Sugar is an enormously culturally and dietarily significant food that can be found in human cultures across the world. Certain cultures have been consuming sucrose for thousands of years. Britain became a dominant military, geopolitical, economic and cultural force in the world starting in the industrial revolution in the 1600s. Over the next several hundred years, coinciding with the rise of the British empire to worldwide hegemon, British sugar consumption also skyrocketed. Today, sugar is still heavily consumed in Britain, perhaps more (in per capita terms) than at any other point in its history. In addition, refined sugar has had a huge gastronomic, economic and cultural legacy in Britain over the hundreds of years since when it was first brought to the British Isles. Historical changes in British refined sugar consumption were due to the decreasing price of refined sugar, the increased promotion and elevation of refined sugar in popular culture, and refined sugar’s taste.
The actual change in British refined sugar consumption has not been mild. Britain has had an explosion in per capita refined sugar consumption over the centuries since the start of its industrial revolution. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz notes that, in Britain, as early as 1856, sugar consumption was forty times higher than it had been only 150 years earlier (Mintz 143). Professor Carla Martin notes that sugar consumption in America rose from 2 pounds per person per year 200 years ago to 152 pounds per person per year today. A similar trend has occurred in Britain over the past two centuries as well. A 2019 article published in the Guardian argues for Britons to take political action with regard to sugar consumption and pressure the government to put a tax on certain sugary goods (Boseley).
This article states that such political action is necessary to improve the public health of Britons, who suffer adverse health consequences from high sugar consumption. An article published by the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation “finds most people in the UK are consuming three times the recommended daily sugar intake (Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation). This article corroborates the fact that sugar consumption is in fact responsible for health problems among Britons. The article elaborates that a diet high in refined sugar is linked to “obesity and related health complications, including type 2 diabetes” (Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation).
An article from the BBC about British sugar consumption makes the important distinction that the health problems from sugar consumption specifically come from Briton’s consumption of refined and added sugar (Jeavans). The BBC article notes that other forms of sugar, including fructose naturally present in fruits, do not pose major health dangers (Jeavans). This BBC article lends evidence to the idea that increases in obesity and obesity related health conditions in Britain is due to increased consumption of refined/added sugar, as opposed to increased consumption of naturally occurring sugars (Jeavans). This is important because it helps rule out other causes of obesity and obesity related health problems in Britons, and helps more strongly establish the connection between drastically increased refined sugar consumption following the industrial revolution and obesity related health problems.
It is clear that the decreased price and increased availability of refined sugar in Britain following the industrial revolution had a huge impact on sugar’s consumption. Mintz notes that, in Britain, “the price of sugar fell by 30 percent between 1840 and 1850, and by a further 25 percent in the next two decades, consumption increases reflect a decline in the price of sugar relative to other commodities” (Mintz 144).
In addition, cultural factors were also responsible for widespread increases in sugar consumption in Britain from the 1600s to the present. Two of the most important cultural factors that pushed people to consume sugar were pressures and dynamics between members of opposite sexes, and the general desire to imitate the habits of elite, wealthy or royal people. Mintz establishes the idea that people desire to emulate the dietary habits of the wealthy and powerful when he quotes Shand as saying: “Once tea became an established custom among the well-to-do…the lower middle classes naturally began to imitate it” (Mintz 142) . It is clear that this desire for imitation could apply with sugar also.
It is also noted that female pressure on males can induce males to change their dietary/beverage preferences. Mintz states: “Shand’s conjecture that tea and alcohol tended to be sex-divided beverages until the salon lured men to afternoon tea may be accurate for the middle classes after the 1660s” (Mintz 142). Importantly, Smith notes that the British would put sugar in their tea (Smith 259). Thus, desire among elite British males to meet members of the opposite sex would drive them to attend salons where they would partake in tea. Smith states that the custom of putting sugar into tea “which has mistakenly been viewed as insignificant, had important historical effects” (Smith 259). Smith remarks that “Its widespread adoption in Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe in the eighteenth century greatly reinforced demand for both products” (Smith 259).
Finally, the inherent taste of refined sugar may have been one of the important factors driving sugar’s increased consumption in Britain over the past several centuries. Humans likely evolved to like the taste of sugar even over the taste of many other food ingredients because sugar is very calorically dense (Addessi et al).
In conclusion, economics, culture and taste all factor into causing historical changes in British sugar consumption over the last 400 years. The decreased price of sugar, cultural pressure to consume sugar, and the delicious taste of sugar likely all contributed to rising consumption of sugar in Britain over a 400 year period. Today, the high consumption of refined/added sugar in Britain likely causes adverse health effects in the population.
Boseley, Sarah. “Taxing Cakes and Biscuits Is the Answer to Britain’s Sugar Problem.” The
Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Sept. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/sep/20/taxing-cakes-and-biscuits-is-the-answer-to-britains-sugar-problem.
Jeavans, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014,
“Report on Diet Finds Most People in the UK Are Consuming Almost 3 Times the
Recommended Daily Sugar Intake.” Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation, 11 Apr. 2018, http://www.drwf.org.uk/news-and-events/news/report-diet-finds-most-people-uk-are-consuming-almost-3-times-recommended-daily.
Addessi, E., Galloway, A.T., Birch, L. and Visalberghi, E., 2004. Taste perception and food
choices in capuchin monkeys and human children. Primatologie: revue publiee sous l’egide de la Societe francophone de primatologie, 6, p.101.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern
History. New York: Penguin Books.
Smith, Woodruff D. “Complications of the commonplace: Tea, sugar, and imperialism.” The
Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.2 (1992): 259-278.
Course materials, lectures, and notes.