Tag Archives: diet

The Danger of Sugar Consumption: A History of British Sugar Consumption and its Importance in America Today

Throughout history, sugar has undergone many changes in terms of its use, how much of it is consumed and who is able to consume it. Historically, sugar was used as medicine, spice-condiments, decorative material, sweetener and preservative material (Mintz 1985, 78). Today, sugar is most commonly consumed as a food. Apart from sugar’s change in function, the amount of sugar consumed has also changed. Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar per year (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). Furthermore, sugar is no longer consumed primarily by the wealthy and elite, but rather as an inexpensive food consumed by everyone, particularly the impoverished. While sugar historically was socially important as a symbol of class and power, today sugar is important due to its severe health implications. 

In regards to the historical timeline, sugar came to England in the 12th century. At this time, it was only consumed by privileged groups. In the 16th century, the usage of sugar as a spice, where sugar altered the flavour of food, reached its peak (Mintz 1985, 86). In addition, there was a practice of using sugar as decoration (Mintz 1985, 87), and the medicinal uses of sugar also became common (Mintz 1985, 103). During this time, sugar was believed to provide a more varied diet and improve digestion, and the practice of using sugar as a decorative material arose from sugar’s uses in medicine due to its blendable properties. These blendable properties permitted the creation of art and sculptures out of sugar. In the 18th century, sugar’s medicinal role diminished and it was instead used as a sweetener and preservative (Mintz 1985, 108). In the late 18th century, sugar as food emerged and in the 19th century, it moved from being haute cuisine to a relatively inexpensive commodity that was common in the British diet.

Historically, the consumption of sugar was socially important because it was a symbol of class and power. The first recorded mention of sugar can be found in records of royal income and expenditures (Mintz 1985, 82), as sugar was a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy. Differences in quantity and form of consumption expressed social and economic differences within the national population. For example, there is a connection between elaborate manufactures of sweet edibles and the validation of social position (Mintz 1985, 90). It was only the wealthy who were able to create decorative pieces out of sugar and these pieces were displayed at dinner parties to demonstrate one’s elevated socioeconomic status. However, as sugar became cheaper and more plentiful, its potency as a symbol of power declined. In turn, it’s importance within diets increased.

Sugar began to gain importance again when the shift from sugar as a spice to sweetener occurred. This shift was important because sweet-tasting substances insinuate themselves much more quickly into the preferences of consumers (Mintz 1985, 109). Consequently, the preference for sugar as a food emerged amongst consumers. World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). This increase in production is due to a massive increase in consumption. For instance, 200 years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In comparison, today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). 

As sugar consumption increased, so did the resulting health concerns surrounding sugar consumption. Today, it may be difficult to imagine sugar having once served a medicinal function because it has become controversial in modern discussions of health, diet and nutrition. 

For instance, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 9.5 tsp of sugar/day.
For instance, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 9.5 tsp of sugar/day. 
However, the average American is still consuming around 22 tsps of sugar/day.
However, the average American is still consuming around 22 tsps of sugar/day.

According to Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes and can have a serious impact on cardiac health (Hu 2017). Therefore, there is a need for adequate responses to address the rising issue of sugar consumption. 

Today, we see responses in the form of awareness campaigns within the media and through policy recommendations by the government. For example, the 2011 “Sugar Pack”campaign was a marketing campaign which aimed to increase awareness about the number of sugar packets contained in sugary drinks and the health effects of obesity in order to motivate the public to reduce their consumption of such drinks. Subsequently, Congress passed a bill in 2015 that imposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, the revenue of which is dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and research of diet-related health conditions.

In conclusion, sugar has served many functions and proven significant throughout history. The decline in the symbolic importance of sugar has corresponded with an increase in its dietary importance. Sugar’s most dangerous function has been as a food. When sugar’s function as a food emerged and when it became an inexpensive commodity, there was a rise in sugar consumption amongst all classes. This sugar consumption has caused nutritionists to be worried about the health of our population today. However, well-crafted media campaigns and policies, like the Sugar Pack campaign and national soda tax, are likely to reduce the consumption of sugar and therefore health related problems: like obesity and diabetes. This would in turn, reduce health care costs, and the revenue from something such as a soda tax can be used towards education about the dangers of overconsumption of sugar.

Works Cited:

Bittman, Mark. Introducing the National Soda Tax.” The New York Times, 29 July 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/opinion/mark-bittman-introducing-the-national-soda-tax.html.

