Tag Archives: Britain

Consumption Patterns of Sugar Through History

           We consume sugar in our everyday lives without even thinking about it. From our morning coffees to our afternoon snacks and evening dinners, sugar is an integral part of the food we ingest, if not constituting the food itself. However, only relatively recently has sugar accessibility and consumption become so widespread. When sugar first was introduced into Europe, it was a very expensive and rare commodity. Over time, the increased availability and affordability of sugar not only drastically increased its consumption, but also shaped many changes in its social perception and usage.

Early Sugar: Spice and Medicine

            Sugar was introduced to Europe in around 1100, and at first, it was considered a spice alongside ingredients like nutmeg, pepper, and ginger. These types of spices were treated as “rare and tropical…imports, used sparingly by those who could afford them at all” (Mintz 79), and sugar was regarded in the same way. Because it was so rare and expensive, sugar was “prized among the wealthy and powerful of western Europe” as something that made diets “more digestible, varied, [and] contrastive” (Mintz 80) – due to its expensive nature, its consumption was a luxury reserved for the elite, but because it was so rare, its main uses were for practical and important needs, and in small amounts.

            The other main function of sugar from the beginning of its consumption in Europe was as a medicine, but unlike its use as a spice, its medicinal uses sustained for much longer. These two functions were actually quite related – as Fischler explains, “literally all spices were believed to have some kind of medicinal significance” (5), which makes sense given that spices were used in food partially to improve digestibility (7). Its medicinal ability was introduced to Europe through Arab pharmacology, though its utility had already long been established in the Islamic world (British Library). Throughout the 13th-18th centuries in Europe, sugar became so useful in medicine that the phrase “like an apothecary without sugar” was coined (Fischler 5).

Sloane Manuscript 1621 (written in mid-to-late 11th century) from the British Library, one of the earliest written records of sugar in England. Starting on line 6, it lists a recipe for Rosatum tertiani febris (‘A conserve of roses for tertian fever’), which includes white syrup as one of the ingredients.

           These early uses of sugar were shaped by its availability (or lack thereof) as a material in the sense that its main, most common uses were for important and essential purposes – to cure illness or to aid digestibility of food – and often in sparing amounts. As sugar trade became more widespread, however, this allowed sugar to be treated as more commonplace and take on more indulgent purposes. A religious debate sparked in the 12th century over whether it counted as a food that broke fast reflected the shifting attitude at the time toward the everyday uses and roles sugar had.

Developments in Sugar: A Symbol of Elite Status

            As time went on, sugar remained expensive but became increasingly accessible. Mintz describes that “during the thirteenth century, sugar was sold both by the loaf and by the pound, and though its price put it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, it could be procured even in remote towns” (82). As it grew more accessible among the rich, its uses morphed to include decoration. Sugar pastes could be used to form sculptures which were not only aesthetic, but also self-preserving and of course, edible. These pastes were often made from combining sugar with oil, crushed nuts, and vegetable gums, which resulted in a clay-like substance that could be molded (Mintz 88). Once formed, the sculptures were baked and hardened.

Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School demonstrates how to use sugar to make sculptures.

           These sugar sculptures were often displayed at celebratory events or feasts, such as royal French feasts starting in the 13th century (Mintz 88). Though they were appreciated and eaten, they did not serve the role of the main food entrées, but rather as transitions between banquet courses (Mintz 88). The displays, called “subtleties,” often represented animals, objects, or buildings and later evolved to take on political symbolism (Mintz 89), establishing them as an art form that could be used to express ideas. At this point, sugar was able to be used not for essential needs, but as an accessory and an artistic medium.

A modern recreation of a sugar sculpture that might have been the centerpiece of an 18th century French wedding table. Part of “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals,” a 2015 exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

           In its role as a decoration and art form, sugar also took on socioeconomic meaning. Because the ingredient was precious and used in large quantities, its decorative use was at first limited to kings (Mintz 90). The material was so rare that no others could even afford quantities substantial enough to create sculptures out of. Thus, it was viewed as a display of “wealth, power, and status” for a host to be able to procure such valuable food for guests, and guests eating these symbols validated that status (Mintz 90).

           Sugar importation stabilized in the 14th century, and this practice had trickled down to merchants and nobility by the 16th century (Mintz 90). By the late 16th century, it had permeated families who were not considered noble or particularly wealthy, even if they were still in England’s higher socioeconomic levels (Mintz 91). Recipes for sugar pastes began to appear in cookbooks and became increasingly widespread (Mintz 92), indicating their use among more common households. As sugar sculptures continued to trickle downward, they inevitably became less grand, compared to what kings might have displayed previously. This was also in part because as recipes became more common, they adapted to the more commonplace needs and resources of consumers. For example, one adaptation in Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery described “jumballs” and “hedgehogs,” which were little dough confections cut into pretty figures that were meant to be admired and eaten (Mintz 93). The focus became less on the ability to spin art and decoration out of sugar, and more on providing quantities of sugar to guests.

            Though today, sugar does not carry the same signal of status, these ornamental practices still persist to some degree. We still often use sugar as a decoration on treats, albeit on a much smaller scale and solely for the purpose of aesthetics. And on special holidays or occasions, we still seem to turn to sugar to symbolize our feelings.

Sugar Today: Food Staple

           As sugar’s symbolic importance to the elite declined, its importance in the general population increased, contributing to how we consume it today. Today, sugar is no longer expensive as it once was, and it is very easily acquirable. Though it has lost its original meaning as a status symbol, the increased accessibility has allowed it to rise up as a household staple. It is an integral part of many food recipes, and in many cases, sugar is the main food itself – whether we are consuming it as dessert, as a sweet snack, or as a candy treat. Often, we consume sugar without even thinking about it or even realizing that we are. In fact, in many countries, sugar is consumed on the order of many tens of kilograms per person per year, on average. Thus, as sugar has shed its previous defining limitations of expensiveness and scarcity, it has become fully integrated with everyday life, spanning consumption purposes which vary from the medicinal to the decorative to the nourishing.

Works Cited

A spoonful of sugar. British Library, 2018, https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2018/11/aspoonful-of-sugar.html. Accessed 23 March 2020.

Fischler, Claude. Attitudes Towards Sugar and Sweetness in Historical and Social Perspective. In Sweetness. J. Dobbing, ed. pp. 83-98. Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1987.

“How was it made? Sugar Sculpture.” Youtube, uploaded by Victoria and Albert Museum, 9 September 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqpz7hN-Bkg.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, Penguin Books, 1986.

Swanson, Abbie F. Let them eat sugar sculpture! The Getty celebrates edible table art. KPCC, 2015, https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/11/20/55779/let-them-eat-sugar-sculpture-thegetty-celebrates/. Accessed 23 March 2020.

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. 

