Tag Archives: Britain and Sugar

Historical Changes in British Sugar Consumption and Potential Causes

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.

Works Cited

Multimedia Sources:

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.

Scholarly Sources:

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[1985]. 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 Works:

Course materials, lectures, and notes.

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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxzc_2c6GMg&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

“How Much Caffeine Is in Your Cup?” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20049372. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” Slate, June 2015. Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html.

Top 10 British Bake-Off Treats. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJS7JWP1NEo. 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.

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.

Exploring the Explosion of British Sugar Production: A Supply and Demand Analysis

By the beginning of the 1900s, sugar had become a complete staple of British diets. So much so, that it composed twenty (20%) percent of the average caloric intake (Mintz 6). Since sugar remains such a dominant source of energy in our diets today, this may not seem surprising. However, before 1000 AD, few Europeans even knew of sugar’s existence. This dramatic shift in historical sugar consumption can be explained, in part, by a supply and demand analysis. Demand was fueled by humans’ neurologically wired love for sugar and supply was entirely supported by the slave trade, making it both financially possible and profitable for the British to produce vast quantities of sugar.

Why sugar? What makes sugar so much more popular than other crops? Humans are neurologically programmed to crave sugar. We are wired in such a way that sugar presses the “pleasure” button in our brains more than most other foods. Moreover, as the video below details, unlike with other healthier foods, we have an almost insatiable neurological desire for sugar, that does not diminish with sugar intake. This makes sugar highly addictive, acting almost like modern addictive drugs.

Consequently, from the moment Europeans were introduced to sugar in 1100 CE, sugar was bound to reach high levels of demand. However, satisfying this universal infatuation would not be easy. Sugar can only grow in tropical climates and is quite labor intensive. Therefore, producers would need substantial land in warm climates and a tremendous amount of cheap labor to meet future demand. Enter, the British.

In 1625, Portugal was supplying nearly all of Europe with Brazilian sugar. The British, who learned sugar production methods from the Dutch, subsequently dominated the industry after their humble beginnings in the 1640s on the island of Barbados. The British quickly engulfed the entire island and even expanded into Jamaica.

Mintz argues, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves (to her own colonies and, in absolute numbers, in her own bottoms), and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar. Coffee, chocolate (cacao), nutmeg, and coconut were among the other products; but the amount of sugar produced, the number of its users, and the range of its uses exceeded the others; it remained the principal product for centuries” (Mintz 38). 

However, sugar production was not a risk-free endeavor.  Dunn remarks, “sugar making was a highly volatile business; with the right combination of skill, drive, and luck, a planter could make a quick fortune, but careless management, a tropical storm, an epidemic disease, a slave revolt, or a French invasion could ruin the most flourishing plantation overnight” (Dunn 189). Planters depended on (1) English merchants’ loans for slave and equipment acquisition and (2) the government to provide military and naval protection. These factors were key for Britain’s success in the sugar business. With these high risks came high financial rewards for those who were able to successfully navigate these challenges.

Despite the risks, the British facilitated astounding sugar production growth, fueled by the exploitation of Africans sold in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Sugar production accounted for a greater influx of slaves than any other crop. They enslaved 263,000 individuals alone, with half of their slaves going to the island of Barbados. Slave importation grew exponentially; in all of the English West Indies, the black population grew from forty-two (42%) percent of the total population in 1660, to eighty-one (81%) percent by 1700. The video below explains how Europeans were able to purchase so many slaves from Africa over the decades, and the long-lasting effects of this trade on Africa’s tumultuous political climate.

Agricultural practices on Caribbean sugar plantations differed from English and North American farms. The work force on sugar plantations primarily comprised unskilled forced field workers – nearly one laborer per acre of cane on an average seventeenth-century Barbados plantation. Here, laborers did the work traditionally performed by animals. Such tasks as planting and cultivating, performed on English or North American farms by horse-driven plows and harrows, were carried out in the Indies entirely by hand (Dunn 198). Dunn argues this work was purposely completely inefficiently in the Indies to keep slaves busy year-round, as Cane cultivation is very seasonal and this would have prevented slave rebellions during the offseason. These practices helped the British avoid slave rebellions and ensure steady production growth.

Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the English succeeded in establishing a monopoly on the production of sugar, partially attributable to a rigorous policy of the English Navigation Acts that drove out the Dutch from the sugar trade. With England being at the center of the world’s sugar production, consumption followed suit. Despite fluctuating conditions of supply and demand over the years, English sugar consumption consistently trended upward. Ellis writes, “the price of sugar was falling, and its consumption was spreading rapidly among the English people. By the end of the period sugar had passed well out from among the luxuries and was regarded by increasingly greater numbers as necessary to comfort and happiness” (Ellis 86).

As is clear from the figure above, English sugar consumption per capita grew substantially from the early beginnings in the 1640s on Barbados through the eighteenth century. Sugar went from something only the wealthy could enjoy to a household item. Were it not for the slave trade, producing mass quantities of the good — at such a low cost — would not have been possible. Moreover, we it not for the universal love of sugar, there would not have been the demand to support the high consumption. Therefore, these factors both played a key role in ensuring the explosion of British sugar production.

Works Cited

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.

Ellis, Ellen Deborah. An Introduction to the History of Sugar as a Commodity. J. C. Winston Co., 1905.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books. 

Historical Parallels in European Sugar and Mesoamerican Cacao Consumption

Chocolate as we know it contains two core ingredients: cacao and sugar. Their flavors are drastically different, one of which is astringent and bitter, and one of which is sweet. Though processing, mixing, and tasting, these two ingredients have become inseparable in our minds. Just as the two seemingly unrelated crops have come together in taste, the historical narrative of how they became so widespread and loved in the world have interesting parallels, and likewise have come together through their role of symbolism, medicine, and how they both are powered by slavery. 


The earliest recorded history of cacao that survives today are from the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. The Popol Vuh, translated as “the book of the people”, refers to cacao frequently, indicating cacao’s strong presence, and the Dresden Codex similarly often refers to cacao, usually in the form Mayan gods consuming it. The containers for cacao beverages were richly decorated with important scenes, which further demonstrates the significance of cacao.

The Opossum god is carrying the Rain God on his back, with the text “cacao is his food” in the Dresden Codex

The significance of cacao within Mayan civilization also extends to marriage rituals and rites of death. In the latter, cacao was dyed red to symbolize blood, and allowed the soul to be energized for its journey to the underworld.

The symbolic role of cacao is not limited to the Mayans, but was also prevalent among the Aztecs. Bernadino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar, documented the Aztec court life. He described cacao as an elite food, where cacao beverages were consumed primarily by the elite or warriors. Similarly, they also saw cacao to be ritualistically significant, often using cacao as offerings to deities. 

As sugar was gaining popularity among the rich in Europe, it was often used as a form of decoration. It became a trend to make sculpted artwork with sugar to display for guests. This was a way to provide attractive food and, like Mayan and Aztec elites, to show off their status (Mintz, 88). In such events, the hosts and guests would then work their way through eating these sculptures. Though there is no outright “ritualistic” view of sugar, these events were, in a way, a ritual performed by those with money. However, instead of worshipping a higher being, sugar was used to celebrate what people valued: power. Sugar and cacao both came to take on greater meaning than just their physical value, and were a way of showing power, and for the Mayans and Aztecs, a way of honoring the gods they worshipped. 


According to archaeological evidence, both the ancient Mayans and Aztecs had medicinal uses for cacao. It was used to treat ailments related to digestion, as an anaesthetic, and for anti-inflammatory purposes. This is most explicitly shown in the Aztec Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams, where cacao is depicted with unhealthy bodies with various diseases as a medicine. Since illness was usually attributed to the gods, precious cacao was thought to be a suitable treatment for skin issues, fevers, poison, lung problems, and more. 

