Today it would be nearly impossible to find a person in the United Kingdom who was wholly unfamiliar with sugar. In fact, it can almost be taken for granted that most people living in England in 2016 consume diets that are rich in both natural sugar and supplemented sugar. In this context sugar is the common name for sucrose, a disaccharide compound made of glucose and fructose.
A sugar molecule is made up of two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose.
Interestingly, the popularity of sugar as a British dietary constituent is a relatively recent phenomenon. Sugar was first introduced to the European continent in 1100 A.D. (Martin 5). According to Sidney W. Mintz, sugar was extremely rare in England throughout the seventeenth century (Mintz 147). However, after 1650, the rise of sugar was swift and remarkable. By 1750, London’s upper classes had incorporated sugar into their daily meals, and by 1850 sugar was being used regularly throughout the entire British nation (Mintz 148). Mintz clearly describes a pattern of ever increasing sugar consumption and production. This trend raises one main question. Why did sugar become so ubiquitous in England during this time period?
Today sugar dominates the average person's diet.
For many people, the rapid approval, acceptance, and adoption of sugar into the British diet is relatively unsurprising. One common assumption is that the popularity and longevity of sugar as a commodity was always inevitable due to an innate human biological sweet tooth. This ‘sweet tooth’ theory maintains that human beings’ affinity for sugar is an evolutionary trait that is embedded in our DNA. In fact, Live Science recently published an article entitled “Why We Love the Sweet Life” in which the author, Meredith F. Small, argued that people love sugar because of their “primitive heritage” (Small 1). She believes that “humans are naturally drawn to sweet because we are primates, animals that evolved eating fruit in the trees” (Small 1). She further explains that primates evolved to eat sweet fruits because these fruits contain more energy and more water than bitter fruits.
Importantly, although people’s natural likeness for sugar may indeed have a genetic component, there were several other factors at work in eighteenth and nineteenth century England that enabled sugar to be a commercial success. The British sugar movement gained momentum for a number of reasons that did not have any biological motivation. Specifically, the rise of sugar in Great Britain was propelled by the utility, convenience, and affordability of the product.
The consumption of sugar grew drastically in England between 1700 and 1800 because of the amazing versatility of the product. According to Mintz, there were five main uses of sugar during this era. Specifically, sugar was used as a medication, a spice, a preservative, a decorative substance, and a sweetener (Mintz 78). According to the scholar “these different uses of sugar did not evolve in any neat sequence or progression, but overlapped and intersected” (Mintz 78). Notably, these particular functions of sugar arose due to the unique characteristics of British society. Firstly, sugar was able to thrive in the medicinal sphere because the prominent theories of health at the time revolved around classifying foods based on Galen’s humoral theory. Secondly, sugar was able to enter kitchens naturally since sweet tasting foods such as cinnamon were already being used as spices. Thirdly, the consistency and texture of sugar allowed it to be melted and molded into different decorative pieces within the context of the growth of arts and culture. Fourthly, the popularity of sugar as a sweetener was accelerated by the corresponding growth of both chocolate and tea drinks. Lastly, sugar was exploited as a preservative because seasonal fruit jams and jellies were becoming more relied up as a food group.
Galen's medicinal theories revolved around classifying foods into hot, dry, wet, and cold categories.
Sugar consumption in England also grew drastically between 1650 and 1850 because of its convenience as an energy source. Foods with added sugar, such as chocolate, were high in calories, readily available, and did not require fuel to prepare (Martin 5). These qualities made sugar an ideal product during an era where women were leaving the home and the dynamics of the country’s work force were changing.
This label from a chocolate bar shows that the snack has 14g of sugar.
In a typical cyclical process increased sugar consumption drove increased sugar production in the United Kingdom. Initially the demand for sugar was restricted to the upper class. According to Mintz “sugars began as luxuries, and as such embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful” (Mintz 140). However the “price of sugar fell by 30 percent between 1840 and 1850, and by a further 25 percent in the next two decades” (Mintz 144). This drop in prices allowed the sugar industry to expand and flourish, and thereby increased the ease with which common people could access the product.
Several factors aligned to facilitate the growth and development of the sugar industry in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is clear that the human diet is not constructed solely from biologically predisposed preferences. Rather, food is inextricably linked to cultural trends and economic changes. Foods should therefore be seen as social products as well as business commodities.
F, By Meredith. “Why We Love the Sweet Life.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 07 Feb. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
Martin, Carla “Lecture 5” Web. Accessed March 9, 2016.
Mint, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.