Imperialism, Industrialization, and the Rise of Sugar in Great Britain

We take processed sugar for granted in most of our meals. It is a necessary ingredient in many recipes: we use it to sweeten our drinks, our meals, and our desserts. The world production of sugar shows the most remarkable upward curve of any major food in the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still. The exponentially growing supply of sugar directly parallels consumption behavior, especially evident in Britain. Sugar became a necessity in every British meal by the 19th century from a rarity among the socioeconomic elites of the 17th century. Today, an average person in Britain consumes 120 pounds of sugar every year.

What drove this phenomenal popularity? What social conditions enabled the growth in production to meet such demand? Big, structural changes, namely imperialism and industrialization, that pushed human civilization from the Medieval times through the Age of Enlightenment to the Modern Era established the fundamental framework for refined sugar to spread virally.

Demand for Sugar

As sugar gained popularity within the English nobility in the 17th and 18th century, its chemical properties were exploited for five distinct uses. Doctors, most of who still relied on Galenic humoral principles, prescribed ill patients with various concoctions with sugar as main ingredient. Dr. Frederick Slare found “sugar a veritable cure-all” and publishes his overenthusiastic support for commodity and its purported medicinal powers in his book A Vindication of Sugars Against the Charge of Dr. Willis, Other Physicians, and Common Prejudices: Dedicated to the Ladies (Mintz, 106). Such imagined miraculous wonders of sugar are deeply rooted in the Europe-centric orientalist mindset, mystifying sugar as a foreign and ancient panacea from the Arabs, who introduced the good to Europe. The use of sugar as a medicine diminished mostly due to its growing presence in the average household in Britain.

Sugar was also used as a condiment to impart a change in flavor of a dish. It was “grouped with spices like pepper, nutmeg, mace, ginger [and] cardamom,” to develop counterposed taste profiles like bittersweet and sweet and sour (Mintz, 79). Like other spices, sugar’s status as an exotic and expensive good in Medieval and Renaissance Europe was coveted by the rich and the powerful. The extremely wealthy also displayed their socioeconomic status by using pastes with sugar, almonds, rice, and gums to sculpt decorations often showcased at banquet courses. The symbolic importance of sugar declined significantly as its accessibility increased dramatically.

Although sugar’s uses as medicine, spice-condiment, and decorative material were meaningful contributors of its popularity especially among the 17th and 18th century elites, its more pragmatic properties fundamentally shifted the common public’s perception of sugar from a luxurious commodity to a necessity. The British climate allowed for a short growing season and foods would often rot, creating a substantial demand for sugar as a preservative and producing jams, marmalade’s, syrups and dried fruit as byproducts. Lastly, and most significantly, sugar became the main sweetener in connection with three other major imports: tea, chocolate, and coffee. By complementing their bitterness, sugar increased their approachability to the general public. This drove the demand for the three beverages, especially tea, which in turn drove the demand for sugar, creating a feedback loop.

Print of a giant sugar mill in 1862.

Additionally, industrialization of Britain and its consequent rise of free-market capitalism and decline of feudalism developed a homogenous working class, members of which constantly minimized costs and time to fulfill their labor hours. Sugar, which has the highest calorie per acre, provided a cost and time efficient supplement that did not require food. Therefore, “[industrial] families spent about double the amount on tea and sugar as their rural counterparts” by the mid-19th century (Griffin, 87). Sweetened preserves and pre-made pastries with sugar became popular meal substitutes for working parents.

Supply to Keep Up with Demand

The physical production of sugar had to match this phenomenal demand in Britain to keep prices down and increase accessibility. Sugar making is a long and difficult process, which involves laborious extraction and purification of the liquid from sugar canes. New Portugal supplied most of the sugar consumption in Europe, until British imperialistic motivations that sprung during the 17th century resulted in the colonization of two key islands in climate suitable for sugar cane plantation in 1650: Barbados and Jamaica. Another significant consequence of the imperialist/capitalist desire to meet demand resulted in the massive enslavement and mobilization of Africans to the Caribbean islands. These slaves “not only cut cane: at the center of every plantation was the factory: the sugar mill…and the boiling house and the sugar curing house, perhaps a distilling house for the manufacture of rum” (Norton). They fulfilled the “manual labor…absolutely essential for cultivation and for harvesting” (Robertson, 140). Slavery, until it was banned in the 19th century, allowed for significant decline in retail prices while still maintaining huge profitability for the plantation owners.

Cane cutting in a sugar plantation in Jamaica during the 19th century.

Industrialization and imperialism resulted in two similarly dispossessed laborers in massive populations that played fundamental roles in developing sugar as an ubiquitous commodity. European laborers, who worked in urban factories beginning in the 17th century, would become the mass consumers of sugar. The demand created from this working class was fulfilled by the slaves displaced by imperial Britain in the Caribbean colonies, and later indentured servants from India after the abolition of slavery in 1834.

A Complicated History of Chocolate and Sugar in the Caribbean (and Abroad)

My Childhood Experience: 

I love chocolate and I love sugar even more. I have loved both since I was a child and will continue to love them well into my old age. The first time I tasted a Snickers chocolate bar on a small Caribbean island where almost all chocolate is imported, I was hooked- no other candy bar could compare. The Snickers bar became my cradle to grave candy bar and even today when I have one decades later, I tend to flash back to the nostalgic time when getting that chocolate (or any chocolate really) for me was a rare and expensive sugar-rush to be savored. In Barbados, the nation’s relationship with chocolate in general and sugar more specifically tends to be complicated by its history of slave labor production and British colonization (Beckles, 2017). Even in present day, conversations around the health of locals and sugar consumption are often linked back to the repercussions of this history.

Planting the sugar cane

Growing up in the Caribbean, there was no Halloween, no teachers that would give out candy to their students as rewards for good work in the classroom, no goodie bags filled with a delightful assortment at parties for me. Chocolate was a coveted treat and one that I was taught to respect as a child as something of value for having done good or been good in order to “deserve” it. While other kids would spend their lunch money on snacks, sweets, and chocolate during break, I was under strict rules not to spend money on such frivolities. Back then I was raised with the idea that chocolate and other sugary food was not money well spent and that the over consumption of sugar was a result of a still colonized mind. Although chocolate was not at the time as much of a staple as it is now, especially compared to the developed West, sugar was everywhere and in almost everything, like America and the UK. Bajans consumed large amounts of sugar regularly and have been since the mid 1600s when Britain relied on the colony for crops and began manufacturing sugar cane for their own consumption (Martin, 2018, slides 2-9).

Moreover, my mother- a professional cook and very health conscious- believed there were more potential health risks to eating chocolate and sugary treats and thought the health benefits were minimal. My grandfather had many theories on sugar’s use for the demise of the black population by the British crown.


He would say that the sugar industry used invasive propaganda and historically colonized slave mentality to keep locals pacified in order to maintain control of the island and keep its people unhealthy- like a drug. I had no idea what he meant by that back then, I was barely 7-8 years old when we would have these talks about the aftermath of sugar plantations in Barbados. Not until I was older did I reflect on these conversations and revisit them again in a class on chocolate culture.

