of using slaves as inexpensive labor, as well as mass production of sugarcane on plantations allowed the high costs associated with sugar to decrease.
The practice of using slaves as inexpensive labor, as well as mass production of sugarcane on plantations allowed the high costs associated with sugar to decrease.

Mintz states how sugar as a spice seemed to reach a peak approximately a hundred years earlier, in the sixteenth century (Mintz, 1986, p. 86). It was shortly after this time that production of sugar became much more cost effective. New British colonies in places where sugar cane could grow successfully, along with the influx of African slaves as free labor, cut the exorbitant costs associated with sugar (Cohen, 2013). Lower costs and greater production allowed more of the public in general to have access to sugar. In 1770, sugar consumption in Britain was five times greater than what it had been just sixty years earlier in 1710 (Taylor, 2012). By the nineteenth century, on average, sugar accounted for around one-sixth of the daily caloric intake for the British public (Mintz, 1986, p. 149).

In the United Kingdom today, the average adult (ages 19 to 64) consumes an average of 58.8 grams of added sugar per day (Jeavans, 2014). Multiply the total amount of grams by 365 days, and when converted to imperial units, equates to a total of 47.3 pounds (according to one’s own calculations) throughout one calendar year.

   This graph shows how much extra sugar, on average, people consume per day in the United Kingdom.
This graph shows how much extra sugar, on average, people consume per day in the United Kingdom.

According to Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses” (Cohen, 2013). This level of consumption easily qualifies for a high amount of sugar, considering it is an average for an entire nation of people. Chronic diseases are also linked with intakes of large amounts of sugar, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as an increased risk of obesity (Howard & Wylie-Rosett, 2002). Such diseases are indeed on the rise and are more prevalent than before. There is a consensus that the rapid rise in the role sugar places in our diet could be responsible for this (Cohen, 2013).

Sugar is found in most prepackaged foods in western diets today. Scholars believe there is a correlation between sugar consumption and preventable chronic diseases.
Sugar is found in most prepackaged foods in western diets today. Scholars believe there is a correlation between sugar consumption and preventable chronic diseases.

Around the world, the demand for sugar has never been higher. However, like the old saying goes, “you can have too much of a good thing.” Within the last few years, individuals are realizing the impact so much sugar can have on their overall health. Many people today who live in countries where consumption of sugar is high are not employed in occupations where a large amount of energy is required for work. People simply do not need to eat as much as they once had to, because they do not have the means to burn off all the energy and calories they consume on a typical day to day basis. The average daily amount of calories per day necessary for a farmer in Yorkshire in 1715 is not the same as a stockbroker in London in 2015; the farmer simply required more calories, as he did more physically strenuous work.  Moderation is the key to almost everything in life, and this without a doubt, includes sugar.  It would not be much of a stretch to see partitions partaking in iconic British High Tea using alternative sweeteners in their tea and snacks, without even noticing much of a difference!

 

Work Sited

 

Cohen, R. (2013, August). Sugar Love (A not so sweet story). National Geographic. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sugar/cohen-text

Howard, B., & Wylie-Rosett, J. (2002). Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease. American Heart Association.  Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/106/4/523.full

Jeavans, C. (2014, June 16). How much sugar do we eat? BBC News.  Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325 

Martin, C. (2015, February 25). Popular sweet tooths and scandal. Lecture conducted from Harvard Extension School , Cambridge.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Taylor, C. (2012). The Black Carib Wars freedom, survival, and the making of the Garifuna (p. 53). Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press.

 

Multimedia Sources

Photo of slaves at sugar cane plantation – http://www.organicnutrition.co.uk/articles/is-sugar-bad-for-you.htm 

Graph of daily consumption of extra sugar in UK – http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325 

Image of sugar cubes on pink background –http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/02/13591/quantity-sugar-food-supply-linked-diabetes-rates

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