During the 17thcentury all the way through the early 20thcentury, sugar had an incredible rise in production and consumption. This rise in consumption was especially prevalent in Britain. When sugar first arrived in Britain during the middle ages, it was primarily used by the upper class as a sparingly used spice. However, by the 18thand 19thcentury, sugar became a heavily used by all social classes. At the beginning of the 18thcentury the average British person was consuming 4 pounds of sugar per year. However, by the early 20thcentury that number had skyrocketed to about 90 pounds of sugar per person per year (Mintz). This exponential rise in British sugar consumption can be explained by a number of different factors. In this post I will outline the potential economic, practical, and scientific causes for this unforeseen rise in British sugar consumption.
First and Foremost, the rise in British sugar consumption was definitely caused in-part by the increased production and availability of sugar that the Triangular Trade provided. The Triangular Trade was a trans-Atlantic trade system that included the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean to work on plantations. In total, about “four million slaves were brought to the Caribbean, and almost all ended up on the sugar plantations” (Sugar and Slavery). This Triangular trade took place during the 17thand 18thcentury and was a huge part of the increase in sugar production in the Caribbean. This increase in production through slavery, created an enormous increase in sugar availability and consumption in Britain. Eventually, Britain began to question the ethics of sugar consumption because “slavery in England… had been deemed illegal since 1772” (Sugar and Slavery). However, even after the end of the Triangular Trade, consumption of sugar per capita continued to rise. Slavery, an increase sugar production, and the increase of sugar availability were all major factors as to why sugar consumption skyrocketed in England.
Another reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was the extreme versatility sugar had. Once the British began to trade for massive amounts of sugar, they realized it can have several purposes. Among other things, sugar could be used in medicine, jams, syrups, tea, coffee, fruit drinks, and in deserts (Mintz). Sugar also had decorative purposes as it could be formed into sculptures. However, the uses of sugar as a preservative and sweetener was definitely a major factor of the rise in sugar consumption. With sugar, the British could now preserve their fruits as jams which resulted in a major change in the British culture forever. Jam spread on bread evolved into a staple meal for the British in the 19thcentury. This was mainly because it was a quick and easy meal that provided a sufficient number of calories, especially as women and children entered the industrial workforce. This easy meal for women and children allowed the British economy to thrive “without increasing proportionately the quantities of meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products” (Mintz). This change in diet was heavily reflected in data because “by 1900, it [sugar] was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz). In the end, the cheap cost of sugar as well as its versatility definitely played a major role in the rise in British sugar consumption.
The last potential reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was science. This was actually a reason for the rise in sugar consumption globally too. When you eat sugar there is a natural reaction by the body to release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to the “reward circuit associated with addictive behaviors” (Schaefer and Yasin). Essentially anything that causes the body to release dopamine can become very addictive because the only way to fulfill the dopamine high again is to do the same thing that caused the original high. Thus, when one eats sugar, the only way to feel that exact “high” again is to eat sugar again. Furthermore, since the body acclimates to things that cause dopamine releases, it requires higher amounts of sugar in higher frequency to achieve the original sugar “high” sensation (Schaefer and Yasin). This has been proven scientifically and some even believe that “sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain” (Schaefer and Yasin). This addictive effect on the brain definitely had a big impact on why the British kept demanding and consuming more and more sugar as time passed.
In the end, it is safe to say that there is nothing that was the sole cause for the rise in British sugar consumption. It was undoubtedly a combination of all the things I have talked about in this post. The increasing affordability of sugar made it economically smart, the versatility of sugar made it practically smart, and the addictive properties of sugar made it scientifically irresistible. Together these factors combined to cause “the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market” (Martin).
Scholarly Sources Cited
- Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2019.
- Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.
- Schaefer, Anna, and Kareem Yasin. “Is Sugar the Next ‘Street Drug’?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 11 June 2015, http://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/experts-is-sugar-addictive-drug#1. Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
- “Sugar and Slavery.” Sugar in the Atlantic World | Case 6 Sugar and Slavery, clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/sugarexhibit/sugar06.php.
Media Sources Cited
- Graph comparing US and UK sugar consumption.No Fructose.Belinda Fettke, www.nofructose.com/introduction/other-stuff/history-of-sugar/.
- Jockers, David. “Sugar Addiction The Perpetual Cycle.” Dr. Jockers. https://drjockers.com/7-ways-stop-sugar-cravings/.
- Picture showing the slave trade across the middle passage. No Fructose.Belinda Fettke, www.nofructose.com/introduction/other-stuff/history-of-sugar/.