My grandfather’s words resurfaced again when I read Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz. He wrote, “the upward climb of both production and consumption within the British Empire must be seen as part of an even larger general movement…We know that sugar consumption in the old sugar colonies…was part always very substantial- indeed, that slaves were given sugar, molasses, and even rum during slavery period as part of their rations” (Mintz, 1985, p. 72). When my grandfather would lecture on the perils of sugar- the cause of painful and expensive cavities, my diabetic relatives (one of which had the bottom part of her leg amputated from too my sugar in her diet), or the root of making people sluggish and less intelligent- did I start to develop a profound fear and wonder about the power of confectionaries. How could something so delicious be so dangerous? It took me many years to realize it was not just chocolate that was the primary concern for him. It was the production of sugar in Barbados by the enslavement of black people under British colonization and the exploitation of the island. The impact in which continues to have adverse risks to its citizens still.

Sugar cane harvest post card

There is a long tradition in Barbados to produce sugar in addition to an impulse to consume large amounts as well, which started with Britain’s obsession with the commodity. In fact, the turning point of British sugar production was the settlement of Barbados and thus both nations were transformed. One nation with the need to consume, the other forced to produce for consumption. Mintz aptly writes:

“England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fasted 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 numbers of its users, and the range of its uses exceeded the others; and it remained the principal product for centuries” (Mintz p. 38).

Thus, my relationship with chocolate in my formative years was neither abundant nor overindulgent and my view of sugar was entwined with stories of the colonized bodies of my ancestors. Still I was a child and I had a sweet tooth- like many others from the island-, which made my mother wearier of permitting me to have it out of fear I would become gluttonous, overweight, and doltish. With diabetes prevalent on both sides of the family there were lectures on the perils of sugar and my ultimate demise if I consumed too often. This was ingrained into my childhood. However, kids will be kids and I found ways to get chocolate whenever I could and hide it craftily. My morning tea was mostly sugar. This complicated relationship with chocolate and sugar during my childhood in the Caribbean continued into adulthood abroad.

Barbados is not like other islands in Caribbean for many reasons. First, it is a very small island, one of the smallest. Second, it is the most outside of the Caribbean strip of islands and more isolated with a population of less than 300,000 people. What it does have in common with places such as St. Lucia, Tobago, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Jamaica is that they were also ensnared in European and British colonization of their bodies and land for crop production. Now while many of these islands have transformed this into strong chocolate tourism foundation that has begun to flourish in the recent decades along with traditional crops of the past, Barbados struggles to join this cash crop sector. On other islands everything from haute and terroir chocolate to cheap chocolate are being produced. They were able to embrace the agricultural aftermath of slavery to make cacao and sugar into a moneymaking industry that appeals strongly to Western conception of sophistication and acceptability. In contrast, Barbados in the aftermath as a sugar producing island, chose to set up shop as a strong island tourism base and minimize the sugar industry production along with the dark history that came with it. In addition, the island is simply too small to produce many of its own crops, cacao being one of them. This caused many confectionery and snack factories in Barbados to be purchased and moved to Trinidad and Tobago as demand grew.

Looking back, it seems ironic that I thought cheap chocolate was more of an iconic delicacy than it really was. For instance, a $1 Snickers bar in America cost ~$4 USD in Barbados so its value felt more significant. Hence, it is understandable to me now why such chocolate was considered a special treat, especially in a family that thought it a wasteful. Growing up in Barbados, I had literally never eaten chocolate made on the island or any of the surrounding islands. Some factories used our sugar but that was about it, so it seemed like chocolate was a foreign substance from far off lands.

The only exposure to “fine” chocolate I had in the Caribbean was Cadbury Chocolate, a British multinational confectionery company that dominates the island almost single-handedly. Among locals, it is either loved or hated and can oftentimes be highly political because of its connection to the UK. Many believe that Britain as a nation continues to claw its way into the island’s industry via companies such as Cadbury, thus control by the British crown continues invisibility and from afar. Cadbury Chocolate in an island once dominated by a hugely profitable sugar industry that exploited African slaves is a contentious past still being unpacked.

Cadbury can be found everywhere on the island. Although the price is significantly higher than other candy bars, locals love it and consider it more “high end”. Although in the past 5-10 years more variety and quality chocolate is coming into the island and locals are getting a real taste of what good chocolate can be. It can be more than milk chocolate and chocolate covered candy. It has been a slow process because in Barbados dark chocolate is uncommon and unpopular. That is why one of the calls to action by local Bajans (and already promoted by other surrounding islands) is taking advantage of the blooming interest by tourists to try locally made chocolate and and for locals to reclaim untold histories.

In that respect, the island is now revisiting the history of cacao and sugar and getting more involved with the booming industry. In 2010, Agapey Chocolate was founded in Barbados conveniently located at the capital of Bridgetown. It is the only chocolate company on the island and is the only bean to bar chocolate company in Barbados.


Although the company was not very well known at first, it has grown in popularity among tourist and locals are now also taking advantage of their delicacies. The company has won multiple international awards and went through the process of Fair Trade certification (Agapey 2018). They offer in-depth tours of the factory that explain how their chocolate is made and also the history of chocolate and the role of cacao and sugar in the Caribbean. It is a good example of changing attitudes towards dark chocolate and progress in using local ingredients like rum and coconut to stimulate the economy.


An International Cultural Exploration of Chocolate and Sugar

When I journeyed across the North Atlantic Ocean and set up a new home in Somerville, Ma. I soon learned about the abundance of chocolate and its widespread availability for any and every occasion, or no occasion at all. My mind was blown. Now in this wondrous place, chocolate could be found in almost every store, market, gas station, etc. It is not rare or expensive. It can be very expensive with places like L.A Burdick’s or it can be cheap like a Snickers from CVS. With my mother back in Barbados, I had no restrictions on my chocolate or sugar intake and I swiftly sought to make up for lost time, eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. It was liberating; this was America. I ate so much candy my first months of arrival, I could not get enough. Sugar consumption was even more rampant and readily available in almost everything people consumed.

Retrospectively, Somerville turned out to be one of the best places in the U.S to get a real taste of a multicultural experience, including its cuisine, which made for a great exploration of the candied goods of other lands. There has been a long tradition of community building at the foundation of local revitalization and urban development in Somerville that took a great amount of pride in exposing neighbors to “food from back home”. For many longtime residents, organizing community-building initiatives at the neighborhood and local government level has been a strategic way to promote the city’s rich cultural diversity and mixed-income environment. It also created bridges to parts of the population that might otherwise face isolation from resources aimed to empower them to take agency in improving their own socio-economic condition, particularly immigrants and people of color. Food was used to bridge the divide.

