British sugar: How we got here

It is no secret that sugar is a major part of the modern diet. In the United States, according to the CDC, “In 2005–2010, the average percentage of total daily calories from added sugars was 13% (average intake of 335 calories) for men and 13% (average intake of 239 calories) for women aged 20 and older” (“Know”). In Britain, according to the BBC, “The latest NDNS report found that all age groups were eating more added sugar (technically known as non-milk extrinsic sugars) than the 11% level but that children were exceeding it to the greatest degree” (Jeavens). The British have been consuming sugar long before the United States even came to be, so how did it become so prevalent in British diets? One potential reason for the run up in sugar consumption is the versatility of sugar and its uses. It could be used as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and a preservative (Martin, slide 12). Another potential reason is that slavery helped to produce sugar for cheap, and sugar duties that propped up the price of sugar were lifted, making sugar more accessible and cheaper for the people of Great Britain.

From 1700-1800, British sugar consumption jumped from about 4 lbs. per person in to 18 lbs. (Mintz 97). However, it grew even more rapidly from there. As you can see from Figure 1 below, sugar consumption has skyrocketed in Britain since 1800. In the early days of sugar, it was a luxury reserved for the rich. When it first came to Europe “around 1100 A.D., sugar was grouped with spices—pepper, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cardamom, coriander, galingale (related to ginger), saffron, and the like. Most of these were rare and expensive tropical (and exotic) imports, used sparingly by those who could afford them at all” (Mintz 111). Sugar, like these other spices, was quite expensive and hard to get. But, it uses were incredibly versatile. Sugar could be used as a spice, used in jams, used in tea and coffee, and used to sculpt subtleties. “By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity—albeit a costly and rare one—in the diet of every English person” (Mintz 32).

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, also known as Triangular Trade, aided in the spread of sugar because it could be produced for cheap. Since sugar was so profitable, colonizing countries used the West Indies to grow tons of sugar, and forced African slaves to grow it and work the land. As you can see in Figure 3, slaves flowed into the West Indies from Africa, and sugar (along with other goods) flowed into Europe and the American colonies. Much of the major economic trade was built on the backs of slaves—trade of which they never saw any benefit themselves as they were worked to death and sold to work in the fields as “property.” On top of the cruelty of slavery driving down production costs, after the 1870s, “the abolition of the sugar duties made sugar cheap and plentiful; jam contains 50 to 65 per cent of its weight in sugar…. Most of the produce of the jam and preserves factories was for domestic consumption…. Urban working classes…consumed much of their fruit in the form of jam” (Mintz 164). Thus, with sugar becoming less expensive thanks to the repeal of sugar duties, giving more people access to sugar at a lower cost.  Thus, “the jam manufacturers, with the exception of Blackwell and Chivers who made expensive preserves as well, agreed in 1905 that their most extensive and lucrative market lay in the working class to whom jam, once a luxury, had now become a necessity, and a substitute for the more expensive butter” (Mintz 164).

The versatility of sugar was very important to its rise, as well as its ability to fuel caloric intake. Men out working in the factories needed high amounts of protein in their diet in order to fuel their labor intensive work. Unfortunately, animal protein was expensive and hard to come by for the working poor. Thus, with the introduction of sugar, it was a cheaper way for the women and children of the family to meet some of their caloric needs. As shown in Figure 2 below, sugar was used as for caloric intake as well as energy to get yourself through the day. By 1900, sugar was about one-fifth of the calories in the English diet (Mintz 32).

Sugar has become a major part of our lives, and continues to grow on the world stage. “World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still” (Martin, slide 3). There are many potential factors that caused the rapid rise of sugar, but I believe that its versatility, use as caloric fuel, and rise in production and the drop in price were major contributors that shaped the way sugar has affected our society. Sugar consumption doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and it’s hard to see it slowing any time in the near future.

FIGURE 1
SOURCE: Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 3).
FIGURE 2
SOURCE: Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 20).
FIGURE 3
SOURCE:
“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Crispus Attucks, Crispus Attucks on-Line Museum, 5 Nov. 2012, http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/the-transatlantic-slave-trade/.

Works Cited

Scholarly sources

-Jeavans, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014,

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325.

-“Know Your Limit for Added Sugars | Nutrition | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-

statistics/know-your-limit-for-added-sugars.html.

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation.

-Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Books, 1986, Apple Books.

Multimedia Sources

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 3).

-Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of

Food, 20 February 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (slide 20).

-“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Crispus Attucks, Crispus Attucks on-Line Museum, 5 Nov.

2012, http://www.crispusattucksmuseum.org/the-transatlantic-slave-trade/.

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