Sugar has played a significant role in transforming England’s social, economic, political and culinary values throughout history – “Britain is built on sugar.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (New York: penguin Books, 1985), 90.
 Ibid, 94.
 Ibid, 110.
 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
 Ibid, 133. And “Britain is Built on Sugar.”
 Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 147-148.
 Ibid, 110.
 The Global Diabetes Community, “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/2018-uk-sugar-tax.html
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.