How Much Sugar in Soda? Too Many Sugary Drinks?Youtube, 1 Mar. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=23&v=wKhi8uaoDeo&feature=emb_logo.

Hu, Frank. The Sweet Danger of Sugar. Harvard Health Publishing, May 2017, http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.

Liao, Tien-Min. Sugar of the Day. CC Search, search.creativecommons.org/photos/247073d4-797f-4dff-9975-601f97bb7dbf.

Liao, Tien-Min. Sugar of the Day. CC Search, 


Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao” AFRAMER 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 19 Feb. 2020.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power.

United States, Congress, House, Ways and Means; Energy and Commerce. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2015Congress. Gov, 2015.

How Sugar’s Functions as a Sweetener and as a Decorative Material has Affected English Society

Sugar has played a significant role in transforming England’s social, economic, political and culinary values throughout history – “Britain is built on sugar.”[1] Since it first came to England in the 12th century (around 1100 AD) it had been used to: treat illnesses and preserve food. The molecular structure of sugar has also been altered to create sugar based decorative materials. However, by the late 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in foodstuffs as a sweetener – this function of sugar is currently its primary use in England. How did this unique crop become so valued as a sweetener? How has it affected past and contemporary English culinary and social expectations? That being said, sugar’s uses as a sweetener and decorative material have had long-lasting direct and indirect impacts on social and culinary English norms.  

Sugar’s function as a decorative material has been a symbol of power and social hierarchy for centuries in England. Sugar’s transformation into a decorative material originates from its blending properties, which had been recognised through its function as medicine. Sidney Mintz argues in his book, Sweetness and Power, that “the connection between elaborate manufacturers of sweet edibles and the validation of social position is clear.”[2] This has been the case from at least the 16th century – when sugar’s importation prices stabilised – right up to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century – when sugar became a relatively inexpensive commodity that was consumed by nobleman and commoners alike. The complexity and expensiveness of moulding sugar into ornaments made this function accessible only for kings and then, over time, to the wealthiest (nobles, knights and churchmen) in society. Furthermore, the designs of these intricate sugar structures were not only confined to grand buildings or valuable objects. They also included family or royal crests and, more importantly, messages or intents of a king or lord. It is important to add that these subtleties were primarily presented in social settings such as banquets and coronations. For these reasons, sugar’s use as a manufactured subtlety was a unique and elaborate form of presenting one’s wealth and status.

Even though these subtleties were a symbol of power for at least 3 centuries, the industrial revolution and the mechanisation of the sugar industry made sugar a relatively inexpensive commodity. Sugar became readily available to the average English worker. According to Mintz, “it [decorative sugar structures] is no longer considered a sign of elevated rank to stuff one’s guests with sugar… sugar is largely confined to Saint Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Birthdays and Weddings.”[3] In the western world at least this is the case. As sugar became increasingly commercial and accessible, it’s function as a demonstration of wealth was soon overcome by the dietary and culinary importance of this commodity.

A similar case could be made for the consumption of tea – it was first consumed by the wealthiest in society as a symbol of wealth, but eventually it was readily available to the average English worker. Mintz argues that “as the English drank more…[tea] became more English in two senses: by the process of ritualization…and by being produced more and more in the colonies.”[4] In the 17th century, the first tea and coffee houses were opening their doors in London. These coffee houses were social spaces where the Englishman would engage in conversations and debates over a warm cup of tea – tea facilitated social exchanges. Sugar in past and contemporary English society complements the consumption of tea. Mintz recognises the economic and dietary importance of tea and, hence, makes an interesting connection between the significance of sugar and tea in English society. Given that tea was arguably the most profitable aromatic commodity by the 18th century due to its ever-growing demand, it became clear that sugar’s primary function during this period in England was as a sweetener of tea. Even though, sugar complemented chocolate and coffee, tea’s warm and lightly refreshing texture was more appealing to the English commoner – it was also cheap and easy to make. Tea was a valuable and readily available commodity and sugar played a central role in transforming tea’s popularity in English society, however, after the 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in a broader range of foodstuffs and beverages.