Images of unhealthy bodies

As sugar became more widely available in Europe, it too took on a medicinal role. It was used to break fevers, coughs, and treat stomach disease. Even during the Black Death, sugar was proposed as a remedy. Some have suggested that sugar as a medicine may have come from the idea of crushing precious stones of privilege; similar to cacao in Mesoamerica, people in Europe are consuming something precious as a way of treating their ailments. (Mintz 99)

It is especially interesting to note that today’s society paints sugar as “bad”, because of the chronic health issues that stem from eating too much sugar. Whereas cacao, or dark chocolate, has become increasingly touted as “healthy”, as it contains antioxidants, and is used as an aphrodisiac. While it doesn’t hold the same value as a medicine today, it is fascinating to see how sugar and cacao have gone from both being “medicinal” to complete opposites of each other.


The rise and spread of cacao and sugar allows the developed world today to enjoy chocolate bars, cakes, and more, but with it came the rise in slavery. For cacao, it began with the encomienda system, instituted by the Spanish upon the native populations in the Americas. The natives were coerced into producing cacao for the Spanish, but because of harsh working conditions, the native population was no longer enough to sustain production. This led to forced labor by African slaves from the Transatlantic slave trade. (Coe and Coe, 110) As it’s popularity in Europe rose, where nobles began to take to the flavor, so did slavery. 

The transatlantic slave trade visualized in 2 minutes

Sugar began independent of cacao, but it’s eventual tie to cacao and tea later served to intensify the use of slavery. The history of sugar production is deeply rooted in history since the 1300s (Mintz, 29). As a result of rising popularity, there was a demand increased production of sugar in Europe. The Portugese and and Spanish set their sights on the Atlantic islands, and created powerful sugar industries built on slave labor. 

They supplied most of Europe with their sugar. Later, England’s colonization of Barbados in 1627 began a shift in English tastes (Mintz, 37). From 1750 to 1850, sugar in the UK began to become less of a luxury and more of a necessity, and they had begun to import Portugese sugar to keep up with demands (Mintz, 148). Simultaneously, slaves were constantly being imported for labor. 

Although they began separated, sugar and cacao have been historically together in their narratives in both their uses and production, and, in the modern day, their consumption. While cacao and sugar no longer hold the same symbolic or medicinal value as they did before, slavery in the production of both is still a pressing issue today, and we must consider where we put our money. Haute cuisine in particular, where producers are marketing the flavor rather than the production, should focus more on how they can use sugar and cacao to promote more ethical consumption. (Martin and Sampeck, 53)

Works Cited

Bouie, Jamelle. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes”, uploaded by Slate on 12, Aug 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKo-_Xxfywk

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.”  2016. Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37-60., doi: 10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1986

Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York, Thames and Hudson, 1996.

The Consumption of Sugar in Britain

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.

Works Cited

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.

More Sugar! – The Causes of the Rise in British Sugar Consumption

During the 17thcentury all the way through the early 20thcentury, sugar had an incredible rise in production and consumption. This rise in consumption was especially prevalent in Britain. When sugar first arrived in Britain during the middle ages, it was primarily used by the upper class as a sparingly used spice. However, by the 18thand 19thcentury, sugar became a heavily used by all social classes. At the beginning of the 18thcentury the average British person was consuming 4 pounds of sugar per year. However, by the early 20thcentury that number had skyrocketed to about 90 pounds of sugar per person per year (Mintz). This exponential rise in British sugar consumption can be explained by a number of different factors. In this post I will outline the potential economic, practical, and scientific causes for this unforeseen rise in British sugar consumption. 

Graph showing the massive increase in British sugar consumption. 
Image Source 


First and Foremost, the rise in British sugar consumption was definitely caused in-part by the increased production and availability of sugar that the Triangular Trade provided. The Triangular Trade was a trans-Atlantic trade system that included the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean to work on plantations. In total, about “four million slaves were brought to the Caribbean, and almost all ended up on the sugar plantations” (Sugar and Slavery). This Triangular trade took place during the 17thand 18thcentury and was a huge part of the increase in sugar production in the Caribbean. This increase in production through slavery, created an enormous increase in sugar availability and consumption in Britain. Eventually, Britain began to question the ethics of sugar consumption because “slavery in England… had been deemed illegal since 1772” (Sugar and Slavery). However, even after the end of the Triangular Trade, consumption of sugar per capita continued to rise. Slavery, an increase sugar production, and the increase of sugar availability were all major factors as to why sugar consumption skyrocketed in England.

