We will examine British sugar consumption from the time sugar was first introduced to Britain in the twelfth century. There are three central periods to consider, in which sugar took on distinctly different roles for visible reasons: up to 1750, 1750 to 1850, and 1850 to the present. Over the course of time, sugar consumption has increased:
I argue that the main causes of increased consumption in Britain until 1750 was the acquisition of Barbados and Jamaica as colonies, the main causes of increase from 1750 – 1850 to 1850 were the introduction of tea to the British diet, and the main causes of increase from 1850 to the present are the growth of capitalism.
For Britain, the first cause of increased consumption was the acquisition of Barbados and Jamaica as colonies in the seventeenth century (Mintz, 37). These colonies utilized slave labor on their sugar plantations. This permitted a massively increasing amount of sugar to be imported into Britain, exposing more of the population to its taste. Below we see an illustration of the interior of a nineteenth-century sugar boiling-house by R.Bridgens, depicting the mass production of sugar to be shipped to Europe from the Carribean production facilities. These were essential in the first large increase and change in sugar consumption.
Before the supply of sugar for Britain increased, sugar was a kingly luxury. In fact, Mintz suggests it had a “symbolic force” (Mintz, 90). The extremely wealthy would use sugar as decoration. For instance, extravagant feasts would be held in which elaborate sculptures utilizing sugar of animals, buildings, and other striking things would be on display and eaten (Mintz, 89). These displays would confirm the social standing of the individual providing the meal. Those who would eat these attractions would validate the power and social position of the host (Mintz, 90). The “symbolic force” lies in the way sugar was a symbol of status and power in itself.
As sugar became more readily available due to slave plantations producing it, the symbolic force of sugar decreased and its economic importance grew. That is, as production capabilities increased, sugar became a tool for individuals to gain power through making money through sugar production. In Britain, it was no longer only the most powerful who could obtain sugar. The common people could purchase and consume it. This meant that the consumption of sugar by the powerful in itself mattered less (Mintz, 45). As Mintz puts it, “sugar was transformed from a “luxury of kings into the kingly luxury of commoners” (Mintz, 96). Even, though sugar was transformed in this essential way, it was still used in the manners it had been before, such as decoration. Below are nineteenth century illustrations of desserts by French baker Dubois, revealing the fact that sugar maintained its use as decoration, even though its symbolic force faded.
By 1750, sugar was a common luxury, and as such acquired an “everydayness.” Sugar consumption continued to increase from 1750 to 1850 due to the introduction of tea, and other similar beverages, into the British diet. Tea was first introduced into the British diet toward the end of the seventeenth century (Mintz, 108). Tea followed the same track as sugar: first being consumed by only the wealthy, and then becoming a common beverage. As it became popularized, sugar became even more common. This is because sugar was used to sweeten tea. For both goods, a “ritualization” (Mintz, 122) occurred in which the commodities gained an everyday quality. Thus over the course of the century following 1750, sugar, through the introduction of tea, became increasingly desired and consumed.
The final cause of increasing sugar consumption was the growth of capitalism. As capitalism grew, the wage labor force in Britain grew. As the working class grew, more people were seeking low cost food substitutes that provided energy (Mintz, 148). The division of labor led to more and more factories with individuals pursuing individual functions. Laborers who were working in factories now purchased sugary foods to sustain their energy and increase their productivity. Sugar increased energy and productivity and thus “figured importantly into the balancing accounts of capitalism” (Mintz, 148). Further, sugar appeared in more and more foods, such as bread and other staples of the laboring class’ diet. Thus, the intake of sugar increased due to the increased use of sugar in a variety of foods that the laboring class needed to maintain efficiency, a need caused by the driving force of capitalism. That is, sugar took up more of a caloric percentage of individuals’ diets from 1850 onward than from 1750-1850 due to capitalistic forces.
Clark Ross argues that this is the correct interpretation of what caused the sugar consumption in Britain over time (Ross, 105). He suggests sugars role was complementary to the much more powerful forces already in play. I argue, however, that the sugary diet that was at play in Great Britain permitted the laboring class to increase efficiency in a manner that would not have been possible without such a diet. Indeed, the same capitalistic forces may have driven society overtime, but the diet of sugar spurred those forces to take affect more rapidly, and in doing so, affect the sugar consumption itself.
In the modern day, the rapid increase in sugar consumption has slowed. This can be attributed to the current health risks associated with sugar intake, such as the development of diabetes and obesity. There are “junk food taxes” in place on foods that have a very high level of sugar so as to limit these risks in the population (Sampeck 2016).
Thus, the increase in sugar consumption in Britain over time was a result of the transformation of sugar from a kingly luxury to an everyday commodity. This transformation occurred first due to the acquisition of Caribbean colonies, then by the introduction of tea into the British diet, and finally by capitalistic forces.
Ross, Clark G. Ethnohistory, vol. 34, no. 1, 1987, pp. 103–105.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y: Viking, 1985.
Martin, Carla D and Sampeck, Kathryn E. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocoalte in Europe. 2016.