Tag Archives: Causes

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 

Causes

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

HISTORICAL CHANGES IN BRITISH SUGAR CONSUMPTION AND POTENTIAL CAUSES

The only trend in British sugar consumption, since it was first measured in the early 1700s until fairly recently, has been only increase upon increase, year after year. (See chart below) It is the argument of this essay that this phenomenon has taken place because of only two causes. One cause is historical and geographical and the other is the chemical and organic structure of the evolved human brain. The confluence of these two causes caused sugar to become abundantly and cheaply available to the British public, regardless of wealth, and that increased abundance of cheap sugar caused increased consumption of a substance that targets the sweetness sensitive regions of the brain that craves sugar because of our evolutionary past. Simply put, slavery gave Britain a lot of cheap sugar and its universal consumption triggered addictive responses among consumers to demand more and more of it.

 

There is no doubt that since 1704, when sugar consumption in Britain was only 4 pounds per person, its consumption has skyrocketed to well over 150 pounds per person, per year.
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There are two major causes for this dramatic increase that combined into a perfect storm that transformed sugar from an expensive rarity among the wealthiest Britons to a dirt cheap, ubiquitous commodity on the tables and in the mouths of all citizens from princes to paupers.

There are two major causes for this dramatic increase that combined into a perfect storm that transformed sugar from an expensive rarity among the wealthiest Britons to a dirt cheap, ubiquitous commodity on the tables and in the mouths of all citizens from princes to paupers.rain. The confluence of these two causes caused sugar to become abundantly and cheaply available to the British public, regardless of wealth, and that increased abundance of cheap sugar caused increased consumption of a substance that targets the sweetness sensitive regions of the brain that craves sugar because of our evolutionary past. Simply put, slavery gave Britain a lot of cheap sugar and its universal consumption triggered addictive responses among consumers to demand more and more of it.

 

There is no doubt that since 1704, when sugar consumption in Britain was only 4 pounds per person, its consumption has skyrocketed to well over 150 pounds per person, per year.

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The enslavement and transport of millions of Africans by the British and Europeans to the Americas where sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, cotton and rice could be grown in prodigious quantities by the slaves at little cost and exported to Europe and North America where the insatiable appetites of the populace demanded an ever increasing supply of these now inexpensive commodities. Since slaves were paid no wages and given only bare subsistence in diet, clothing and housing to perform the work, the overhead of sugar planters in South America was quite low compared to how much money they would have had to pay for voluntary paid laborers. Without the slavery part of the economic equation in the production of New World sugar, there would never have been the flood of it into Britain, Europe and North America. Sugar would have remained a very expensive and rare treat for the wealthy. Because sugar production requires vast acreage of cane fields and a large round the clock processing facility, it is probable that cane sugar production could never have been profitable if the planters would have had to pay for the labor. Only slavery allowed sugar production to be profitable and indeed very profitable.

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The pleasure and reward centers of the human brain are particularly sensitive to sweetness that lies deep in our evolutionary past when our pre-human ancestors desperately searched for ripe fruit and berries with enough sugar content to keep the larger primate brains in functioning order. Sweetness on the African savannah or forests is quite rare. Locating wild berries or hanging fruit meant the difference between survival and starvation. The competition for such rare resources was keen and no doubt most of our ancestors perished in the daily struggle for enough food to see another day. Because our brain, among the largest of land creatures, requires significant amounts of glucose to function properly. Because of this, the taste buds on our tongues are always seeking sugar and respond very positively to its presence from early infancy. While sugar is rare in the wild, found only in fruits and berries in significant amounts, when our brain encounters it as the British public first did when it became abundant and cheap, our brains went wild with sugar desire. Britain and Europe prior to the beginning of the exploitation of the Americas and Africa, survived on diets quite bland and tasteless except for a handful of spices and herbs imported at great cost from Asia. Basically, the only sweetness most people encountered in their brief lives, that were usually cut short by disease and malnutrition, was infrequent encounters with honey. However, honey was rare and costly. The peasantry could hardly be said to be very familiar with anything that tasted good or sweet. Therefore, when cheap sugar began to pour into Britain, Europe and North America, thanks to slavery, even the lowest subsistence tenant farmer’s family  

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could enjoy the pleasure that sugar triggered in their brains. With few other pleasures during their hard lives, people could at least enjoy the sweet bounty that human slavery provided for only a few pennies.

Only in recent years has the British consumption of sugar begun to wane as the health dangers of its over-consumption become apparent to more and more people through scientific studies of sugar’s effects on the human body. However, like any addictive drug, sugar’s hold on the food industry and humanity’s enjoyment of sweet taste, is proving a difficult hold to weaken. When sugar is commonly added to the many industrially processed foods consumed by many people, its consumption is often hidden.

The enormous increase of sugar consumption by the British over the course of two centuries is explainable only by sugar’s low cost and its powerful and addictive effects on the human brain. It is truly a unique occurrence in human history to consider how a simple agricultural product of narrow nutritional  merit could take over the diets of entire nations because of the scourge of human slavery and the food’s addictive properties.

 

  1. Britain is built on sugar: our national sweet tooth defines us

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity

 

  1. The Creation of an Atlantic Economy: Sugar and Slaves

https://www.learner.org/courses/worldhistory/support/reading_14_1.pdf

 

  1. Sack and sugar, and the aetiology of gout in England between 1650 and 1900

https://academic.oup.com/rheumatology/article/52/3/421/1776400/Sack-and-sugar-and-the-aetiology-of-gout-inh

 

  1. Enslavement and Industrialisation

ttp://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/industrialisation_article_01.shtml

 

  1. Sugar and Britain’s obesity crisis: the key questions answered

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/23/sugar-britains-obesity-crisis-key-questions-answered

  1. How much sugar do we eat?

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325

  1. Changes in British Sugar Consumption during the 17th and 18th Centuries

https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/changes-in-british-sugar-consumption-during-the-17th-and-18th-centuries/

  1. We’re all sugar junkies now: Britons now wolf down an almost unimaginable 160 teaspoons of it a week – and the even worse news? It really IS addictive

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2420713/Were-sugar-junkies-Britons-wolf-unimaginable-160-teaspoons-week–worse-news-It-really-IS-addictive.html

 

  1. Oxford History of the British Empire. The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815.

https://books.google.com/books?