Sugar as an essential nutrient during the industrial revolution

The popularity of cane sugar in Britain quickly rose from the 17th through the 20th centuries, after its introduction from the New World, but its uses changed several times throughout this period. In Sweetness and Power, Mintz breaks down sugar use in Britain during this period into 5 categories: medicine, spice, decoration, sweetener, and preservative (Mintz 78). The most popular, or common, of these uses varied over time; for example, in the 17th century, when sugar remained an expensive rarity, it was more commonly used as a medicine, spice, or decoration. By the end of the 19th century, however, sugar’s popularity was firmly rooted in its use as a sweetener. Mintz points out that at this time it had become a “virtual necessity” (Mintz 148), yet fails to effectively incorporate this into his categorization of its uses. How can any one, or a combination, of these uses explain the enormous part that sugar came to play in the diet of the average English person, representing one-fifth of daily caloric intake (Mintz 5-6)? Rather, by the beginning of the 20th century, a sixth use developed for cane sugar, which is able to more thoroughly explain its rise in status from luxury to necessity. After the industrial revolution, sugar came to be used as a nutrient, an absolute requirement for the sustenance of many middle class families, due to its source of cheap energy during a time when the rise of an industrialized economy necessitated such sources for productivity.

There is remarkable alignment of the changes in sugar consumption and the manufacturing economy in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. The industrial revolution, which was the major turnover in manufacturing processes to the large-scale use of machines, took place in England roughly between the mid 1750 and mid 1840 (Landes 3-8). While it is difficult to determine causality between the industrial revolution and the rise of sugar consumption, we should note that this period of time contains the only roughly exponential change in the rate of increase of sugar consumption in British history (Image 1). This reflects a strong correlation between the rate of change of sugar consumption and the rate of mechanization of the British economy, as demonstrated by the change in fuel use during this time (Image 2). This change in sugar consumption was due to a massive transition in sugar consumption demographics, from consumption only by the wealthy in the early 18th century to consumption by all middle class British citizens by the mid 19th century (Mintz 147-148). Just after 1850, the price of sugar dropped dramatically, enabling its purchase in massive quantities by the middle class, and setting the stage for the use of sugar to expand beyond Mintz’s categorizations and into a staple of the diet. Though these changes in sugar consumption may have not been directly caused by industrialization, their co-occurrence allowed sugar to enter into use as a fundamental nutrient of the English diet.

sugar pic

fuel pic
Images 1 and 2 show a comparison of the change in sugar consumption per capita over time and the change in the use of various fuel types over time. The massive increase in coal use in the second image indicates the mechanization of industry during the industrial revolution. Exponential growth in rate of change of sugar consumption reflects exponential growth in the use of coal.


So why does industrialization align so well with the dramatic changes in sugar consumption we see at this time? Industrialization necessitated cheap sources of quick energy for both the workers and for non-working family members (usually women and children). Carbohydrates were incredibly important for both agricultural and industrial workers, which is reflected in the prominence of bread in their diets, on which working class families spent anywhere from 50-70% of their food budget (Griffin 16 and Feinstein 635). With the sudden increase in the availability of sugar just after the industrialization of the British economy, another source of cheap, even quicker, energy could be introduced to their diets. Further, though workers did consume sugar for energy, especially industrial workers, who consumed twice as much as agricultural workers (Griffin 14), sugar became even more important to the families as a means of cheaply boosting energy of the non-workers. High protein foods, such as meat, were expensive for these families, and so a great majority of products like these were reserved only for the working men of the families (Martin and Griffin 11). Even in situations where the women or children in a family worked, it was often thought that they needed less protein than men, and so this inequality in consumption was maintained. For this reason, sugar became incredibly important to the diets of women and children, taking up roughly 20% of their daily caloric intake, as discussed earlier. This type of consumption is clearly reflected in the advertising of sugary drinks and candy bars at this time, which were heavily targeted at women and children and noted such products’ abilities to prevent exhaustion and give nourishment (Image 3).

sugar pic2
An advertisement for sugar demonstrates its use as a key nutrient supplying energy specifically for children. Other advertisements of the time, while not necessarily just for sugar but rather for candy bars and soft drinks, proclaim their nourishing properties and ability to alleviate exhaustion.

An analysis of the change in sugar consumption and availability during the 18th and 19th centuries, together with an understanding of the dietary needs of workers in an industrialized economy, allows us to more completely understand the rise of sugar consumption—a rise that continues today. In examining these factors and the advertisements that reflect the culture of sugar consumption in this period, we realize that Mintz’s categorizations of sugar’s uses was incomplete. The industrial economy and the need for cheap, quick, energy that it propelled, both at work and in the home, drove sugar to move beyond its earlier uses, and to become considered a necessary nutrient.


Works Cited

Feinstein, Charles H. “Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the industrial revolution.” The Journal of Economic History 58.03 (1998): 625-658.

Griffin, Emma. “Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets.” Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. London: Cambridge U.P., 1969. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Image: Sugar advertisement. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Image: sugar consumption over time. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Rautner, Margaret T. “The Industrial Revolution – Infogram, Charts & Infographics.” Image: fuel use over time. Infogram. Infogram, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.


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