Addicted to Sugar: History and changes in British sugar consumption

Sugar consumption in British culture has increased greatly since the 16th and 17th century. At one point, sugar was reserved only for higher-class individuals; it was considered a luxury like gold or chocolate. Over time, consumption moved from high class individuals to all; it became a part of everyone’s daily diet. There are many factors that contributed to the increase in consumption including the popularity of beverages like tea, coffee, and chocolate, and the removal of import tariff, which lowered the price. There was also trouble growing crops during the 17th and 18th century which meant people’s diets needed to be supplemented, and since sugar was more affordable, it because part of the solution. Although there are many reasons why sugar consumption has increased, maybe the main reason is it’s addictive properties.


Sugar had five principal functions: medicine, spice, sweetener, decorative material, and preservative.  Sugar as a sweetener became more popular because it was connected to three other exotic imports – tea, coffee, and chocolate. All are tropical products, all were new to England in the 17th century, and all contain stimulants and can be properly classified as drugs. Tea, coffee and chocolate are naturally bitter substances, which something humans have a natural liking for.  Sweet tasting substances insinuate themselves more quickly into the preference of new consumers. The success of tea in Britain contributed greatly to the success of sugar. Of the drinkable beverages, tea was more affordable and readily available by the beginning of the 19th century. Tea became a substitute for malt liquor in the middle and lower classes. “…the common people of any European nation should be obliged to use, as part of their daily diet, two articles imported from opposite sides of the earth” ( Mintz 116). Sugar and tea became such a vital part in the British diet that their supply had become a political and economic matter.  Sugar also was important for the poor because it supplements complex carbs.  “The decline in the symbolic importance of sugar has kept almost perfect step with the increase in its economic and dietary importance. As sugar became cheaper and more plentiful, its potency as a symbol of power declined while its potency as a source or profit gradually increased” (Mintz 95).

In a New York Times article by James DiNicolantonio and Sean Lucan, we learn that sugar is in over 75 percent of packaged foods in the United States (2014). Unlike sugar consumption in 17th and 18th century England, sugar does not offer a survival advantage; it is detrimental to our health.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, England experienced poor harvests, which resulted in bad nutrition vulnerability to disease (Mintz). “During the centuries that sugar and other unfamiliar substances were entering into the diet of the English people, then, that diet was still meager, even inadequate, for many if not most people” (77 Mintz). Today, the process by which sugar is refined is similar to that of poppies into heroin. (DiNicolantonio, Luca 2014). Sugar has also been known to have symptoms consistent with substance abuse: cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal.

Consumption in Britain evolved and increased over time. This increase can be attributed to political and economic changes and diet needs. Perhaps sugar has remained a large part of people’s everyday diet because of its addictive qualities.


“Are we hooked on sugar?” Channel 4 News. 26 FEBRUARY 2013. Web.

DiNicolantonio, James and Sean Lucan. “Sugar Season. It’s Everywhere, and Addictive.” New York Times. New York Times, 22 December 2014. Web.

Herman, Uwe. Sugar. Digital image. April 2006. Web.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.


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