The Growth of sugar consumption in Britain

From the first introduction of sugar in Europe in 1000 AD until present times, its consumption has skyrocketed amongst British people. The mass availability of sugar in Britain is linked to a global labor market with its roots in chattel slavery. When sugar first entered Britain, it remained a food stuff of the elite in England for centuries before spreading to the common people. After the introduction of sugar to the masses, the consumption of the product grew immensely and solidified itself as a staple of the British diet, well into the present. This paper will first trace the cultivation of sugar in Britain’s sugar plantation in the Americas in order to understand the availability of sugar as a commodity and the impact of the global market on mainland Britain’s consumption habits. Next, this paper will look at the growth of sugar usage among the elite of the country. Sugar then proliferated to the masses through medicinal uses and the popularization of teas, as well as to fit the productive needs to the working class. Therefore, the popularization of sugar in Britain can be attributed to the combination of slavery’s economic system as well as the versatility of the food’s usages from ritual to practical in the daily lives of British civilians.

The popularization of sugar as a staple in British society could not have come about without the colonial endeavors of Britain and its dependence of slavery in the new world. Europeans first came about the existence of sugar in the early 1000s AD. In Europe, Spain was first to cultivate sugar abroad, but Britain was later to develop its colonial sugar plantations. In 1637, Britain successfully cultivated sugar in Barbados, setting off an expansion of sugar cultivation in Britain’s other colonies (Mintz). In “Sweetness and Power”, Sidney Mintz writes that “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of the system was sugar” (Mintz). With this statement Mintz affirms a very deeply unbreakable connection between Britain’s colonial efforts, slavery, and the availability of sugar for it to even become a staple item in the mainland. In fact, Mintz also asserts that sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than other crops (Mintz) With the increasing importation of slaves to colonial plantations, the availability of sugar began to skyrocket. While the connection between the slave trade and sugar consumption exists, it is key to understand the magnitude of human capital necessary for the popularization of sugar and its availability for social life. The process of making sugar for consumers required constant, back breaking work, that required a year long process. Slave labor was not just menial unskilled labor, as slaves were involved in many tedious steps of planting, harvesting, boiling, and crystalizing (Dunn). This process was so strenuous and relentless that slaves died at alarming rates and had to be replaced constantly. Mintz asserts that by the nineteenth century, sugar was a staple among all British people. In the animation on the slave trade below, it is illustrated that the import of slaves to the Carribbean rose almost exponentially between the first introduction of sugar to British elite and to its popularization among the masses.

The direct relationship between slave imports and sugar consumption can not be ignored. Further, as Britain’s advancement of its colonial power and its increased productivity of sugar allowed them to increase their market share of the product. Soon, the underdogs were able to compete with other countries, which allowed their prices to decrease and as a result, their domestic consumption of sugar was also able to rise (Mintz). Hence, the slave labor of Africans in Barbados, Jamaica and other colonies was key for the increased consumption of the product at home, which will be illustrated below. 

Even though Britain had fine tuned their production of sugar abroad, the initial consumption of sugar at home was limited to the elites of the country, which made the sugar’s usages in the seventeenth century symbolic of opulence. Mintz writes that by “1650  in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank” (Mintz). Sugar’s utility as a status symbol among the elites of Britain is best exemplified in the popularity of subtleties. Subtleties were figurines made of sugar mixed with other materials. They would be utilized, for example, during banquets of royalty to denote between different courses of meals (Mintz). At this point, sugar was a rare and expensive resource, so the display of sugar in this form was an ultimate display of power and wealth. Large amounts of sugar, of different kinds of colors would be molded into different structures to be admired, and then eaten afterwards. By displaying such art and then eating it, subtleties were a way to flex one’s wealth. With time, the usage of sugar as decorative accessories diffused from the upper elite into the aspiring upper classes who wanted to use subtleties as a way to stake a claim into high status groups. Thus, more people were going out their way to acquire sugar and to display this commodity for its social significance. As this trend continued, Mintz notes cookbooks that appeared in the eighteenth century with sugar subtleties recipes within (Mintz). The existence of these cookbooks can be argued to mean that subtleties were becoming more widely consumed, as now there was an audience interested in producing their own versions. An interesting fact however, is that with the continued spread of the subtleties down the social ladder, the symbolic meaning, and the prestige associated with ornate sugar structures decreased. In a fast forwarding to the present, the “British Bake Off” shows an example of the continuation of intricate dessert pieces. 

In fact, a contestant even once built a colosseum out of cake. One could imagine a king making a subtlety of a colosseum to flex their royal might and descendancy from the ancient Greeks. However today, such shows of sugar artistry are merely for the everyday person’s entertainment on television. 

Beyond the proliferation of sugar among the masses as a means to illustrate one’s prestige, sugar became popular among commoners because of its utility as an energy source for the increasingly busy working class. Mintz writes that the diets of the working British were often harsh, and not full of enough nutrients. Specifically, the complex carbohydrates in the largely grain based diets were difficult for the body to process and to convert into needed energy. Sugar became popular because the body is easier able to access energy from the more simple carbohydrate structure of sucrose. In essence, it became a saving grace for people working long hours, without great nutrition, who couldn’t afford to stop moving. Although by the time sugar reached the masses in the nineteenth century, people were not so educated about why they were so drawn to sugar. Today of course, we have a better understanding. To fully understand why sugar became such a rage, an overview of how it is broken down by the body is important, and can be found below. 

Also helpful to the boom of sugar usage was the increase in consumption of teas in Britain (Mintz). Today, tea has become a cultural signature of British culture in the United States. However, the simultaneous emergence of tea with sugar really allowed people to enjoy tea. Tea has caffeine, and was an energy source for working people. Tea does not have high caffeine content, but it was still a help to people in need of fast energy. Similarly, coffee emerged for British consumers as a source of energy and became intertwined with culture. The growth in popularity of tea and coffee was assisted by sugar, which was used as a sweetener. However, the exact caffeination content of tea and coffee are not so high, so it is interesting that their energy effects popularized them so much. According to the Mayo Clinic, a brewed cup of coffee only has 96mg of caffeine, and a cup of black tea has  46 mg (Mayo Clinic). This is a juxtaposition to energy shots readily available today with 215 mg of caffeine. However, everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine varies, and is unknown in several ways. Well known is that the need for energy has persisted into many cultures today. 

Understanding the changes in sugar consumption among the British is a complicated endeavor involving economic catalysts, status motivations, and the necessities of the working class. While the narrating the full picture would require a much more extensive paper, this paper focused on key causes as expressed by Mintz. Understanding the growth of sugar reveals that the foods we enjoy are not solely determined by random chance, and our taste buds. Although sugar now is a key item in cuisine, this paper shows that it was not always this case. To get to this place, slaves died, kings flaunted, the upper class yearned, and the working class fueled themselves. 

Works Cited

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power : the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

How Do Carbohydrates Impact Your Health? – Richard J. Wood. YouTube, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

“How Much Caffeine Is in Your Cup?” Mayo Clinic, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” Slate, June 2015. Slate,

Top 10 British Bake-Off Treats. YouTube, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Dunn, Richard S., and Institute of Early American History Culture. Sugar and Slaves; the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

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