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The Transforming Use of Sugar

Since the initial introduction of sugar to the world to now, its purpose has changed dramatically. However, if we track the consumptive changes to sugar over Britain’s history, we are able to see that it had more of a use rather than just as a sweetener in desserts and dishes that we often find ourselves gravitating towards. We can track the historical change in sugar’s consumption by juxtaposing it with who it was often used by. Earlier in Europe’s history around 1100 A.D., sugar was associated with spices such as pepper, ginger, saffron, among others because it was not affordable to many (Mintz, 1986). Therefore, it would make sense why it was used sparingly as many spices are used instead of in large amounts as we do now that it is much cheaper and drastically more available. It is interesting to see how sugar was used in the past though, especially when it was used to season oysters (Mintz, 1986). It is a testament to how preferences in taste can change over time, depending on the social customs associated with certain foods and tastes.

By the 16th century, sugar began to be used as decorative material. The whiter sugar was, the more expensive it was seen to be because pure sucrose was white (Mintz, 1986). Because sugar was an indicator of power in these very visual ways and because it was preservable, sugar began to be used to decorate in wealthier households. It would be used to create sculptures that were both preservable and edible; these would be called marzipan (Mintz, 1986). These decorative pieces would not just be applauded because they were edible and beautiful, but also because they made comments on the political environment through its subtleties (Mintz, 1986). While it may seem odd to us that sugar, something we eat in high volume today, was used to create such coveted pieces of art, it may occur to us that those of high status did this because they wanted to use and showcase their wealth. Not only were they able to afford this expensive commodity to eat, but they were able to put it on display and create social meaning out of it as well. This combined effort would have taken a lot of investment, and so it held symbolic importance.

As time passed, sugar became more available to the public and thus lost some of its symbolic importance and became more affordable. Therefore, it began to take on a new role in society as medicine, especially as it gained its medicinal credibility from sources like a ninth-century Arab manuscript from Iraq (Mintz, 1986). Sugar was not used as a medicine just on its own – it was combined with honey, fruits, flowers petals, hot water, among other ingredients (Mintz, 1986). Specifically in Britain in the 13th century, medicinal tonics with sugar began to pave its way in society. While to us this may seem absurd, to people in Europe, they thought it so necessary and common that they developed an expression “like an apothecary without sugar” to refer to something so helpless or useless (Mintz, 1986). Of course, sugar being used medicinally was not met without controversy or backlash, especially later in history in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Its use as a medicine would disappear especially as it began to be used as a sweetener and preservative. We see remnants of sugar’s reference as a medicinal supplement come up in works of popular culture like the famous song “Spoonful of Sugar” where the lyrics propose that it helps the medicine go down. Meanwhile, many of us would not be able to imagine a world today where we would realistically do such a thing.

Sugar began to be used in conjunction with other bitter tasting substances that were introduced to Britain like tea, coffee, and chocolate, although it is not known when this habit began (Highmore, 2011). Among these three, the success of tea and sugar in Britain seemed to be most closely tied, especially because the production of tea was profitable as it was from a British colony and thus powerful (Mintz, 1986). As mentioned before, sugar was on its way to continuously being more affordable and attainable to the greater public, not just to those with wealth. While it could be used to sweeten certain foods and beverages in Britain, it also began to be used as a preservative. For example, the British learned that sugar could be used to preserve fruit, which began to be consumed in high volumes in the English diet (Mintz, 1986). This preservation of food would help society as a whole with its consumption choices especially because it widened the horizons of what people could eat because it would last for longer. In sugar’s purpose as a sweetener and a preservative, it becomes obvious that its usefulness is paired with other goods that were rising in popularity like tea, coffee, and fruits. This idea reinforced the notion that globalization of goods through trade was becoming more prominent and apparent in everyday choices. 

Throughout history until now, sugar has been ever present in British society, although the form in which it presents itself may change. In terms of sugar’s modern day use in Britain, the government made an effort to reduce sugar consumption by putting a “sugar tax” on sweetened drinks in 2016 (Colborne, 2016). The fact that sugar needs to be taxed because of its common usage is testament to its affordability and availability. This plan of action is reminiscent of other countries such as France, Finland, Mexico, and Hungary that have also taxed sugar-sweetened drinks (Colborne, 2016). The motivation for the sugar tax comes from an effort to lower risks of “type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and common cancers” (Colborne, 2016). Sugar’s role in society may be steady but it is not without efforts to decrease it for health reasons, an interesting development given its previous use as a medicinal property. As we saw throughout Britain’s history, sugar’s value is relative to its social use. It will be important to continue to track the use of goods like sugar because it also serves as a way to gauge society’s current pulse.

Works Cited

Chrisman-Campbell, K. (2015, November 26). Instagramming Your Thanksgiving Dinner: A 16th-Century Tradition. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/11/the-16th-century-origins-of-food-porn/417639/

Colborne, M. (2016, May 17). Britain’s “sugar tax” tackles obesity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4868617/

Highmore, B. (2011). Introduction: Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness – Sugar on the Move. New Formations, 74(74), 5–17. doi: 10.3898/newf.74.introduction.2011

[Jean Belmondo]. (2017, June 23). A Spoonful of Sugar – Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins in 1964 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_L4qauTiCY4.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.