We Can’t Escape Sugar: Examining the Rise of Sugar through Social and Economic Lenses

How has sugar become such a large part of our lives? It is hard not to consume food anthropologist Sidney Mintz explains, “If we choose not to eat sugar, it takes vigilance and effort, for modern societies are overflowing with it” (1985). Sugar has seen the greatest increase in production of any major food product in recent years (Martin, February 11). Following the ever-skyrocketing popularity of sugar may give a sense of how American sugar consumption increased from 2 pounds per year 200 years ago to 152 pounds per year today (Martin, February 25). To fully understand these major changes over time, we look to the history of sugar consumption in Great Britain.

World sugar consumption has skyrocketed in a very short period of time, and it continues to trend upward.

Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History describes the many social uses of sugar: as a medicine, decoration, spice, sweetener, preservative. These uses certainly made it versatile and contributed to the large increases in sugar consumption. However, we can further Mintz’s theory by adding the element of economics to the argument. When sugar was first introduced to the English diet, it was very expensive and therefore not available to anyone but the wealthiest. Using this fact, we will gain a deeper understanding of how mass consumption of sugar arose.

The humoral scheme was the leading medical theory until the discovery of germ theory. It claimed that people become sick because they had an imbalance of humors. Sugar was used as a wet substance to counteract bad dryness.

Sugar was often used as a medicine in the past, preposterous as it sounds now. Licensed doctors of the past proclaimed sugar as a “veritable cure-all, its only defect being that it could make ladies too fat” (Mintz 1985). There was nothing a little sugar could not cure and very few drawbacks to its uses as well. As technology improved, sugar became easier to refine, resulting in a very fine white powder. At this time, the color white was still very closely associated with purity. Therefore, following the Galen humoral scheme, sugar was a very effective medicine because it could rid the body of black biles and other negative entities. When the cost of sugar decreased, it became more accessible to the poor and the niche of sugar in medicine changed. Not only was it used as a general medicine, but it could make other bitter tasting medicines slightly more palatable. As Mary Poppins would say, “a spoonful of sugar will help the medicine to go down” (Martin, February 25). Here, we see that as the cost of sugar decreased, a larger portion of the population gained access to it, and its multiple functions also grew far and varied.

Sugar was often used as a way to make medicines more palatable, especially for children.

The transformation of sugar from a spice to a sweetener is responsible for its most prominent function today. Sugar, because of its high costs in the 13th century, was mainly used as a spice to give flavor to the drab foods that most were consuming daily (Mintz 1985). Therefore, it was added sparingly, even to the dishes of the richest of the rich. It was the fashion to spice bland foods but later, it became a sweetener, especially following the introductions of tea, coffee, and chocolate (Mintz 1985). And as the prices of sugar continued to drop, it became more accessible to a larger population. As Mintz aptly describes, “Sugar as a sweetener seems glaringly obvious to us; but the shift from spice to sweetener was historically important, and sugar use in Britain changed qualitatively when this became economically possible.” The main difference between the uses of sugar as a spice and as a sweetener differ only in that one is used more sparingly, while in the other, sugar is the main ingredient; the main cause of this change in frequency of use lies in the economics of sugar. So, the uses of sugar increased in population and dramatically in the amounts utilized mainly due to economic feasibility.

The use of sugar as a method of preservation and the changes it has experienced over time perhaps show most clearly the influence of economics. Sugar served well as a preservative, especially for those whose growing months were short and where food rotted quickly. When sugar was still an expensive commodity in the 15th century, only the members of the English royalty could afford to preserve fruits with sugar (Mintz 1985). It was a luxury that not everyone could afford, no matter how useful. But, as sugar became more affordable, jams and jellies were later seen as food of the working class—they were the ones who needed sugar as a preservative because they could not afford to buy fresh foods or meats. Mintz describes how “when the price of sugar fell sharply after the big victories of the free-trade movement of the mid-nineteenth century, jam consumption began to catch hold among working people” (1985). The main cause of this development is the decreasing price of sugar. Otherwise, this subset of the population would never have had access to sugar.

Throughout these examples, we see the common trend that sugar seems to be losing its meaning as the cost of sugar drops and the working class obtains more access. Because more people now have access to the sugar, it is nothing special, though it is unique in that so much of it is available and accessible today. Both the economic and social perspectives are necessary in order to gain the full picture of just how sugar became so widely used in our generation. As prices of sugar decreased, its use in our diets increased and its other symbolic meanings fell out of use. Indeed, it is a necessary luxury today.



Works Cited

Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.

Mintz, S. (2008). Time, Sugar, and Sweetness. In Counihan, C. & Van Esterik, P. (Eds.), Food and Culture (91-103). Routledge: New York.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. February 11, 2015. Lecture 5: Chocolate Expansion.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. February 25, 2015. Lecture 9: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.

Image 1: Taken from https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/G5ckhuI9b1Qv_FVbtlmPYYTbXSyp9EEEP6uBid4zlCc=w698-h422-p-no.

Image 2: Taken from http://www.themitralvalve.org/mitralvalve/admin/uploads/Homur.jpg.

Image 3: Taken from https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/1c42d-mp.jpg.

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