Tag Archives: decoration

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.

Sugar becomes the Opiate of the Masses


Sugar was introduced into the British Empire as a luxury of the rich, over time and across many uses, it found its way into the homes of the average man and also became a staple in the everyday diet. How and why this change occurred is of great importance into understanding the shift in the consumption of sugar. Sugar was introduced as a spice and medicine into the British household, but came to included three other uses: as a decoration, sweetener and preservative. As sugar moved down the list of its uses, it also had social and economic impacts. The progression of sugar usage effected consumption in the British society and caused the shift from sugar as a luxurious good to an opiate of the masses.

In the early decades of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Britain established Caribbean plantations for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane. Britain’s first attempt at doing this occurred upon the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 which was the first English colony in the New World (Mintz 36). Sugar cane was brought in 1619 as were the first African slaves to reach the English colony (Mintz 36). Unfortunately, the sugar cane would not grow. The British Empire was hard pressed to see this mission successful as there was a high demand for sugar at home.

Slaves working in a sugar cane plantation in British-West Indies
A Sugar Cane Plantation in the West Indies

The settlement of Barbados in 1627 proved to be the turning point in British attempts as production with the successful production of “clayed sugars” and “muscovado”. (Mintz 37). “The first British sugar islands was Barbados followed by St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. Grenada and Trinidad were added to the bunch in the late 19th century” (clements.umich.edu). Sugar supply for Britain now came directly from her settlements in the West Indies and added drastically to the consumption of sugar at home as it was now more accessible. “As supply for sugar increased, England’s demands for sugar kept pace. So much so that productions on the islands were barely able to keep up” (Mintz 39). Britain was importing huge amounts of sugar and the condiment in question came to define the “English Character” (Mintz 39).

Sugar Mill, Standard Mill in the West Indies
Sugar Mill


The sugar trade was successful because it was a highly priced commodity regardless of the volatility of the sugar market, the demands for it rose as consumption did (clements.umich.edu).  Sugar production increased as a direct correlation of its consumption. As availability of sugar rose in Britain, so did the many uses of sugar. The British households found new ways to incorporate sugar into their social lives.

British sugar consumption chart
British Sugar Consumption Chart

Mintz mentions five uses of sugar: 1) as medicine, 2) spice-condiment, 3) decorative material, 4) as a sweetener, 5) as a preservative. The use of sugar in these many forms although coming into usage progressively, also happened interchangeably. Sugar was first introduced into the British household as a Spice and Medicine, in this form, it remained a luxurious good only available to the rich. “The first written mention of sugar was in the pipe scrolls, the official records of royal income and expenditures in 1154-89(Mintz 82).  The quantities of sugar at this time were relatively small and since this was an account of the expenditures of the rich, meant that only this class of people could afford to consume sugar. “By the thirteenth century, sugar was still being sold by the loaf and by the pound and although still quite pricey and only accessible to the rich, it was now available even in the remotest areas” (Mintz 82). The shift from a luxury to a commodity available to all would happen in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and with the introduction of other uses of sugar.


In the seventeenth century, the use of sugar as a spice declined and this time period, “saw the prices, supplies and customary uses of sugar change rapidly” (Mintz 86). Sugar featured as a decorative item after this time and was not only available to the noble and rich but now made its way downward to the middle class. As sugar progressed in the list of uses, so did the decline in its exclusiveness and the more prolific it became, the more it was consumed by all. Sugar consumption also had economic ramification as well, “the decline in sugar importance went hand in hand with its increase in economic and dietary importance” (Mintz 95). As sugar became more plentiful, it now became available to the poor.

Sugar became available to the poor in the form of a sweetener and preservative; this accessibility would be responsible for the upward swing of the consumption of sugar. The rise of chocolate, tea and coffee into the British household massively contributed to the large amount of sugar consumption. The use of sugar as a sweetener in tea propelled the “Sugar Equalization Act” which removed the import tariff and lowered the price of sugar of which the direct result was the proliferation of sugar everywhere (clements.umich.edu). The poor used sugar not only as a sweetener but also to supplement their diets as well.

