Sugar becomes the Opiate of the Masses


Sugar was introduced into the British Empire as a luxury of the rich, over time and across many uses, it found its way into the homes of the average man and also became a staple in the everyday diet. How and why this change occurred is of great importance into understanding the shift in the consumption of sugar. Sugar was introduced as a spice and medicine into the British household, but came to included three other uses: as a decoration, sweetener and preservative. As sugar moved down the list of its uses, it also had social and economic impacts. The progression of sugar usage effected consumption in the British society and caused the shift from sugar as a luxurious good to an opiate of the masses.

In the early decades of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Britain established Caribbean plantations for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane. Britain’s first attempt at doing this occurred upon the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 which was the first English colony in the New World (Mintz 36). Sugar cane was brought in 1619 as were the first African slaves to reach the English colony (Mintz 36). Unfortunately, the sugar cane would not grow. The British Empire was hard pressed to see this mission successful as there was a high demand for sugar at home.

Slaves working in a sugar cane plantation in British-West Indies
A Sugar Cane Plantation in the West Indies

The settlement of Barbados in 1627 proved to be the turning point in British attempts as production with the successful production of “clayed sugars” and “muscovado”. (Mintz 37). “The first British sugar islands was Barbados followed by St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. Grenada and Trinidad were added to the bunch in the late 19th century” ( Sugar supply for Britain now came directly from her settlements in the West Indies and added drastically to the consumption of sugar at home as it was now more accessible. “As supply for sugar increased, England’s demands for sugar kept pace. So much so that productions on the islands were barely able to keep up” (Mintz 39). Britain was importing huge amounts of sugar and the condiment in question came to define the “English Character” (Mintz 39).

Sugar Mill, Standard Mill in the West Indies
Sugar Mill


The sugar trade was successful because it was a highly priced commodity regardless of the volatility of the sugar market, the demands for it rose as consumption did (  Sugar production increased as a direct correlation of its consumption. As availability of sugar rose in Britain, so did the many uses of sugar. The British households found new ways to incorporate sugar into their social lives.

British sugar consumption chart
British Sugar Consumption Chart

Mintz mentions five uses of sugar: 1) as medicine, 2) spice-condiment, 3) decorative material, 4) as a sweetener, 5) as a preservative. The use of sugar in these many forms although coming into usage progressively, also happened interchangeably. Sugar was first introduced into the British household as a Spice and Medicine, in this form, it remained a luxurious good only available to the rich. “The first written mention of sugar was in the pipe scrolls, the official records of royal income and expenditures in 1154-89(Mintz 82).  The quantities of sugar at this time were relatively small and since this was an account of the expenditures of the rich, meant that only this class of people could afford to consume sugar. “By the thirteenth century, sugar was still being sold by the loaf and by the pound and although still quite pricey and only accessible to the rich, it was now available even in the remotest areas” (Mintz 82). The shift from a luxury to a commodity available to all would happen in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and with the introduction of other uses of sugar.


In the seventeenth century, the use of sugar as a spice declined and this time period, “saw the prices, supplies and customary uses of sugar change rapidly” (Mintz 86). Sugar featured as a decorative item after this time and was not only available to the noble and rich but now made its way downward to the middle class. As sugar progressed in the list of uses, so did the decline in its exclusiveness and the more prolific it became, the more it was consumed by all. Sugar consumption also had economic ramification as well, “the decline in sugar importance went hand in hand with its increase in economic and dietary importance” (Mintz 95). As sugar became more plentiful, it now became available to the poor.

Sugar became available to the poor in the form of a sweetener and preservative; this accessibility would be responsible for the upward swing of the consumption of sugar. The rise of chocolate, tea and coffee into the British household massively contributed to the large amount of sugar consumption. The use of sugar as a sweetener in tea propelled the “Sugar Equalization Act” which removed the import tariff and lowered the price of sugar of which the direct result was the proliferation of sugar everywhere ( The poor used sugar not only as a sweetener but also to supplement their diets as well.

As sugar become more widely used in many forms, it made its way into the household of all citizens regardless of class, this was directly responsible in the shift of sugar consumption in the British society. Sugar in the form of a sweetener and preservative became an everyday commodity, which meant that consumption would greatly rise as it permeated every single dish that was eaten by the British citizens. This standard has come to hold true across the world as sugar features in every single dietary item we consume. However, there is a marked difference in the reception of this commodity, at some point highly revered, sugar is now a social pariah, an evil that has been thrust upon society and should be eradicated.



Scholarly Sources: Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. Document. 21 March 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. 274. Print.

Multimedia Sources:, land of the. Sugar Act. n.d. image. 21 March 2016. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. image. 21 March 2016. The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption. 1 May 2014. image. 21 March 2016.






















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