One of the first events I attended to increase exposure to different cultures was an annual international food fair held at Somerville High School where all the food was made by students, staff, or donated by local businesses. My recollection of walking through the school’s gymnasium and sampling different foods from over 100+ countries and cultures represented was a lasting experience. My Brazilian friend took me over to a table where I had my first bon-bon, a chocolate covered wafer with more chocolate inside that is widely popular in Brazil and now internationally. Another friend showed me her homemade milky coconut cardamon treats of India. There was table after table with food that I had never tried before, a whole candy world outside of Snickers and Cadbury.

For my first Halloween, my friends who had been trained in this occasion advised me to ditch the Halloween bucket and grab an old pillowcase. A pillowcase I thought, how much candy could we possibly get? The answer to that was a lot, a pillowcase half way full equating to more than four of the buckets I was going to bring. Every holiday and special occasion involved candy and chocolate. In addition, because of Somerville’s immense international population, there was not just the typical American candy, but treats coming from all over the world. I became seasoned quickly on how, where, and when to get candy and what chocolate came from which country. Chocolate became a constant and a source of comfort as I adjusted to life in America. Chocolate was for sharing between friends, indulging with cousins, and for no occasion at all.

Not until college did I learn the meaning behind fair trade, direct trade, or bean to bar- thus my ignorance of chocolate started to unfold. As Maricel Presilla writes, “to know chocolate, you must know that the candy in the box or the chef’s creation on the plate begins with the bean, the complex genetic profile of different cacao strains” (Presilla, 2009, p. 4). So began my segway into learning about chocolate production and saying goodbye to Snickers for a bit. I wanted to know about chocolate beyond what popular culture had taught me and beyond what my childhood experiences had ingrained.

I became engrossed with learning about the history of chocolate. I went to Madrid, Spain where I drank chocolate for the first time. Discovered theobroma cacao comes from Greek and means “food of the gods”.  I learned that Spanish invaders took the word cacao and their first real knowledge of cacao came from the Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula. They used the word chokola’j, or ‘to drink together’. (Presilla, 2009, p. 10-12) and chocolate is amount one of the bastardized words created because it was easier for Europeans to pronounce. There I saw that even from the naming of cacao that history of chocolate was written and known mostly from a western-centric point of view and that influence continues today. I needed a different more authentic understanding of chocolate and kept traveling. I visited Tlaxcala, a sovereign state in Mexico with a strong connection to its complex history with cacao. There I used a molinillo for the first time- a whisking device to make cacao frothy- and drank a cup of chocolate that I helped prepare using traditional Mexican tools like the metate.

The story of how cacao developed from a sacred drink to the industrialized food that it is today is a complex history that dates back thousands of years. The story of how sugar production exploded in the Caribbean is also connected to the history of cacao. The bodies of black and brown people were used for European gain as was the land. Today, this history can be very complicated for the generations that followed. My relationship with chocolate and sugar has evolved overtime from a child in Barbados to a teen in America, to a traveler of the world. As my own understanding of these topics continues to expand, I will continue to enjoy these goods the best I can and keep educating myself on the topic.

Work Cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, abolition, and forced labor’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 28 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1985. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

“On Barbados, the First Black Slave Society” via AAIHS. Here is the website link: https://www.aaihs.org/on-barbados-the-first-black-slave-society/.



Images (in order):

“Planting the sugar-cane” (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library).

“Slaves Wanted” Advertisement for the Island of Barbados (Credit: Lascelles Slavery Archive)

“Sugar Plantation Barbados, Carting Sugar Canes To The Mill”  W. L. Johnson & Co. Ltd., Barbados. No. 15

Agapey Chocolate Factory Website Photos (Credit: agapey.com)

Sugar’s Explosion In Britain: Slave Driven, Technologically Fueled, or the result of Free Trade?

By the twentieth century, sugar had become a common component of the English diet. Several factors led to this development, two of which are the proliferation of slavery in the New World, and advancements in technology that made larger scale production possible. While technology, after the abolition of slavery, continued to play a role in the success of sugar production, sugar prices would likely not have dropped to the degree they did, had it not been for a shift away from British protectionism, a policy that had formerly limited competition in the sugar industry. The reduction of sugar prices is what allowed the product to become so integrated in the diet of everyday people.

One cannot ignore the role the slavery played in the production of sugar into the mid to late nineteenth century. As Sidney Mintz states, British colonists in the Caribbean had began to think about sugar production close to the middle of the seventeenth century.[1] As tobacco production began to be supplanted by sugar production, plantations began to develop, and increasingly, small farms became a thing of the past, and slavery a more popular form of labor than indentured servitude.[2] As Mintz points out, slavery maintained its crucial role in sugar production until the Haitian Revolution[3], which concluded in 1803. This graph of UK per capita sugar consumption over time (from this article) shows that sugar consumption continued to increase well into the nineteenth century. So, while slavery may have played a pivotal role in sugar production in its day, it cannot, however, be given credit for the ultimate explosion of sugar consumption in Britain.

Technological advances also played a key role in sugar production. As Mintz states, until the nineteenth century, “mechanical force was [still] an imperfect and incomplete substitute for manual labor.”[4] However, around the middle of the 1800’s, there were drastic improvements in the technology of the sugar industry, as evident by “[i]mmense improvements in grinding capacity, cane varieties, pest control and cultivation methods, increasing use of machinery, and revolutionary changes in transportation eventuated in vast new agro-industrial complexes.”[5] One such technological improvement was the use of steam powered sugar mills. Another was the multiple effect evaporator, which introduced a cheaper and safer way of evaporating sugar cane juice. As slavery ended in several European countries in the nineteenth century, there was a decrease in the labor available for Caribbean planters, as former slaves sought to escape the plantation.[6] The planters who were most able to utilize technological improvements got a leg up over their peers in the face of increased competition in the sugar market.[7] It seems that technology helped to compensate for emancipation’s effects on the labor supply.

Another development that had significant effect on the sugar industry was the end of the British policy of protectionism. Protectionism is a policy of limiting foreign competition via tariffs, subsidies, quotas, or other limitations.[8] As Mintz articulates, at around the middle of the nineteenth century, the system of protectionism was abandoned in favor of “arrangements that could supply an abundant but cheaper supply of the same goods to English consumers, without special West Indian privileges.”[9] So, it is clear that the end of protectionism, which led to an increase in competition in the English sugar market, played a key role in the reduction of sugar prices, which, of course, was pivotal for the increase in English sugar consumption. The tendency of competition to lower prices, as it pertains to the sugar market specifically, should not be understated. An earlier period of sugar production also attests to the potency of competition. As Ralph Davis articulates, the entrance of English colonies as producers in the sugar market was a noticeable force in the reduction of sugar prices, as they competed with the Portuguese:

“At the beginning of the seventeenth century Portuguese (i.e. Brazilian) production was already growing fast and reducing prices sharply and the English West Indian Islands, when they turned to sugar production, had this large established New World producer to contend with. They came late into the field… and in the early 1660’s they were still contending with the Portuguese even for the English market. But already their competition had caused a considerable decline in prices and prices continued to fall, on the whole, until about 1685, by which time the English product had driven Brazilian sugar from the North European as well as from the English market.”[10]

This price reduction ended, or at least slowed, with the end of competition. It seems unlikely that the sugar producers in the English West Indies would have reduced their prices as much as sugar prices fell following the end of protectionism, if they had still enjoyed the lack of competition that protectionism afforded them. I contend that although new technological advances improving the means of sugar production might still have led to a reduction in sugar prices, this reduction would not have been as great without this shift in British policy.