William Hogarth’s 18th century portrayal of a London coffee house. He depicts a social setting where Englishmen would typically meet to engage in conversation over a warm cup of tea or coffee.[5]

As more foodstuffs and beverages were introduced into English society, sugar as a sweetener played an increasingly important role in British social and culinary life after the 18th century. These sugar infused goods included, according to Mintz, “pastries, hasty puddings, jam-smeared breads, treacle puddings, biscuits, tarts, buns and candy,” while the British newspaper, The Guardian, points out that England’s “annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe.”[6]  After 1850, it was the working classes that made up the bulk of these average per capita annual consumption rates. These poorer classes primarily consumed sucrose-heavy sugar infused foods, which contributed to a larger proportion of their diet during the 19th and 20th centuries. As cheap sugar expanded away from being an additive to tea and moved towards energy rich foods, workers were able to consume sugar – usually during their break times – as a type of “quick energy” good that positively affected their output and productivity.[7] In other words, cheap sugar was a substitute to the proteins. This substitution has had both positive and negative effects on the working classes: on the one hand cheap sugars filled the calorie gap caused by the prices of proteins. On the other, this substitution generally lowered the protein intake of these people, in particular women and children, who weren’t receiving the required nutrients to maintain a healthy diet. Nevertheless, sugar clearly played a major role in transforming the Englishman’s dietary norms after the 18th century.

In conclusion, the introduction of sugar as a sweetener into mainstream English society has had on-going positive and negative effects on the Englishman’s diet. While sugar’s function as a decorative material played a central role in presenting social hierarchies from at least the 16th to the 19th century, the industrialisation and commercialisation of sugar saw a decline of this function of sugar. Even though these sugar-based subtleties are still primarily found in social settings, such as birthdays and Christmas, their symbol of wealth and power phased out almost two centuries ago. Sugar as a sweetener was largely an additive (added-sugar) in popular foodstuffs and beverages such as tea, coffee and chocolate up to the early 18th century – it was expensive and difficult to obtain. After the mid 18th century, similar to tea, sugar became “ritualised” and was increasingly extracted from the colonies.[8] Sugar became a big-business enterprise and a readily available good for all to enjoy and benefit from: sugar was a new source of energy for working men and a cheaper alternative to protein for women and children. However, the negative effects of this sugar rush can be seen in England today with 28.1% of adults and 17% of children being obese, prompting a range of sugar taxes to be introduced as recently as 2018.[9]

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, “Britain is built on sugar: our national sweet tooth defines us,” 12 October, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

[2] Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (New York: penguin Books, 1985), 90.

[3] Ibid, 94.

[4] Ibid, 110.

[5] William Hogarth, “An Election Of Entertainment,” Oil on Canvas, 1755, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg

[6] Ibid, 133. And “Britain is Built on Sugar.”

[7] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 147-148.

[8] Ibid, 110.

[9] The Global Diabetes Community, “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/2018-uk-sugar-tax.html

Works cited:

Global Diabetes Community. “2018 UK sugar tax.” 15 January, 2019. Accessed 8 March 2020. “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019

Guardian. “Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” Guardian News and Media. 12 October 2007. Accessed 8 March 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

Hogarth, William. “An Election Of Entertainment.” 1755. Oil on Canvas. London. Sir John Soane’s Museum. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg.

Mintz, W. Sydney. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Chia, Coca and Cacao: Stimulants in Meso and South American Culture and Their Lasting Effects

Chia seeds, coca, cacao and their derivatives were used by the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs and Incans in a variety of ways for a variety of different reasons. They were used as sacrifices, as food, and even as a currency. Chia, coca, and cacao share a lot more in common than these words starting with the same letter; most people, however, do not know that. Exploring the relationships between these substances is vital to understanding how these substances had shaped the civilizations of the past and is still shaping ours today.

Chia seeds were a staple in the diet of Aztec civilizations along with beans, amaranth, and maize[1].There is ample evidence to suggest that Mayans also consumed chia seeds in their diet due to “chia” translating to “strength” [2] in Mayan and the region of Chiapas, which comes from Chiapan meaning “river of the chia”[3]. The Aztecs offered these seeds to their gods during religious ceremonies and were consumed with the thought that it had supernatural powers. “Ancient warriors attributed their stamina to this tiny seed.” [4] It is worth noting that a diet consisting of the four aforementioned crops meet today’s Food and Agricultural Organization diet requirements[5]. Chia seeds, as we now know, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and dietary fiber[6][7]. These supernatural seeds have an extraordinary ability to absorb water and it can be visualized in this video: https://youtu.be/ZyjK3nOxzjs[8]. The reported “increased stamina” after consuming these seeds is because of this high absorption ability of them.