Image depicting the Triangular Trade and its vastness.  
Image Source

Another reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was the extreme versatility sugar had. Once the British began to trade for massive amounts of sugar, they realized it can have several purposes. Among other things, sugar could be used in medicine, jams, syrups, tea, coffee, fruit drinks, and in deserts (Mintz). Sugar also had decorative purposes as it could be formed into sculptures. However, the uses of sugar as a preservative and sweetener was definitely a major factor of the rise in sugar consumption. With sugar, the British could now preserve their fruits as jams which resulted in a major change in the British culture forever. Jam spread on bread evolved into a staple meal for the British in the 19thcentury. This was mainly because it was a quick and easy meal that provided a sufficient number of calories, especially as women and children entered the industrial workforce. This easy meal for women and children allowed the British economy to thrive “without increasing proportionately the quantities of meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products” (Mintz). This change in diet was heavily reflected in data because “by 1900, it [sugar] was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz). In the end, the cheap cost of sugar as well as its versatility definitely played a major role in the rise in British sugar consumption. 

The last potential reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was science. This was actually a reason for the rise in sugar consumption globally too. When you eat sugar there is a natural reaction by the body to release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to the “reward circuit associated with addictive behaviors” (Schaefer and Yasin). Essentially anything that causes the body to release dopamine can become very addictive because the only way to fulfill the dopamine high again is to do the same thing that caused the original high. Thus, when one eats sugar, the only way to feel that exact “high” again is to eat sugar again. Furthermore, since the body acclimates to things that cause dopamine releases, it requires higher amounts of sugar in higher frequency to achieve the original sugar “high” sensation (Schaefer and Yasin). This has been proven scientifically and some even believe that “sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain” (Schaefer and Yasin).  This addictive effect on the brain definitely had a big impact on why the British kept demanding and consuming more and more sugar as time passed. 

Diagram depicting the cycle of addiction that sugar can cause.
Image Source

In the end, it is safe to say that there is nothing that was the sole cause for the rise in British sugar consumption. It was undoubtedly a combination of all the things I have talked about in this post. The increasing affordability of sugar made it economically smart, the versatility of sugar made it practically smart, and the addictive properties of sugar made it scientifically irresistible. Together these factors combined to cause “the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market” (Martin).  

Scholarly Sources Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2019.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.
  • Schaefer, Anna, and Kareem Yasin. “Is Sugar the Next ‘Street Drug’?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 11 June 2015, http://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/experts-is-sugar-addictive-drug#1. Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
  • “Sugar and Slavery.” Sugar in the Atlantic World | Case 6 Sugar and Slavery, clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/sugarexhibit/sugar06.php.

Media Sources Cited

Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English

“The story can be summed up in a few sentences. In 1000 A.D., few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward they learned about it; 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. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity—albeit a costly and a rare one—in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.” (Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books. Page 5)

Cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz, prominent for linking English’s insatiable sweet tooth with the transformation of Britain from a hierarchical society to a democratic industrial society, succinctly summarizes the multi-century narrative of sugar in less than one hundred words. The introduction of sugar in the mid-17th century and the subsequent craving for sweetness catalyzed radical cultural and commercial changes within British society which evolved over the course of two hundred years an ultimately shaped British culture into its modern day social order.

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Catherine of Braganza Enjoying Tea

Although prior to the mid 17th century, sugar, limited by supply and expense, was primarily used as a spice, a medicinal supplement, and for both decorative and preservative purposes, sugar’s use as a sweetener ultimately prevailed.  In 1662, Queen Catherine, King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, introduced  drinking tea, a habit of the Portuguese nobility, to the British courts. An easily adulterated and ingestible beverage, the upper echelons of society quickly adopted the daily ritual of tea and soon began to add the newly available sweetener to the otherwise bitter beverage. (Mintz, 110) Tea quickly become symbolic of the wealthier and sugar embodied a social status of wealth and power.