The change from protectionism to some semblance of free trade was completed by 1870.[11] When they removed “barriers to ‘free’ trade… [British elites made it] possible for the world’s cheapest sugars to reach the widest possible market in Britain.”[12] While slavery, in its time, had some impact in the flourishing of the sugar industry, and technology surely played a role as well, the results of the British departure from protectionism allowed the competition that also helped to drive down sugar prices, which allowed sugar to be consumed more widely by the English population.


American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. “Norbert Rillieux           and the Multiple Effect Evaporator.” Accessed March 10, 2017.        https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/norbertrillieux.html

Coleman, Andrew. “Sugar Plantations of Louisiana.” Last Modified April 11, 2013.     Accessed March 10, 2017.                                                                                       http://medianola.org/discover/place/987/Sugarcane-Plantations-of-Louisiana#reference_6

Davis, Ralph. “English Foreign Trade, 1660-1700.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 152. doi:10.2307/2591619.
Mintz, Sidney W., Woodville K. Marshall, Mary Karasch, and Richard Frucht. “Slavery and the Rise of Peasantries [with Commentary].” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 6, no. 1 (1979): 213-53. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/41330423

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New                  York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1985.

Sutherland, Claudia E. “Haitian Revolution 1791-1804.” Copyright 2007-2017.             Accessed March 10, 2017 http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Protectionism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/protectionism

‘The Historic Sugar Mills of Java.” Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.internationalsteam.co.uk/mills/gulajava.htm

“The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption (it’s not what you think)”          Published May 1, 2014. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.czarnikow.com/news/01-05-14/inconvenient-truth-about-sugar-consumption-it-s-not-what-you-think


“Sweet Spot Part 4, Olean Sugar Mill, East Java, Indonesia” Copyright Rob and           Yuehong Dickinson 2007. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWbs6mbfT14

“Refined Sugar: Where did it come from? Stuff of Genius”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULdCmtrkrWQ


[1] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, c1985., p. 52

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 51.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 69-70.

[7] Sidney Mintz., Woodville K. Marshall, Mary Karasch, and Richard Frucht. “Slavery and the Rise of Peasantries [with Commentary].” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 6, no. 1 (1979): p.215.

[8] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Protectionism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Published May 20, 2010. Accessed March 10, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/protectionism

[9] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, p. 61.

[10] Ralph Davis. “English Foreign Trade, 1660-1700.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 152.

[11] Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, p.61

[12] Ibid., 70.

Economic Viability vs. Social Responsibility: A Glimpse into Cadbury’s Early Business Ethics

IMG_5116                                IMG_5118

Every spring, particularly around Easter, the iconic Cadbury Creme Eggs (pictured above) command significant shelf space in nearly every store. For many decades people around the world have received immense pleasure from cracking the egg’s chocolate shell open to release the gooey and cloyingly sweet yellow and white fondant, which resembles a chicken egg, but tastes drastically different. Before the idea for the traditional Cadbury Creme Egg was hatched, the Cadbury company struggled to sustain its favor with the public. Chocolate adulteration scandals and questionable business ethics created public relations nightmares and could have ruined the chocolate giant. Perhaps you will be surprised (or not) to learn that Cadbury’s idyllic Quaker village in Bournville, England, constructed during a time of chocolate success and expansion, revealed a lifestyle and way of conducting business very contradictory to the laborers who procured the cocoa.[1]

Despite the Quaker values of the Cadbury family, they made some questionable decisions in terms of business ethics. When it came to the adulteration of chocolate, which littered the chocolate industry during the 1800s, and cocoa sourced under slave-like conditions, the Cadbury’s either turned a blind-eye or lacked proper oversight throughout their production chain. In these instances, it appears economic benefits outweighed moral duties.

While other companies were caught adding ground brick to their chocolate confections, Cadbury admitted to adding starch and flour to their products. By the end of the 19th century, the Cadbury chocolate adulteration scandals had been counteracted with advertising campaigns promoting their purity promise: “Absolutely Pure, Therefore Best” (Coe & Coe 2013, 245). This was successful and a period of growth followed. Keeping in line with the company’s Quaker values and its paternalistic interest in its workers, George Cadbury constructed a model village, Bournville, for Cadbury company workers complete with ample housing, recreation facilities, and a school (Satre 2005). The photograph below reveals just a small section of the Bournville Village circa 1903 with its clean, wide streets and large housing units surrounded by well-groomed landscaping. Although the company expected a high level of productivity and reliability from its chocolate factory workers during the 48-hour workweek, Cadbury clearly invested back into the community to create a family-like atmosphere.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 1.41.59 PM

However, this idyllic chocolate community and way of life did not extend down to the cocoa laborers, perhaps because they were indirectly working for Cadbury. During the early 1900s, the Cadbury company relied on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe for nearly half of its cocoa beans. Lowell Satre (2005, 24), author of Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business, reports that in 1902, Cadbury alone purchased 20% of the cocoa produced on those two islands.

Just one year prior, in 1901, Cadbury became aware of the post-abolition slavery practices on São Tomé and Príncipe after the release of some publications from British investigative journalist, Henry Nevinson (Martin 2017). However appalled George Cadbury may have been by the thought of enslaved workers procuring the cocoa his company processed, his 7-year remiss reaction failed to show any grave concern. Catherine Higgs (2012, 137), author of Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa reveals Cadbury, “rejected the idea of a boycott, since it would rob the chocolate makers of the leverage they enjoyed as major buyers of São Toméan cocoa.” Clearly boycotting slave-produced cocoa purely on moral grounds was not as important as economic clout and would only be used as a last resort tactic unless another economically viable option became available.

Technically, [legally] the cocoa laborers worked under a type of indentured servitude, as serviçaes, and could be repatriated after their contracts ended, though it was inefficaciously enforced. Despite Cadbury’s correspondence with island visitors who reported “good treatment” of workers, the death rate was still astronomical, with the life expectancy of an enslaved cocoa worker on São Tomé and Príncipe to be less than a decade (Higgs 2012 and Martin 2017). Even though cocoa laborers on the islands were not technically Cadbury employees, since the Cadbury company sourced a significant amount of their cocoa beans there, they were part of the demand issue that kept the laborers working more hours than required by their British counterparts. Thus, it begs the question, should Cadbury have been responsible for allowing these conditions to persist or aiding in alleviating them? Not only did the Cadbury company benefit from the cheap commodity produced by slave labor, but the Portuguese government did also. Knowing this, perhaps the British government should have shared in the responsibility as well.