The coca plant is most commonly found on the Andes mountain range in Peru and Bolivia, the home of the ancient Incan civilization. The following excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s “Uber Coca” shows how coca was viewed and used by the indigenous people that cultivated it:

When the Spanish conquerors forced their way into Peru they found that the coca plant was cultivated and was closely connected with the religious customs of the people. Legend held that Manco Capac, the divine son of the Sun, had descended brought them knowledge of the gods, taught them the useful arts, and given them the coca leaf, this divine plant which satiates the hungry, strengthens the weak, and causes them to forget their misfortune. Coca leaves were offered in sacrifice to the gods, were chewed during religious ceremonies, and were even placed in the mouths of the dead in order to assure them of a favorable reception in the beyond.[9]

Like the chia seeds, there is a religious significance embedded in the society’s use of the coca plant. Coca leaves like chia seeds were cited to have supernatural and miraculous powers. Freud points out the story of a sixty two year old man performing “laborious excavation work for five days and nights” all while sleeping no more than two hours and consuming nothing but coca leaves.[10] Nowadays, tourists in the Andes are given a tea made from coca leaves that helps cure altitude sickness[11]. Despite having many other uses, the main use of coca is that of a stimulant that increases the physical capacity of the body.[12] However, nowadays the most common and far deadlier is the coca plant’s addictive derivative: cocaine.

The recipe for chocolate has been around for many centuries with traces going back all the way to the predecessors of the Mayan civilization, the Olmecs[13]. They were thought to be the first to first develop the recipe for “chocolate”. Chocolate and cacao beans were used in a range of different uses from religious ceremonies and medicines just as the coca leaf and chia seeds were also used. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac[14]. The chemical name given to the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods”[15]. The Mayan hieroglyph below shows just that, as it depicts the God of Maize as a cacao tree. This depiction signifies the importance of cacao as a crop to the Mayan civilization.


Maya Maize God

Recent studies show that what we know today as “dark chocolate” contains two main alkaloids that are responsible for its stimulant properties, theobromine and caffeine.[16] It is therefore safe to assume that even before the incorporation of sugar into chocolate recipes it had stimulant properties like coca leaves and chia seeds. And while there is no evidence to suggest that chocolate was used to perform “supernatural” and “miraculous” feats, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

All of chia, coca, and cacao have been used in some sort of way as a drink mixed with other ingredients to release their stimulant properties. Moreover, chia seeds and cacao beans were used as currencies in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations respectively[17].[18] More recently than the Mayan and Aztec periods, the derivatives of the coca leaf and the cacao beans, cocaine and chocolate respectively, have become highly addictive substances that are widely consumed nowadays. The former is illegal and the latter is not, however, the amount of money in both industries is in the multibillions, with the people at the top of the chain usually the ones to profit the most. Pablo Escobar, the King of Cocaine, reportedly burned two million dollars of cash to keep his daughter warm.[19]

Chia, unlike coca, cacao and their derivatives, does not have an exploitative history. In the later cultivation of chocolate, sugar was, and still is today, a main component used in chocolate production. Sugar workers, slaves “imported” from Africa, were treated very harshly on colonies. The following website shows just how just many slaves were exported from Africa over the years: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html[20]

Cocaine’s exploitative and negative history came more recently in the 1900s when after seeing initial success in it being used as an anesthetic, later became thought of as a narcotic like opiates when the number of addicts rose.[21] The War on Drugs by the United States of America on South American countries in the late 20th century saw many people die just as many Africans died during their life tenure as unpaid workers or even before their ship had docked in their forced destination.


Chia seeds and the history of their cultivation and consumption being free of controversy is very possibly the reason it was nearly forgotten and why people are not as aware of it now as they are of chocolate and cocaine. Spanish colonists banned the cultivation of both the coca leaf and chia seeds as they viewed the religious association of these substances as “heathenish and sinful”.[22] Unlike chia, however, the Spanish later allowed coca cultivation as they saw that the Indians were unable to complete their labor without it[23]. A combination of these factors led to chia not being widely present. In addition, there does not exist universally known brand names for a chia seeds product. Coca Cola (although it does not contain cocaine anymore), and Hersheys or Cadbury are synonymous with coca/cocaine and chocolate respectively. Furthermore, there are widely acclaimed and recognized movies about chocolate such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that instantly come to mind and many movies and television shows about drug dealers and the cocaine business like for instance, Narcos. Movies or shows about chia on the other hand, if they even exist, do not even ring a faint bell in one’s memory.

The association of all these substances to some religious deity or ritual, their perceived supernatural powers, and their wide range of uses are what initially elevated these crops to a higher regard in ancient times. What has kept these items in the current conversation though is their stimulant properties and the large amounts of profit associated with their respective industries.


[1] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA, https://azchia.com/chia-seeds-history/.

