Sugar, Culture, and Class in Britain

Britain has a sweet tooth, to put it mildly. Modern day consumption is in excess of 140 pounds per year per person, which means that the average Brit eats almost one cup of added sugar per day. However, sugar is very much a product that has been introduced to the British diet over the past few hundred years. In the year 1700, the average person ate less than ten pounds of sugar per year (Martin Lecture “Sugar and Cacao”, 13 Feb 2017). The explosion of sugar consumption started in large part due to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, which produced and continue to produce much of the sugar the world consumes. I will argue that the culture of sugar consumption in Britain has largely been influenced by issues of class: that it started out as a primarily upper class product and spread to the lower classes through their desire to emulate wealth, that debates over abolition and free trade of sugar were largely a reaction by the bourgeois classes, and that even the modern day debates over sugar consumption and health issues are intrinsically linked to socio-economic status.

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“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray, 1797

As sugar began to take off in Britain, it was primarily an upper class product, viewed as one of the spoils of empire. Illustrations from the period, such as the above engraving from 1797, portray sweets and confections such as the sugar plums the soldiers are eating as products for those who have profited from Britain’s imperial expansion. The soldiers are caricatures of the troops who would go overseas to establish and maintain British colonies, and in the engraving they are the lucky few enjoying the spoils of their victory. The overweight soldier guarding the door and the bustling street scene outside further establishes the soldiers as removed from, and superior to the masses outside. As sugar became cheaper over the course of the 18th century and grocers began to market it to lower classes, they billed it as an exotic good, often comically mislabelling their products. In an effort to portray the now affordable product as a mark of status and participation in the British empire, descriptions such as “Lisbon sugar” were common (Stobart 178). The increase in sugar consumption over the course of the 18th century reflected sugar’s status as a wealthy product that had recently become affordable, making that mark of status affordable to the masses but not yet having lost its meaning.

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Advertisement for a Slavery-Free Sugar Basin, late 18th century

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the Victorian Era, there emerged a largely upper-class-based abolition movement in Britain. Given that slaves were central to the British colonial sugar industry, they quickly set their eyes on it. Some abandoned eating sure entirely, whereas some tried to make sure that they sugar they were eating had not been produced by slaves. Even companies that employed slaves like the East India Company capitalized on this trend, selling Slavery-Free products like the sugar basin in the advertisement above. Abolition became more palatable amongst the upper classes in large part because slavery made products such as sugar that had previously been marks of status affordable to the masses, causing them to lose their meaning. After slavery was gradually abolished in the early 19th century, abolitionists turned their sights to lobbying for a continued tax on non-British (meaning slave-produced) sugar. As Richard Huzzey argues, this “was not a battle to preserve a shred of anti-slavery principle” but competing visions of abolitionism trying to make themselves heard (Huzzey 361). As sugar consumption rose and it lost its value as a status symbol, the upper classes were swift to turn on it.

Fast forwarding to the modern day, British sugar consumption is higher than ever, and there is a growing movement by the government and health sectors to get people to eat less due to its unhealthy effects. Articles such as “Sugar tax: what does it mean, which drinks will be affected, and will it work?” in the Telegraph demonstrate the current culture around sugar consumption. Soda and other sugary drinks are viewed as the biggest culprits, and there is a growing awareness of the amount of added sugar in other processed food. However, the foods attacked for containing the most sugar are typically the cheapest and the ones most likely to be disproportionally consumed by those of lower socio-economic status. A recent study even showed that the parents most likely to have receive counseling as to lower their children’s sugar intake are disproportionally poor (Park et al.).  While the health risks of sugar are real, many modern efforts to combat them do not confront the fact that many of the foods most responsible are also the most affordable.

Works Cited

Gillray, James. “Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001695092/. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Huzzey, Richard. “Free trade, free labour, and slave sugar in Victorian Britain.” The Historical Journal 53.02 (2010): 359-379.

Image. http://www.mylearning.org/learning/global-citizens-make-an-impact/sugar%20notice.jpg. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Martin, Carla D, lecture “Sugar and Cacao,” Harvard College, Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb 2017.

Park, Sohyun, Bettylou Sherry, Heidi M. Blanck; Characteristics of parents receiving counseling from child’s doctor to limit child’s sugar drink consumption. J Public Health (Oxf) 2012; 34 (2): 228-235. doi: 10.1093/pubmed/fdr071

Stobart, Jon. Sugar and Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650-1830. Oxford University Press, 2013.

“Sugar Tax: What Does It Mean, Which Drinks Will Be Affected, and Will It Work?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 18 May 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

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