As sugar become more widely used in many forms, it made its way into the household of all citizens regardless of class, this was directly responsible in the shift of sugar consumption in the British society. Sugar in the form of a sweetener and preservative became an everyday commodity, which meant that consumption would greatly rise as it permeated every single dish that was eaten by the British citizens. This standard has come to hold true across the world as sugar features in every single dietary item we consume. However, there is a marked difference in the reception of this commodity, at some point highly revered, sugar is now a social pariah, an evil that has been thrust upon society and should be eradicated.



Scholarly Sources:

Clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. Document. 21 March 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. 274. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

brave.info, land of the. Sugar Act. n.d. image. 21 March 2016.

clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. image. 21 March 2016.

czarnikow.com. The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption. 1 May 2014. image. 21 March 2016.





















The M&M: Chocolate as a Sweet Treat, Decoration, and Self Preservation Method


    In his book, Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz outlines the five roles sugar has assumed in its history: sugar as a sweetener, spice, medicine, preservative, and decoration.   In the modern day chocolate industry, sugar has become a key ingredient that has shaped the flavor profile of chocolate vastly.  Modern day chocolate does not necessarily assume the characteristics of all five of these roles, however throughout the years; chocolate has demonstrated traits from three of these roles: a sweetener, a preservative, and a decoration.  One chocolate product in particular that demonstrates qualities of sweetness, preservation and decoration is the Mars M&M.

M&M trademarked slogan highlighting its preservative methods.
M&M trademarked slogan highlighting its preservative methods.

The M&M was born in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War.  Forrest Mars, son of the founder of the Mars chocolate company and influential driving force in the history of Mars himself, witnessed soldiers eating tiny chocolate pellets surrounded by a sugar shell and became inspired to create his own version of the self-preservative chocolate.  On March 3rd, 1941, Forrest Mars received a patent for his manufacturing process (which can be seen in the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVJTIz7Z3Ds ) of creating the chocolate covered with the hard sugar coating substance.  The product was first available for purchase in 1941 and was originally packaged in cardboard tubes.   In 1954, the famous slogan of “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hand” was trademarked.   The following video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gtM_mmvDww) showcases the ability of M&M’s to keep their shape meanwhile, the competitor’s product does melt in the hand of the demonstrator.  The preservative elements of the chocolate product were heavily celebrated and ultimately led to the market success of the incredibly popular chocolate item, encouraging competitors to also feature chocolate as a preservative.

Customize your M&M's!
Customize your M&M’s!

The M&M grew to prominence through its use of decoration and is now recognized by the iconic “M” imprinted on the surface of the sugar shell.  The original reason behind printing the “M” on each candy piece was to ensure customers that they were purchasing and consuming the original product, which in turn began to affect national advertising.  (Lemelson-MIT)  Although chocolate products similar to M&Ms have gained a presence in the chocolate world, such as Reese’s Pieces, M&M’s have maintained their strong market hold, perhaps due to the novelty of the decorative elements of the candy product.  The ploy to prevent counterfeiting the chocolate product led to one of the more recognizable chocolates in American culture.  More recently, M&Ms have allowed for the customization of the design on the chocolate hard shell.  Sites such as the following, http://www.mymms.com/utility.aspx, support customizing the color of the M&M as well as the logo or image imprinted on the candy piece itself.  The new role of chocolate as a decoration has led to a new way to consume and appreciate chocolate as well as a new method to personalize the chocolate consumption experience.

The M&M can be viewed as an innovative approach to chocolate-making through its combination of chocolate and sugar, which is used as a unique self-preservation solution and a canvas for the decoration of the candy piece, with the taste of All-American milk chocolate.  The M&M has become pervasive in American culture, reflecting changes in taste preferences and sugar usage.  The inclusion of sugar in chocolate not only greatly impacted current chocolate tastes preferences, but increased the versatility of chocolate allowing it to assume the roles of a sweet product, a method for preserving the quality of chocolate, and an outlet for creative expression through customization.

Works Cited:

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and         Mars. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Glass, Don. “The Secret of M&Ms.” A Moment of Science RSS. Indiana Public Media, 29                 Aug. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/the-      secret-of-mms/>.

“Inventor of the Week: Archive.” Inventor of the Week: Archive. Lemelson-MIT Program,              Jan. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/mars.html/&gt;.