[2] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS, http://www.ancientgrains.com/chia-seed-history-and-origin/.

[3] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[4] “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS.

[5] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[6] Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.”

[7] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[8] Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse, https://youtu.be/ZyjK3nOxzjs.

[9] Sigmund Freud, “Uber Coca,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, no. 1 (1984): 206.

[10] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[11] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods” in The True History of Chocolate (Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2013), 33.

[12] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 212.

[13] Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion,” 3.

[14] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’”16.

[15] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”31.

[16] Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods,”57-58.

[17] “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA.

[18] Carla D. Martin, “Chocolate Expansion,” 8.

[19] Amanda Macias, “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.”

[20]Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.”

[21] Joseph F. Spillane, “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920,” in Cocaine: Global Histories, ed. Paul Gootenberg (London: Routledge, 2006), 22.

[22] Freud, “Uber Coca,” 207.

[23] Ibid.

Works Cited:

  1. “Chia History – An Ancient Crop.” AzCHIA, azchia.com/chia-seeds-history/. Accessed 14 Mar. 2018.
  2. “Chia Seed History and Origin.” ANCIENT GRAINS, 20 Mar. 2015, http://www.ancientgrains.com/chia-seed-history-and-origin/. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. “Uber Coca: Freud’s Cocaine Discoveries.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Edited by Howard Shaffer, vol. 1, 1984, pp. 206–212.
  4. Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.” Slate Magazine, 25 June 2015, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.
  5. Macias, Amanda. “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.” The Independent, 29 Dec. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/pablo-escobar-worth-wealth-money-how-much-a8133141.html. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1KJFs2ZF_a-yamF8vy-75BrE3itqNR0t1eVIYRO8mgGo. Accessed 7 Feb. 2018.
  7. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag. Accessed 31 Jan. 2018.
  8. Spillane, Joseph F. “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920 .” In Cocaine: Global Histories, edited by Paul Gootenberg, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 21.
  9. “The Tree of the Food of The Gods.” in The True History of Chocolate, by Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013, pp. 31–58.
  10. Ullah, Rahman, et al. “Nutritional and Therapeutic Perspectives of Chia (Salvia Hispanica L.): a Review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology, Apr. 2016, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4926888/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2018.
  11. “Watch Chia Seed Expanding in Time Lapse.” 16 Oct. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyjK3nOxzjs&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 13 Mar. 2018.

Sugar as an essential nutrient during the industrial revolution

The popularity of cane sugar in Britain quickly rose from the 17th through the 20th centuries, after its introduction from the New World, but its uses changed several times throughout this period. In Sweetness and Power, Mintz breaks down sugar use in Britain during this period into 5 categories: medicine, spice, decoration, sweetener, and preservative (Mintz 78). The most popular, or common, of these uses varied over time; for example, in the 17th century, when sugar remained an expensive rarity, it was more commonly used as a medicine, spice, or decoration. By the end of the 19th century, however, sugar’s popularity was firmly rooted in its use as a sweetener. Mintz points out that at this time it had become a “virtual necessity” (Mintz 148), yet fails to effectively incorporate this into his categorization of its uses. How can any one, or a combination, of these uses explain the enormous part that sugar came to play in the diet of the average English person, representing one-fifth of daily caloric intake (Mintz 5-6)? Rather, by the beginning of the 20th century, a sixth use developed for cane sugar, which is able to more thoroughly explain its rise in status from luxury to necessity. After the industrial revolution, sugar came to be used as a nutrient, an absolute requirement for the sustenance of many middle class families, due to its source of cheap energy during a time when the rise of an industrialized economy necessitated such sources for productivity.

There is remarkable alignment of the changes in sugar consumption and the manufacturing economy in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. The industrial revolution, which was the major turnover in manufacturing processes to the large-scale use of machines, took place in England roughly between the mid 1750 and mid 1840 (Landes 3-8). While it is difficult to determine causality between the industrial revolution and the rise of sugar consumption, we should note that this period of time contains the only roughly exponential change in the rate of increase of sugar consumption in British history (Image 1). This reflects a strong correlation between the rate of change of sugar consumption and the rate of mechanization of the British economy, as demonstrated by the change in fuel use during this time (Image 2). This change in sugar consumption was due to a massive transition in sugar consumption demographics, from consumption only by the wealthy in the early 18th century to consumption by all middle class British citizens by the mid 19th century (Mintz 147-148). Just after 1850, the price of sugar dropped dramatically, enabling its purchase in massive quantities by the middle class, and setting the stage for the use of sugar to expand beyond Mintz’s categorizations and into a staple of the diet. Though these changes in sugar consumption may have not been directly caused by industrialization, their co-occurrence allowed sugar to enter into use as a fundamental nutrient of the English diet.

sugar pic

fuel pic
Images 1 and 2 show a comparison of the change in sugar consumption per capita over time and the change in the use of various fuel types over time. The massive increase in coal use in the second image indicates the mechanization of industry during the industrial revolution. Exponential growth in rate of change of sugar consumption reflects exponential growth in the use of coal.


