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.
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.
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.
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Hu, Frank. The Sweet Danger of Sugar. Harvard Health Publishing, May 2017, http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.
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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 2015. Congress. Gov, 2015.