Cadbury’s moral and social responsibility seemed to be reflected more in word than in deed. Although Cadbury investigated the conditions in São Tomé over several years, both in person and through correspondences with adversaries, he did not institute a boycott of slave-grown cocoa for nearly a decade after first learning of the severe conditions. Meanwhile, the company profited. Part of the reason for the delay was the thought that if English chocolate companies did not buy cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe, “someone else would” (Satre 2005).

Unfortunately, this was true. When the Cadbury company finally ceased purchasing cocoa from the islands, along with a few other English chocolate firms, U.S. based chocolate companies swooped in. Cadbury had not miraculously decided to finally take the high road after eight years though. Two months prior, Cadbury purchased land on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana), with plans to build a factory site (Higgs 2012). While this new cocoa district was not experiencing the slave-like conditions of the islands, it offered a different form of cheap labor, which could be considered questionable labor practices as well.

Thus, this move to the Gold Coast was economically favorable and seemed to pacify public concerns. Inequalities still persisted between the chocolate factory workers in Britain and the cocoa harvesters in Africa. One thing is clear: satisfying commercial interests took priority. The battle between economic viability, moral duty and social responsibility still persists in the chocolate world today.


[1] In this post, “cocoa” is synonymous with cacao or cacao beans; the raw product or unprocessed commodity used to make chocolate.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Martin, Carla. 2017. “Slavery and Forced Labor in the Atlantic World.” Lecture, Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food from Harvard Extension School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 1.

Satre, Lowell J. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens:     Ohio University Press.

Sugar, Culture, and Class in Britain

Britain has a sweet tooth, to put it mildly. Modern day consumption is in excess of 140 pounds per year per person, which means that the average Brit eats almost one cup of added sugar per day. However, sugar is very much a product that has been introduced to the British diet over the past few hundred years. In the year 1700, the average person ate less than ten pounds of sugar per year (Martin Lecture “Sugar and Cacao”, 13 Feb 2017). The explosion of sugar consumption started in large part due to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, which produced and continue to produce much of the sugar the world consumes. I will argue that the culture of sugar consumption in Britain has largely been influenced by issues of class: that it started out as a primarily upper class product and spread to the lower classes through their desire to emulate wealth, that debates over abolition and free trade of sugar were largely a reaction by the bourgeois classes, and that even the modern day debates over sugar consumption and health issues are intrinsically linked to socio-economic status.


“Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s” by James Gillray, 1797

As sugar began to take off in Britain, it was primarily an upper class product, viewed as one of the spoils of empire. Illustrations from the period, such as the above engraving from 1797, portray sweets and confections such as the sugar plums the soldiers are eating as products for those who have profited from Britain’s imperial expansion. The soldiers are caricatures of the troops who would go overseas to establish and maintain British colonies, and in the engraving they are the lucky few enjoying the spoils of their victory. The overweight soldier guarding the door and the bustling street scene outside further establishes the soldiers as removed from, and superior to the masses outside. As sugar became cheaper over the course of the 18th century and grocers began to market it to lower classes, they billed it as an exotic good, often comically mislabelling their products. In an effort to portray the now affordable product as a mark of status and participation in the British empire, descriptions such as “Lisbon sugar” were common (Stobart 178). The increase in sugar consumption over the course of the 18th century reflected sugar’s status as a wealthy product that had recently become affordable, making that mark of status affordable to the masses but not yet having lost its meaning.


Advertisement for a Slavery-Free Sugar Basin, late 18th century

Towards the end of the 18th century and into the Victorian Era, there emerged a largely upper-class-based abolition movement in Britain. Given that slaves were central to the British colonial sugar industry, they quickly set their eyes on it. Some abandoned eating sure entirely, whereas some tried to make sure that they sugar they were eating had not been produced by slaves. Even companies that employed slaves like the East India Company capitalized on this trend, selling Slavery-Free products like the sugar basin in the advertisement above. Abolition became more palatable amongst the upper classes in large part because slavery made products such as sugar that had previously been marks of status affordable to the masses, causing them to lose their meaning. After slavery was gradually abolished in the early 19th century, abolitionists turned their sights to lobbying for a continued tax on non-British (meaning slave-produced) sugar. As Richard Huzzey argues, this “was not a battle to preserve a shred of anti-slavery principle” but competing visions of abolitionism trying to make themselves heard (Huzzey 361). As sugar consumption rose and it lost its value as a status symbol, the upper classes were swift to turn on it.

Fast forwarding to the modern day, British sugar consumption is higher than ever, and there is a growing movement by the government and health sectors to get people to eat less due to its unhealthy effects. Articles such as “Sugar tax: what does it mean, which drinks will be affected, and will it work?” in the Telegraph demonstrate the current culture around sugar consumption. Soda and other sugary drinks are viewed as the biggest culprits, and there is a growing awareness of the amount of added sugar in other processed food. However, the foods attacked for containing the most sugar are typically the cheapest and the ones most likely to be disproportionally consumed by those of lower socio-economic status. A recent study even showed that the parents most likely to have receive counseling as to lower their children’s sugar intake are disproportionally poor (Park et al.).  While the health risks of sugar are real, many modern efforts to combat them do not confront the fact that many of the foods most responsible are also the most affordable.

Works Cited

Gillray, James. “Hero’s recruiting at Kelsey’s; – or- Guard-Day at St. James’s.” http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001695092/. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Huzzey, Richard. “Free trade, free labour, and slave sugar in Victorian Britain.” The Historical Journal 53.02 (2010): 359-379.

Image. http://www.mylearning.org/learning/global-citizens-make-an-impact/sugar%20notice.jpg. Accessed 9 Mar 2017.

Martin, Carla D, lecture “Sugar and Cacao,” Harvard College, Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb 2017.

Park, Sohyun, Bettylou Sherry, Heidi M. Blanck; Characteristics of parents receiving counseling from child’s doctor to limit child’s sugar drink consumption. J Public Health (Oxf) 2012; 34 (2): 228-235. doi: 10.1093/pubmed/fdr071

Stobart, Jon. Sugar and Spice: Grocers and Groceries in Provincial England, 1650-1830. Oxford University Press, 2013.

“Sugar Tax: What Does It Mean, Which Drinks Will Be Affected, and Will It Work?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 18 May 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Sugar For All: The rise of sugar in British history


If there’s one food to pay attention to, it’s sugar. Sugar has experienced an exponential rise in Britain within the past few centuries and the numbers say it allBritain’s annual consumption of sugar per person was 4 lbs in 1704, 18 lbs in 1800, and 90 lbs in 1901, nearly a 23-fold increase in the span of roughly two hundred years (“Britain”). There are several potential factors for the changes in British sugar consumption. However, the main factors are sugar’s various uses and its eventual democratization. Analyzing the causes of sugar consumption are vital to understanding the place of sugar in British society, but it also provides valuable insight into how the economy changed so that sugar demands could be met.