So why does industrialization align so well with the dramatic changes in sugar consumption we see at this time? Industrialization necessitated cheap sources of quick energy for both the workers and for non-working family members (usually women and children). Carbohydrates were incredibly important for both agricultural and industrial workers, which is reflected in the prominence of bread in their diets, on which working class families spent anywhere from 50-70% of their food budget (Griffin 16 and Feinstein 635). With the sudden increase in the availability of sugar just after the industrialization of the British economy, another source of cheap, even quicker, energy could be introduced to their diets. Further, though workers did consume sugar for energy, especially industrial workers, who consumed twice as much as agricultural workers (Griffin 14), sugar became even more important to the families as a means of cheaply boosting energy of the non-workers. High protein foods, such as meat, were expensive for these families, and so a great majority of products like these were reserved only for the working men of the families (Martin and Griffin 11). Even in situations where the women or children in a family worked, it was often thought that they needed less protein than men, and so this inequality in consumption was maintained. For this reason, sugar became incredibly important to the diets of women and children, taking up roughly 20% of their daily caloric intake, as discussed earlier. This type of consumption is clearly reflected in the advertising of sugary drinks and candy bars at this time, which were heavily targeted at women and children and noted such products’ abilities to prevent exhaustion and give nourishment (Image 3).

sugar pic2
An advertisement for sugar demonstrates its use as a key nutrient supplying energy specifically for children. Other advertisements of the time, while not necessarily just for sugar but rather for candy bars and soft drinks, proclaim their nourishing properties and ability to alleviate exhaustion.

An analysis of the change in sugar consumption and availability during the 18th and 19th centuries, together with an understanding of the dietary needs of workers in an industrialized economy, allows us to more completely understand the rise of sugar consumption—a rise that continues today. In examining these factors and the advertisements that reflect the culture of sugar consumption in this period, we realize that Mintz’s categorizations of sugar’s uses was incomplete. The industrial economy and the need for cheap, quick, energy that it propelled, both at work and in the home, drove sugar to move beyond its earlier uses, and to become considered a necessary nutrient.


Works Cited

Feinstein, Charles H. “Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the industrial revolution.” The Journal of Economic History 58.03 (1998): 625-658.

Griffin, Emma. “Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets.” Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution: Evidence from Workers’ Diets. Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. London: Cambridge U.P., 1969. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Image: Sugar advertisement. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Image: sugar consumption over time. CGIS, Cambridge, MA. 17 Feb. 2016. Lecture.

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

Rautner, Margaret T. “The Industrial Revolution – Infogram, Charts & Infographics.” Image: fuel use over time. Infogram. Infogram, n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

The Medicalization of Chocolate

Chocolate has captivated Western audiences since its introduction into the European diet. Early European samplers found that chocolate and cacao had remarkable bodily effects. It lightened moods, revived the faint, and expelled “sorrows” (Graziano 132). Thus, Western culture set out to unlock chocolate’s corporeal, chemical, and psychological effects, using the current cultural medical discourse of the time. But from its earliest days, this food related exploration was couched in pseudoscience and speculation, a practice that continues today.

Chocolate has been medically scrutinized from the moment it entered the European economy and has been unpacked and forced to fit the medical discourse of the time. Upon its entrée into 16th Century, pre-Modern Europe, chocolate was deconstructed and studied to fit into the cultural “humoral system,” the current medical view that built on the Hellenic belief that the body contained four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile (Coe and Coe 121). Health and well-being were established by maintaining an equilibrium between these humors. Thus, all new food sources entering into Spain from the Americas had to pass “medical tests” to understand “how novelties like tomatoes, chiles, vanilla, squashes and potatoes affected the ‘humors’ of the body” (Presilla 27).

