The Formidable Impact of Marketing on British Sugar Consumption

Sugar today is one of the most commonplace ingredients, and yet it wasn’t always this way. From the first introduction of sugar to England in the twelfth century to the elites’ increased interest in sugar around the late seventeenth century, British and therefore global sugar consumption has gone through many phases (Mintz 74). The consequences of increased production and scientific properties of sugar on increased sugar consumption have been well-researched, but the influence of marketing is not discussed as much. Thus, I will highlight the significance of marketing as another important driver of sugar consumption in recent times.

At first, sugar served a much more utilitarian purpose and was not considered to be a food in and of itself. As many technological innovations had yet to be invented, sugar was primarily used as a method of preservation in foods such as marmalades and jams. It also served as a coating for meats (Goody 73). In addition, sugar was utilized as decoration or medicine, with the latter resulting from Arab pharmacology influences. But around the fourteenth century, sugar began to be associated with the elite in Western Europe as it was considered to be a prized spice (Mintz 80). Its relative novelty and low supply to other condiments created a symbol of status for sugar and would continue to do so until sugar became more profitable.

Towards the eighteenth century, processing and shipping sugar became much more efficient and therefore cheaper, and thus sugar consumption started to spread beyond the elites. As soon as the poor gained access to sugar, the condiment lost its association with power and status. It became a commonplace ingredient rather than a rare commodity. Coinciding with increases of tea imports, the poor began to use sugar as a sweetener of both tea and bread-like foods. Once sugar became inexpensive, its use as an ingredient in pastries, puddings, and beverages skyrocketed (Mintz 118-125).

Mass consumption of sugar began after about 1850 (Mintz 148). Changing working conditions for the people in England led to a need for inexpensive but nutritious sources of food, and the inexpensive production of sugar allowed for the increased demand (Mintz 130). Businesses immediately capitalized on this; indeed, eventually they began to market sugar as calorically dense and a quick, convenient boost of energy. Needing to save time on cooking as wives began to work as well, the working-class shifted to more ‘convenience eating’ and less traditional home-cooked meals (Mintz 130). In this way, the English diet became accustomed to a high intake of sugar in tea and bread as sugar was a cheap source of fuel (Martin Lecture 4). The advertisements linked below are examples of the types of marketing utilized to lure mothers into purchasing high quantities of sugar: https://time.com/4088772/sugar-information-history/

As a result, families viewed sugar as a necessity in the pantry, so much so that sugar consumption increased forty-fold in 1856 as compared to that of 150 years prior (Mintz 143). This article from the Daily Mail has several graphs showing this increased intake of sugar and fat over time: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2570081/Why-fatter-These-graphs-explain-sugar-fruit-juice-XXX-blame.html

Specific advertisements targeting women and children furthered the idea of sugar as a staple in the household diet as women were responsible for all the cooking. The common quote we know today, “Sugar and spice and everything nice…that’s what little girls are made of,” is but a clever rhyme conjured up by sugar manufacturers in an attempt to sell more of their product (Martin). Indeed, the curious observation that women are much more associated with sweets remains today (Mintz 150). And interestingly enough, women are the primary buyers of chocolate year-round except for the week of Valentine’s Day (Martin Lecture 3).

There are many examples of the instances in which marketing has influenced the sugar products we know and love today. Chocolate bars, for instance, are some of the most well-known sugar-added products. By the 1900’s, a plethora of England chocolate manufacturers were in business; the famous candy conglomerates, Cadbury and Hershey, were fighting it out to become the top seller of chocolate bars with a barrage of advertisements and sales (Brenner 182). Today, many beverages also have incredibly high amounts of sugar. In the past, sugar was primarily added to drinks like tea and alcohol (Mintz 142). Soda has overtaken these as the primary sugar beverage. The ubiquity of soda is partly to blame on manufacturer advertisements, which again target children. Misleading packaging and label confusion, especially on drinks that claim to have fruit in them, have contributed to the fact that sugary drinks constitute a large portion of sugar consumed by children (Jacobs). Indeed, much research has shown that our sugar intake has become startlingly high:

Sugar did not start out as an additive. Over time, businesses capitalized on increased production and changing working-class lifestyles to sell more sugar through targeted marketing. As more and more sugar products were invented over time, society became more and more addicted. This has led us to the ever-increasing amounts of sugar we take in today—one has to wonder if our levels of sugar consumption will ever plateau.

Scholarly Sources

Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. chapters 5, 13 pp. 49-69, 179-194

Goody, Jack. 2013[1982]. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” pp. 72-88

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 3: Chocolate Expansion” AFRAMER 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 12 Feb. 2020.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AFRAMER 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 19 Feb. 2020.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power.

Jacobs, Andrew. “How Children Get Hooked on Sugary Drinks.” New York Times. 22 Oct. 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/health/drinks-sugar-children.html

Multimedia Sources

Hodgekiss, Anna. “Why Are We Fatter and Sicker than Ever? Sugar, Fruit Juice and Margarine to Blame.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 28 Feb. 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2570081/Why-fatter-These-graphs-explain-sugar-fruit-juice-XXX-blame.html.

Rothman, Lily. “New Study Says Sugar Is Toxic—These Old Ads Say Otherwise.” TIME. 27 Oct. 2015. https://time.com/4088772/sugar-information-history/

“Sugar Consumption Increasing Worldwide.” VOA News, Youtube, 28 Apr. 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7T93opP9CA.

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