Working Women Enjoying Tea

Like most trends associated with the elite, aspirational lower-classes began to imitate tea-drinking. For the wealthy, tea became emblematic of social events and sugar a novel treat, a sumptuous additive served in their tea and desserts, For the middle and lower classes, however, sweetened tea presented itself as the first “work break.”   Taken mid-afternoon, tea and sugar served as a relief from labor. Soon, “the tea,” became an event accompanied by a light lunch, to sate the lower classes’ hunger after working a full morning. The lower classes’ adoption and adaptation of the upper-class tradition of tea, not only caused an adjustment of their entire meal pattern, but also introduced sugar into their greater diet.  (Mintz, 142) This introduction of sugar to the British occurred at a most opportune time. When sugar first began to gain recognition, English people of all social strata, regularly susceptible to famine, struggled to maintain a satisfying diet. Centered predominately around a single starch and supplemented by various other foods, the English people’s diet relied almost exclusively on the availability of wheat, and did not contain robust nutritional value. For the lower classes, particularly, sugar offered an easy method of meeting daily caloric needs. (Mintz, 133)

British Buying Sugary Treats

As the lower classes began to develop a preference for sugar through sweetened tea, a marked increase in sugar production in the mid-seventeenth century resulted in a 70% reduction in the prices of sugar. Consequently, cheap sugar became readily available to even the poorest within Britain. Perhaps the most crucial supplement to the working class diet, cheap sugar redefined the lower-class diet. Sweet pastries, porridges, and treacle—a type of spreadable molasses—became dietary staples for the poor and provided a large allocation of their daily carbohydrates, and thus calories.

“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation.” (Mintz, 157)

As a consequence of Britain’s cross-class taste for sugar, the market for the product burgeoned, critically driving changes in Britain’s social structure. Demand for sugar consistently pushed the limits of supply.  Economic and political forces “supported the seizure of colonies where cane could be grown and raw sugar manufactured, as well as the slave trade that supplied the needed labor.” (Mintz, 167) Thus, investment opportunities in slave trade, shipping, plantations, credit against which plantations and stocks of slaves and sugar could be collateral, and retailing and refining proliferated. (Mintz, 168) By the mid-17th century, the sugar trade was a critical factor in cementing the power and the wealth of the British empire.  Further, because  the nascent sugar industry in England did not exclusively reward the rich—it provided opportunity to anyone ready to bear the risk, the craving for sugar quite literally fostered democracy, as it transformed England from a status based medieval society to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186).

“Britain’s annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe”  (The Guardian)

British Port Receiving Sugar

“…there is no doubt that the quantities imported and retained during that two century period when sucrose changed from rarity to daily ingestible rose steadily; that the increase was comparatively larger than the population increase; and that by the mid-nineteenth century the British were eating more sugar than ever before, and were as sugar-hungry as ever.” (Mintz, 161)

Sugar, a now ubiquitous additive, changed the fortunes of many in Britain over a two hundred plus year span.  Culturally, at its nascent usage beginning in the 17th century its association with tea begot a new category of meal for the working class; it supplemented a precariously unstable dietary situation; and ultimately, it provided a not inconsequential catalyst to the development of the British economy via the colonial growth and trading required to sate the country’s desire for sugar.  The craving for sugar also fostered an emerging democracy in Britain, and helped lift British society from a social structure grounded in medieval hierarchies to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186) Predicated on a deep gluttony for sugar and the capitalistic requirements to provide product, British social norms also changed as the country moved away from a cultural, feudalistic, structure which prevented opportunities for economic mobility to one driven by capitalism, and ultimately meritocracy and democracy. Sugar, in British history, represents more than an innovation in nourishment. The proliferation of sugar as a core food item characterizes the development of the British economy via colonial growth and trading, and the growing power and changing societal norms of the British empire.

Continue reading Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English