When we think of the word sugar, our mouths salivate as we imagine a candy bar or our favorite sweet dessert. As Professor Martin cited in lecture, “food has a fundamental taste that is desired from infancy”. We recognize sugar as a guilty indulgence; a food that everyone enjoys but knows is unhealthy, a snack that you want in the moment but regret when you are done. This is why it is so popular and so addictive but also why it is associated with obesity and overall poor health. This perception of sugar is how modern society has come to view it but as we have learned, the perception of sugar has evolved over the years. Historical changes in sugar consumption have been effected by a number of factors including significant price decreases and the introduction of mass production of sugar. This essay will attempt to sift through the historical lineage of sugar consumption in Britain and try to explain one of the most fascinating production curves of any major food group in history.
Timeline of Sugar
Sugar, or sucrose is a naturally occurring carbohydrate historically extracted from the sugarcane or sugar beet plants. In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sugar. As Sidney Mintz outlines in her book, it wasn’t until 1200 AD that sugar was introduced to England. From the time period of 1200 AD until around 1650 AD sugar was used as a spice, as medicine, as a decoration and ultimately as a sweetener but it was reserved for the elite and was not available to the general population of Britain. One report from Sugar Nutrition UK suggests that sugar was sold at two shillings per pound in 1319 – the equivalent of 50 euros in today’s money – therefore it was far too expensive to be consumed regularly by most British people. By 1650 as Mintz writes, “the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank.” (Mintz) By 1800, “sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person and by 1900 it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.” (Mintz) Today approximately 150 lbs of sugar are consumed per capita every year.
Post Industrial Revolution Sugar Production and Consumption
So what led to this rapid increase in consumption and availability of sugar over the last 200 years? The primary reason is the industrial revolution and the introduction of more efficient ways to produce sugar. This transition allowed for sugar to be produced at much larger scales for much less money. This drastic price decrease allowed people of all financial backgrounds to afford and consume sugary products. By the 1900’s sugar had become a staple in the British diet, but it wasn’t solely because the price had decreased. During the industrial revolution prices of other crops decreased without experiencing the same exponential growth in production as sugar. So what else contributed to this phenomenon?
Effects of Sugar on the Brain
The best explanation is that sugar is a desirable taste from infancy that affects certain brain pathways, which induce cravings for sugar. Sugar activates the same reward pathways in our brain that sex and drugs do. Stimulating these reward pathways releases dopamine in the brain, which produces a pleasurable and harmless response. However, if the reward system is activated too often it could be sent into overdrive. It kick starts a loss of control, craving and increase in tolerance that leads to an addiction to sugar. This is the reason why sugar has become such a problem in developing countries and is associated with diabetes and obesity.
It is important to understand that sugar is not harmful in and of itself. The modern day medical issues associated with chocolate have to do with over consumption and less to do with how bad sugar really is. The issue in developed countries is that individuals consume so much sugar that the body can’t process it. According to the American Heart Association the average male should consume no more than 37g of added sugar a day, however, in 2008 the average intake was around 77g per person. As we have seen throughout history, sugar is a harmless source of energy consumed by people across the world. The problem is that we have reached a point where we are consuming far too much sugar than we should and since it is so addicting it reinforces these cravings we have to consume even more. Sugar consumption has seen a remarkable exponential increase in the last 200 years and we must do our best to limit this upward trend in order to promote healthy living.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
- “Healthy Living.” Healthy Living. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. Study on Sugar Intake
- Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” Harvard University, AAS 119
- Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao” Harvard University, AAS 119