It was the astronomer Carl Sagan who said that “exponentials can’t go on forever, or they gobble up everything.” While Sagan was clearly not referencing the British appetite for sugar, the upward spike in sugar consumption makes his statement a relevant one. In the 1800s, British national consumption of sugar was a 300 million pounds. By 1852, it had reached a billion pounds—and was still climbing (Mintz). Meanwhile, the price of sugar was steadily decreasing.
From the Normal Eating Blog
While it seems that some things, contrary to Sagan’s statement can go on forever, the statistics reveal only part of the story. The sociology of sugar consumption, to use Mintz’s term, was highly gendered, with women consuming more sugar than men. Sugar intake was also a function of income, with poorer households consuming more than wealthier ones. Thus, women in poor households consumed the most sugar of all. These lower-income women consumed more sugar because they felt obligated to fulfill their roles as caretakers of the family; therefore, they put their families’ nutritional needs ahead of their own, compensating for the caloric deficit with sugar.
The idea of women prioritizing their family’s nutrition is most visible in times of famine. According to the Women and Nutrition: Reflections from India and Pakistan U.N. report, “the apparent contradiction between women’s primary responsibility for household nutrition…and their own serious malnutrition renders a simultaneous examination of these two aspects particularly interesting.” However, instead of holding these aspects in contradiction, they should be held in tandem. Women cut calories in order to fulfill their roles as caretakers. Thus, in a “captain is the last one off the ship” mentality, women must ensure the survival of other family members before they ensure their own.
In 19th century Britain, the husband’s survival would be prioritized above all other family members, simply because the woman knew that “all depended upon the wages of her husband”(Rowntree 135, as referenced by Mintz). Thus, heartier foods (meats and whole grains) went to the husband, presumably because his manly labor required more energy. Before the introduction of sugar to Britain, this meant women had to maintain a constant calorie deficit. Sugar allowed women to meet their caloric (though not necessarily nutritional) needs.
The act of compensating for lost calories with sugar was a function of not only gender, but income as well. Whereas men earned most of the family income, women were in charge of making household purchases. Even today, women account for 85% of consumer purchases and 93% of food purchases (She-conomy). However, instead of marketing products directly to women, food companies (especially sugar companies) capitalized on the role of the female caretaker.
Graph Courtesy of Harvard Business Review
The underlying message of these female-targeted advertisements is not “purchase this for you,” but “purchase this for your family.” There are very few sugar advertisements that market sugar directly to women; instead, the advertisements treat women only as surrogates for the needs of their family.
A 1966 sugar ad in Time Magazine. Note the lower right hand corner with the “Note to Mothers.” Photo Credit: Looka! Blog
Of course, women would end up consuming sugar themselves, primarily because of its cheapness. Since traditionally “male” foods such as meat and hearty breads cost more, sugar-based foods such as jams and jellies offered women a chance to stretch their food budget. In desperate circumstances, sugar with tea and bread provided a meal that was warm and energizing—even if it was low in essential nutrients. Thus, sugar’s role as an accompaniment to lower-priced foods meant that women would consume more of it in order to save more nutrient-dense foods for their husbands.
Many sugar companies further capitalized on the ideal of the female caretaker by creating recipe books that taught women how to incorporate sugar into recipes in order to increase their calorie density. Since sugar could more easily be incorporated into baked goods and low-protein foods (not the kinds of foods wives would serve to their husbands), women would end up consuming more sugar than men.
Sweet Talk: Recipes from the Domino Sugar Chef Photo Credit: Ebay
It is interesting to note that the ideals behind these eating patterns are still alive and well in today’s culture; the fact that protein rich foods are marketed primarily to male consumers, while sugary foods are marketed primarily to women reflects the diets of necessity that evolved around caloric deficits.
Photo Courtesy of Advertolog
Photo Courtesy of Advertolog
Furthermore, the higher rates of sugar consumption among low-income families once again reinforce the idea that family finances play a role. Considering the highly nuanced nature of sugar consumption in the past, it is necessary to consider sugar consumption today with the same level of criticism. Sugar is not merely a food, but also a reflection of existing social structures and ideas; a crystallization of the ideals we live and eat by.
Belasco, Warren James., and Philip Scranton. Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.Chatterjee, Meera, and Julian Lamber. Women and Nutrition: Reflections from India and Pakistan. UNICEF, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
Cohen, Rick. “Sugar.” National Geographic Society, Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
“MARKETING TO WOMEN QUICK FACTS.” She-conomy. Web. 6 May 2014.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
Picture Sources (in order of appearance)
Canter, Sheryl. “Normal Eating® Blog.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.