A Sweet Conquest: How Sugar Overtook Britain

It took hundreds of years for sugar to conquer the United Kingdom, but once it did, its foothold in the Britain could not be denied 1.  When sugar first reached British soil, it initially entered the English diet primarily via the aristocracy 1.  However, its price made it a luxury even among the royalty and the very wealthy 1.  It has been theorized that prior to sugar being imported to England that the first British citizens to taste sugar were probably soldiers in the Crusades, who were charged with fighting the Muslims in Syria 1.  For a long time, it was the high price of sugar that kept it in the domain of the rich – then everything changed regarding the perception of sugar once its price came down 1.

Crusades Photo

During the English reign of Henry II between 1154-1189 CE, sugar was used extremely sparingly, however one of his future successors Henry III ordered a single purchase of 300 pounds of sugar in 1243 CE 2 .  Even though at the time this was a significant purchase; it was just the beginning of sugar’s relationship with the British 2.  In 1287 CE, the household of Edward I (pictured below) used 2,877 total pounds of a variety of different types of sugars 2.  The very next year that same household increased its total sugar consumption to 6,258 pounds 2.  By this point, sugar had taken hold of the royals, and it was not letting go.  However, this was only the start of sugar’s powerful English influence.  The steps to sugar’s UK domination began primarily at the top and worked itself down to the masses.  So the real question is: what is it specifically about sugar that allowed it to eventually take hold of the lion’s share of the British population?

King Edward I Photo

Sugar established itself as a favorite by appealing to the taste buds via a chemical called neuropeptide Y, which sends a message to the brain that something sweet is being ingested 3.  This chemical reaction and the signal which follows it are due to the glucose and sucrose bonding with hydrogen in the mouth 3.  Thus, on a molecular level the brain (English and otherwise) decodes the sweetness of sugar as pleasing and stimulating 3.  In this interpretation lies sugar’s allure, which is why once it became economically feasible, sugar achieved its favorable position in the British diet.

Sugar Chemical Photo

Just like nearly all commodities, the sugar market was dominated by supply and demand.  When the wealthier portion of the population started purchasing sugar in larger quantities, the sugar producers not only increased their output, they further explored ways to make the production of sugar as inexpensive as possible 4,5.  An important component in this sugar production equation was slave utilization 4,5.  This means that as sugar production became more efficient that it could conceivably be sold at a lower price, and thus become accessible for a larger – and much less wealthy – portion of the British population 4,5.  As a result, more of those new sugar consumers demanded more and more sugar 4,5.  Thus, an increase in sugar output would be perpetuated, and that would most likely require more slaves for the typical sugar producer 4,5.  Hence, until the sugar market approached an economic equilibrium, this cycle of the price of sugar production moving down and the amount of consumption moving up was in full force.  The worst part of all of this was that for a long period that “economic progress” was built upon a continuously increasing need for slave laborers 4,5.  Sugar became a shining example of the dark side of capitalism and its ability to exploit when taken to a horrifying extreme 4,5.

UK Sugar Chart

Nevertheless, despite this amoral cultivation processes, sugar was not going to be stopped.  After slavery was abolished in many parts of the world, sugars expansion still continued to soldier on.  As illustrated by the above chart, which shows yearly average sugar consumption for a person in the UK, sugar reached its high point of consumption around 1980 6.  The current per-person UK consumption is approximately 101 gram of sugar per day, while it is recommended that an individual’s total intake should be 50 gram of sugar per day, meaning that most people in the UK are getting more than 200% of the recommended amount of sugar that they should be eating 7.  This is significant difference!  Hence, even though British people have started using less sugar on an average per-person basis than they used to, sugar is still consumed on a level which is considered unhealthy 7.  It appears that sugar’s grip on the UK population can only potentially be loosened and not completely released, regardless of what sugar comes up against.

Various Sugar Photo

Sugar has a bright (and sparkly) future in England.  For a long while, sugar’s only barrier to the masses was cost, however that has not been an issue for quite some time.  The advantage that sugar has over any and all future detractors and competitors is that its current level of average per-person consumption is far and away more than what is considered healthy for an individual 7.  The bottom line is that sugar looks to have firmly staked out a place for itself in (the mouths of) British society.

Works cited

  1. “History of Sugar – Sugar Nutrition UK.” Sugar Nutrition UK. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  2. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Pages 82-83. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
  3. Binns, By Corey. “What Makes Food Taste Sweet?” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  4. Britain and the Caribbean. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/guides/zjyqtfr/revision/2&gt;.
  5. “Slavery in the Caribbean – International Slavery Museum, Liverpool Museums.” Slavery in the Caribbean – International Slavery Museum, Liverpool Museums. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  6. “The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption.” CEFS RSS. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  7. 50g of Sugar per Day to Be Healthy? Easier Said than Done! Web. 11 Mar. 2016. <http://www.euronews.com/2015/03/06/the-who-suggests-we-eat-50g-of-sugar-per-day-but-how-much-is-that-exactly/&gt;.
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