This graph tracks the rise in sugar consumption in the United Kingdom from 1815 onward, giving a great visual representation of the astronomical increases in sugar consumption throughout British history.

The Uses of Sugar

Sugar had five primary uses as a: 1) spice, 2) medicine, 3) decoration, 4) preservative, and 5) sweetener (Mintz 79). In the beginning, when sugar was first introduced to Europe in 1100 AD, it was primarily viewed as a spice, similar to cardamom or pepper (79). It was often added into recipes that weren’t overtly sweet dishes and combined with other spices (85). However, sugar as a spice peaked in the 16th century as sugar became more plentiful and as its other uses dominated. Another initial use of sugar that eventually phased out was sugar’s medical uses, which was originally was adopted from Arab pharmacology (80). Many physicians even into the 18th century were fervent proponents of sugar as a health food. For example, a physician, Dr. Frederick Slare, attributes his robust health to his daily dose of sugar after dinner (“Sugar”).

Although sugar as a spice and medicine were important, perhaps more important for our purposes of tracking the historical spike in its consumption are sugar’s uses as decoration, a preservative and a sweetener. First, we will discuss sugar as decoration, which was in full swing among the upper class by the 16th century. Sugar was molded into sculptures, also known as subtleties, and were used to display the host’s wealth, power and status (as seen below) (Mintz 90). As sugar remained a luxury up until the 1850s, sugar’s decorative purposes, at least initially, was exclusive to the upper echelons. Despite this restriction, there was a gradual increase in sugar imports (83). Sugar’s ability to exhibit one’s status was one cause for its increase, albeit a relatively minute increase compared to what was to come.


Sugar decoration from "The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals," an exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. These decorations could have served as centerpieces at an upper class social gathering. Sugar decoration was a show of power as it was only accessible by few in its initial stages. These decorations were to be admired by guests as they ate their meals. At the end of the party, guests could take pieces of the decoration to eat or to keep as a souvenir (Swanson).

Sugar for the People

The last two major uses of sugar were as a preservative and sweetener, which were on a mass basis. Sugar as a sweetener became popular with the introduction of tea in the late 17th century (108). Not only did sugar make this bitter liquid more palatable, but it increased the caloric intake of the beverage and it also helped ritualize the act of “tea time” (110). Furthermore, this became a popular beverage among the working class as it was hot, sweet and stimulating; most importantly, it was cheap and quick to prepare (110). Sugar as a sweetener helped make it become an item of mass consumption, but its role as a preservative was equally important.

The preservative qualities of sugar, particularly its ability to preserve fruits, had been known for many years, but it had been strictly reserved for nobility in the 15th century (123). Preserved fruits remained luxuries for a longer period than sweetened tea and it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that jam consumption was taken up by the working class. It quickly became an indispensable food for its convenience (125). While, in its initial stages, sugar was only accessible to the wealthy and was a luxury instead of a commodity, its uses spread downwards, slowly but surely. Through this process, sugar largely lost its marker as a distinction of wealth, but mass consumption is what made sugar profitable and a dietary staple (95). One way or the other, through these various uses, sugar found a way into British homes.

Economic Impact and Significance

Now that we’ve covered the uses of sugar, how did it come to be that the working class obtained sugar, which was originally a rarity? Democratization of sugar was possible due to the economic changes that occurred to accommodate for the growing demands. As the consumption of sugar in England rose, so did its production, particularly in the British West Indies. A consequence of this was the dramatic increase in the slave trade. This fed into this proto-capitalistic system of sugar production and made sugar cheaper (107). Furthermore, the economy of sugar was entangled within the trade networks of tea, coffee and chocolate, which all found a large market in Britain, particularly tea. Lastly, events like the free-trade movement in the mid-19th century and increasing foreign imports also helped sugar prices to fall markedly, allowing for the widespread consumption of sugar (126).


This image is of the Triangular Trade, showing how sugar fit into the trade network involving slaves, raw materials and other finished goods. Ships would deliver enslaved people to the West Indies and Americas. Raw materials like rum, tobacco, and sugar would be delivered to England to be turned into manufactured goods.

Mintz, an anthropologist, reiterates that it wasn’t solely sugar’s sweetness that resulted in its exponential growth (135). There were many sweet foods like honey and dates long, long before sugar came on the scene (“How”). It was a combination of different factors that led to the mass consumption of sugar in a relatively short period of time. It seems that sugar’s uses, especially as a caloric source, preservative and sweetener, in combination with the accommodating economy helped solidify sugar as king in England.

Works Cited

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

“How Sugar Arrived in Europe.” Dansukker. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

“Sugar in Britain.” Sugar in Britain. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

Swanson, Abbie. “Let Them Eat Sugar Sculpture! The Getty Celebrates Edible Table Art.” NPR. NPR, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Edible Sculptures of Power: Sugar Subtleties in Britain

The first known introduction of sugar to England was in the 1600s and was utilized in five main ways over time: as medicine, a spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener and preservative. (Mintz 78)

Sugar as a decorative material had to be mixed with ingredients such as gum Arabic and then mixed into a claylike substance that could be formed into various sculptures of any size, baked, and once hardened, decorated, displayed, then eaten. This tradition most likely trickled into Europe from marzipan-heavy North Africa via Italy, then to France in the 13th century, then to England. (Mintz 87).

Such displays were called “subtleties” and in many cases marked intervals between banquet courses at royal feasts. The subtleties were in the form of animals, buildings, etc. and were admired and consumed. Subtleties were confined to the kingship, noble classes, the knighthood and the clergy due to the high price of sugar and the vast quantity needed. Originally the sugar sculptures were simply meant to be a marriage of craftsmanship and confectionary skill, but over time could also very well serve as political or satirical symbols conveying messages to guests consuming it. Many of the sugar sculptures served at the coronation of Henry VI did just that; they confirmed the king’s rights, privileges and inherent authority, highlighting the unique phenomenon of a food that could be artistically formed, admired as a work, interpreted for meaning, and then eaten. (Mintz 89). Writings from Robert May (a royal cook in Britain) in the later 1600s describe elaborate works of art—a sugar stag that bleeds claret wine when an arrow is removed from its flank, a sugar castle that fires its artillery at a man of war, and gilded sugar pies filled with live birds. (Mintz 93).

Over time, the aspiring upper and middle classes began to combine “course-paste” sugar creations of their own. These new concoctions were much simpler during the mid 1700s, as evidenced by some recipes in Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s cookbooks—i.e. fruit and vegetable molds, and even a hedgehog. (Mintz 93). The lack of extravagance in these newer designs is understandable due to the fact that sugar by this time had become much cheaper and more accessible to lower class in British society. As sugar continued to become more plentiful in England, its strength as an icon of power and social status deteriorated while it simultaneously became an overwhelming source of profit. (Solow 112).