This collection of Pre-Modern cartoons showcases the cultural medical and bodily beliefs associated with the four humors. All four were to be kept in a precise balance, or one would slip into any of the four extreme states—lust, anger, slow response, or depression. Please note that the terms “Mucus” and “Phlegm” were often used interchangeably.
This collection of Pre-Modern cartoons showcases the cultural medical and bodily beliefs associated with the four humors. All four were to be kept in a precise balance, or one would slip into any of the four extreme states—lust, anger, slow response, or depression. Please note that the terms “Mucus” and “Phlegm” were often used interchangeably.

Chocolate was particularly difficult to classify, as it didn’t affect the body in singular or localized ways (Presilla 27). Thus, medical professionals devised complicated and detailed ways to deconstruct the medicinal and health properties of chocolate to fit the medical cultural norms. Dr. Juan de Cardenas proclaimed that cacao in its raw form was damaging, but when toasted or mixed could be medicinal. The fat solids were warm and dry, and the cacao solids were earthy and dangerous. However, one could mix chocolate with other additives like the hoja santa plant or vanilla to “tame the ‘malice’ of cacao” (Presilla 27). Similarly, royal physician Francisco Hernandez believed “the cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature’…but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole, it is very nourishing. Because of its ‘cool’ nature, drinks made from it were good in hot weather, and to cure fevers” (Coe and Coe 122). Thus, from its earliest appearance in the Western world, chocolate has been used and studied in attempts to pinpoint the substance’s health risks and benefits, using the medical lens of the time.

Chocolate was melted and molded to fit the medical discourse of 18th-19th Century Europe as well. In an era where medical professionals looked to draughts and poultices as the panaceas to most ailments and diseases, chocolate was branded a health food that could be combined with other substances to better palate and enhance the medical benefits of these additives (Graziano 139).

Ads like these ran regularly in newspapers and other publications of the 1700’s and promoted the message of chocolate as a health food. These widely circulated advertisements widely spread this belief and began the trend for other health and additive infused chocolates.
Ads like these ran regularly in newspapers and other publications of the 1700’s and promoted the message of chocolate as a health food. These widely circulated advertisements widely spread this belief and began the trend for other health and additive infused chocolates.

Sir Hans Sloane developed milk chocolate in 1700’s as a medicine, “primarily to increase the digestibility of the high fat cacao” (Graziano 136). Other chemists began creating “homeopathic chocolates” as well, adding other additives like rice flower, chicory root, albumin, and iron to cure a host of ailments including digestion, menstrual irregularities, and anemia (Graziano 139). During this era, multiple other forms of chocolate hit the shelves including, “amber chocolate, tonic chocolate, binutritibe chocolate of chicken broth, chocolate of pepsonized meat, tar chocolate” (Graziano 139). Thus, like the 16th Century Europeans, 18-19th Century European society adapted chocolate to fit their cultural medical practices as well, melding chocolate with medicinal and dietary supplements.

Today, while chocolate is no longer consumed as medicine or a humor maintaining substance, it has not lost its medicinally captivating qualities. Scientists and medical professionals continue to try and pinpoint the potential health benefits of chocolate, often using what appears to be correlative or circumstantial evidence. Medical News Today suggests that “potential benefits” of eating chocolate include, “lowering cholesterol levels, preventing cognitive decline (Nordqvist). A report in the British Medical Journal concluded, “based on observational evident, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders. Further experimental studies are required to confirm a potentially beneficial effect of chocolate consumption” (Nordqvist). And a study at the University of Granada simply concluded that, “teens who eat lots of chocolate tend to be slimmer” (Nordqvist). Once again, these conclusions seem to be couched in highly correlative and speculative logic. However, I posit that this nothing new for Western culture. For centuries, chocolate has captivated the Western audience, and the mystery behind its potential health benefits has baffled generations. And since its introduction into European culture, chocolate has been linked to this pseudoscientific study of health and benefits, a practice that has persisted into the modern day.

Video: Dark Chocolate is Good For You

And so the trend continues of attempting to locate positive health benefits in chocolate. However, this practice often seems tied to speculative logic. Try listening for the “mays” and “could” Dr. Oz uses to “substantiate” his claim that “real chocolate is actually good for you.”

Work Cited

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

Graziano, Martha M. “Food of the Gods as Mortals’ Medicine: The Uses of Chocolate and Cacao Products.” Pharmacy in History 40.4 (1998): 132-46. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.

Nordqvist, Joseph. “What Are the Health Benefits of Chocolate?” Medical News Today (2014): n. pag. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2000. Print.