Sugar became a different substance for the wealthy to enjoy. In many ways, it still remained a symbol of power for the upper classes who profited from the Caribbean sugar trade, but not in the ways it had been in the past. (Solow 103-134). As a result, the practice of sugar as elaborate decorations died out.

In all, the relationship between trade and social stratification is evident when studying the tradition of sugar subtleties. Today, chefs and artists around the world continue to create sugar sculptures, but the market for them is small and usually used for events such as historical reenactments. Artist Kara Walker in New York City recently installed a 35 foot tall “sugar sphinx” as commentary on the history of blackness, sugar, and European commerce, an echo of the days of Henry VI using sugar sculptures to make political statements. (Smith). In conclusion, the effects of the democratization of sugar consumption in Britain still continue today; sugary foods such as candies are now consumed and enjoyed by people of all classes and ages in the Western world, proof that changes in trade can transform the social and political meanings behind a food product among classes in a society.


Artist Kara Walker’s installation at the former Domino sugar factory in Williambsurg, Brooklyn. (2014–The New York Times)

HELP1  (illustrations of elaborate nineteenth century desserts–Mintz 78)

help4  (a royal tradition: 1977 sugar sculptures at Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee–Mintz 187)

HELP3 (architecture in sugar–Notre Dame–Mintz 188)

HELP2.1 (sailing ship, castle–recreations of past sculptures–Mintz 189)

HELP1 (female sexuality in relation to sugar: a drastically different image than the creation of Kara Walker. Whereas Walker’s hyper-sexualized, exploited Negro slave is portrayed in relation to sugar as one in bondage and labor, this sculpture of a white woman in sugar is drastically different. Rather, although also very sexual, she is spoiled, a princess, appearing to be lavishly relaxing upon a bed of sugar roses.) (Mintz 190)

A modern day sugar baker at work creating surrealist sculptures utilizing modern technologies.

Works Cited:

Mints, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. New York: Viking Penguin Inc. 1985. Print.

Smith, Roberta. “Sugar? Sure, but Salted with Meaning-A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby’ at the Domino Plant.” The New York Times 11 May 2014: Web.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/arts/design/a-subtlety-or-the-marvelous-sugar-baby-at-the-domino-plant.html

Solow, Barbara L., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1987. Print.

Victoria and Albert Museum. “Power of Making: Sugar Sculpture by Jacquy Pfeiffer at the Victoria and Albert Museum.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube. 9 September 2011. Web. 10 March 2015.

A Song of Chocolate and Sugar: Mutual Causality in the Growth of Chocolate and Sugar in England

The degree of ubiquity of sugar in the modern American diet would have been staggering to any European citizen in centuries past. One need only look to Candy Crush, an incredibly popular mobile game thematically designed around solving puzzles with sugary candy in a sweet-based kingdom, to understand just how prevalent sugar has become in diets and even pop culture. How did sugar transition from a luxury good to an omnipresent culinary additive across the span of a few centuries? Sidney Mintz describes how “in 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters […] by no  later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories of the English diet” (Mintz 5-6). While this summarizes the transition nicely, immeasurable context is omitted by considering this statement alone. Due to low production costs stemming from the overseas plantation system, supplying sugar to the British public became an increasingly easy task. As a result, a relationship of mutual causality emerged, with the explosive popularity of both sugar and chocolate from the 17th century onwards being nontrivially linked to sugar’s use as a common additive in imported luxuries like cacao.

English sugar intake per capita from 1700-2000 increased tremendously over time, contributing to growing obesity today

To contextualize sugar’s rise in England, it is important to first understand how it came to arrive there. The most notable production method for sugar was its export from cane sugar plantations in British colonies in the Americas. While other nations followed suit, the British were uniquely effective at this – as Mintz writes, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went further and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar” (Mintz 38). Due to low labor costs resulting from the mass employ of slaves on these plantations, production cost was relatively low for a good that was a relative luxury. From 1655, when sugar was originally introduced in England, to 1753, consumption of sugar rose from around 1,000 hogsheads to 104,000 hogsheads (Mintz 39). This implies that price had been driven down as a result of plantations becoming more efficient and widespread, and the resulting effect was that sugar became more common in English diets.

A sprawling English sugar plantation in Richmond, Jamaica c. 1800

While plummeting sugar costs certainly helped enhance sugar’s popularity in England, they cannot be held solely accountable for the magnitude of its rise. Rather, luxury imports such as chocolate (as well as tea and coffee) served to amplify the effects of lowering sugar prices in the 17th century, providing a new vessel for the introduction of sugar into the English diet. Mintz speculates that this connection makes sense due to the inherently bitter nature of these imports; adding sugar tempers the bitter flavor with sweetness, which tends to be appreciated by everyone whereas bitter tastes often need to be acquired (Mintz 109-110). This is the first half of the link of mutual causality between chocolate and sugar – without the prevalence and availability of sugar, the rise of chocolate in England would not have been possible.

Here, the other half of the link of mutual causality between chocolate and sugar becomes more apparent. Sugar’s rise in popularity is partially attributable to the availability of new, uniquely bitter products like chocolate to which it could be added during the production process. Additionally, the spread of these products was timed extremely conveniently with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The availability of new manufacturing processes opened doors for combining sugar and chocolate in ways that proved exciting for consumers. For instance, in 1828 Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a proprietary means of alkalizing and pressing cocoa to create cocoa powder, which could be easily combined with sugar in production of chocolate. This “made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form” (Coe and Coe, 242). Consumer chocolate production followed, with Joseph Fry manufacturing individually packaged chocolate bars in 1847, and John Cadbury founding his company in 1824 in Birmingham to introduce variety in the types of available confections. Later innovations such as Rudolphe Lindt’s conche near the end of the 19th century helped streamline the addition of sugar even further, with the conche being used to distribute mixed ingredients better, to remove granularity, and to reduce particle size (which may have been important when adding something that begins as granular as sugar) (Coe and Coe 251).

With a new set of manufacturing techniques and an exciting array of more affordable chocolate confections, sugar was solidified as a staple of the British diet by the dawn of the 20th century. Of course, experimentation and implementation at scale have only expanded in the years since, with massive corporations such as Nestle, The Hershey Company, Lindt, Mars, and others dominating commercial markets. Nevertheless, the current state of the industry never could have been possible had sugar and chocolate both not arrived in the fashion that they did. Each depended on the other to grow its own popularity, laying out a relationship of mutual causality that harmonized to the tune of rapid growth across a few centuries.

Works Cited:

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

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.


Schroeter, John Henry. “Our Richmond Heritage.” Richmond Jamaica. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.richmondjamaica.com/heritage.html&gt;.

(USER) Spencer Chocolate. “Chocolate Conche.” YouTube. YouTube, 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKQiaKrh1_o&gt;.

“Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and Fructose.” Office of Science Outreach. Indiana University. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <http://www.indiana.edu/~oso/Fructose/Fructose.html&gt;.