Healthy to Indulge

To this day, people claim that eating chocolate has several health benefits. From building stronger hearts to having antioxidant and antiflammatory properties to improving people’s moods, it’s a wonder how something that is viewed as such a delightful treat in our current social and cultural world can have so many health implications as well. How much of it is true, how much of it is derived from historical beliefs, and how does that all play into the way people perceive chocolate even today?

Multiple health and science websites advocate eating chocolate for a variety of benefits. Photo from: http://www.ilovefoodsomuch.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/12-Health-Benefits-of-Dark-Chocolate.jpg

Tracing back to the first references of cacao, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations used it for a variety of purposes, including medicinal reasons (Coe & Coe, 2013). The Mayans were the first to teach the Old World how to drink chocolate. The Aztecs had an incredible knowledge of their surrounding plant world and understood the health effects these plants, including cacao, could have on the body. The two civilizations treated cacao as a “food of the gods”, oftentimes with only the elite and royalty able to access it. Coincidentally, those members of the upper echelon of these populations also lived the longest. The medicinal use of cacao is also described in the Badianus Manuscript, which is dated to 1552 in Mexico (Lippi, 2013). It underlines the use of cacao for remedying common problems like constipation, hemorrhoids, indigestion, and fatigue.

When chocolate was introduced to the Europeans, its effects on people’s moods after consumption were immediately evident and its medicinal implications were quickly cited (Lippi, 2013). At the time, a Hippocratic-Galenic approach to health and medicine was prevalent. People believed that the body contained four humours — blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, and that one’s diet could balance out any unbalanced areas. Francisco Hernandez, the royal physician to Philip II of Spain, said that the cacao seed could be ultimately characterized as “cold and humid” and thus, “hot” people (ex: someone who has a fever) should drink chocolate to cool off (Coe & Coe, 2013). In Italy, Roman physician, Paolo Zacchia claimed that while the cacao seed is naturally “very cold”, all of the additional flavorings and ingredients added to its recipes make it “very hot” and that while it would aid with digestion, it should be used cautiously as a result. Clearly, different beliefs, sometimes even conflicting and contradictory, were held about cacao consumption back then. People could not say, without a doubt, what exact effects chocolate had on the human body.

From the 17th through the 19th century, a variety of different accounts of chocolate cited its presumed health merits and properties. Those features could be divided into three main categories – the ability to affect weight gain, to stimulate nervous systems, and to improve digestion (Lippi, 2013). Throughout the 20th century, after chocolate started becoming mass produced and consumed popularly, chocolate also began to be perceived in a negative light, with associations to obesity and unhealthy diets. However, there were still positive health features of chocolate that continued to be upheld, even as a greater scientific understanding of the chemical and biological components of chocolate was formed. Dark chocolate’s proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties reinforced its benefits in treating cardiovascular diseases and gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and maintaining mental health (Lippi, 2013). Especially now, with greater knowledge of caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and the other chemical compounds found in chocolate, we can more precisely pinpoint what the reasons are for heart palpitations, happier moods, and enhancement of pleasurable activities that are oftentimes associated with eating chocolate.

Some populations still support the direct medicinal effects of cacao. The Kuna Indians of Panama are known for having one of the lowest rates of cardiovascular diseases in the world, and that has been connected to their high consumption levels of cacao. Special websites also still allow people to purchase chocolate that has assumedly been prepared and packaged for medicinal purposes. However, for the most part today, while chocolate is no longer used directly as a medical cure or remedy for illness, it is still acknowledged for having beneficial effects on health and beauty, as promoted frequently:

Promotional posters and advertisements (such as pictured above) assert that including dark chocolate in one’s diet will make it healthier. Photo from: http://www.fitnessrxwomen.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MARCELA-DARK-CHOCOLATE.jpg

Topical applications of chocolate, such as facial masques, have also become popular for beauty regimens. Topical uses of cacao, such as its “butter” being used to cure hemorrhoids, were also cited in historical descriptions (Lippi, 20213). Photo from: http://images.beautyworldnews.com/data/images/full/13496/chocolate-facial.jpg

It is interesting to trace which beliefs about the properties of chocolate were derived from historical accounts and which were newly discovered as a result of scientific advancements. There is still much more research that needs to be done on chocolate consumption to fully understand all of its long-term health implications and effects. However, the positive note is that with something that tastes as delicious as chocolate, there are plenty of other reasons besides health to consume it.


Coe, S., & Coe, M. (1996). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients5(5), 1573–1584.

Rivero, T. (2011, April 1). Cocoa and the Kuna Indians of Panama. Medicine Hunters. http://www.medicinehunter.com/cocoa-and-kuna-indians-panama