At my family’s most recent holiday party, I spotted my favorite dessert: my mom’s famous salt, butter, and sugar of the Earth, homemade “Christmas Crack.” In other words, a chocolatey saltine toffee delight that seemed to have been sent to us by the Mayan Cacao God himself (Figure 1). I eagerly grabbed a piece, brought it to my lips, and closed my eyes in anticipation…only to have them fly open in horror, as I remembered that the hundreds of years of labor atrocities that plagued the production of its key components were anything but sweet.
Society perceives chocolate to be a comfort food and luxury, views that are perhaps reminiscent of its introduction to wealthy and noble Europeans in the 1500s-1600s.3 At this time, the lower classes desired the security of high-society individuals – likewise, they aspired to emulate their habits, and in doing so, associated the act of eating sugar and chocolate with happiness and wellbeing.3 Increasing demand for sugar and cacao amongst all social classes in Europe aided in the New World’s shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery, perpetuating a cycle of mass demand, mass production, and egregious human rights abuses until abolition in the mid-1800s.
Modern chocolate was born of the encomienda system in the 1500s in the Central American Izalcos region, which had the perfect combination of environmental conditions for the Theobroma cacao tree – and thus, forced labor – to thrive (Figure 2).4 Instituted by the Spanish crown, the encomienda system granted colonists the right to impose substantial production quotas on the indigenous people of the region, under the guise that it was payment for Spanish “protection” and “Christianization.”2 This system helped cacao output to grow, such that peak Izalcos production coincided with cacao’s high-priced introduction to the European market and diet around 1580.4 In this manner, cacao – and thus, chocolate – made its violent European high-society debut, leading anthropologist Kathryn Sampeck to claim that “the wretchedness of the Izalcos example was so extreme…because the Izalcos was a roguish, wayward economic frontier, the kind of frontier that created wildness so that some—and not others—may reap its rewards.”2 While Spanish colonists and nobles accumulated money and power, indigenous farmers endured “physical violence and extreme labor demands with almost no regard for human dignity.”2 Thus, the Spanish use of indigenous forced labor to extract tribute in the form of cacao beans enabled the European elite to derive power from the consumption of this expensive commodity; as chocolate became increasingly popular with the wealthy, it developed into a symbol of social status and financial security. Consequently, the masses began to associate chocolate with a sense of well-being, while failing to recognize that it was a product that was deeply rooted in forced indigenous labor on the other side of the world.
Chocolate, however, was just a single component in the development of the European sweet tooth. The harsh conditions that laborers in the New World endured can only be fully explored when sugar itself is analyzed as a high-powered commodity, one that asserted its authority over the masses as its functions shifted from spicing up small-scale bonbons to widespread use as a preservative, and later, as a substantial caloric source.3 Like cacao, sugar was one of the crucial crops that fueled the rise of capitalism in Europe – and thus, the boom in slave labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. Increasing demand for the two commodities required that production increase at corresponding levels (Figure 3).3 There was only one problem – 80-90% of the native Central American and Caribbean populations were dying from exposure to European diseases, meaning that colonizers had to bring in laborers by the millions to sustain society’s increasing hunger for sugar.6
In this manner, slaves became yet another commodity, shipped in from Africa because this was the most economical and feasible location from which to source human bodies to match demand (Figure 4).6,8 From 1690-1790, Europe imported roughly 12 million tons of sugar– about the same number of African lives that were lost in its production; in this way, sugar became the “most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer, but the producer.”6 Such a dramatic toll on human life was enabled by a scaling of economies that was perpetuated by the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy, who, in turn, were more than happy to comply if it brought them more money and power. Mass production became the European mindset – after all, money now grew on trees. With this shift to mass production came a capitalistic use of slavery, a labor source that was rooted in countless human rights abuses. Thus, growing demand for sugar and cacao in Europe, spurred by the lower class’ aspirations to obtain a sense of security enjoyed by the elite, enabled the shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery in the New World.
On that note, I returned to the present day, toffee melting satisfyingly on my tongue, yet mouth open in disgust. How can it be that something so enchanting is rooted in such brutality? How did some conservative members of society consider chocolate to be sinful when it was first introduced to Europe, not because its production required barbarism and carnage, but because it was enjoyable?6 So, the next time you indulge in a chocolate concoction, pay tribute to its exploitative and cruel past, and remember that your favorite holiday treat may not be coated in dark chocolate chips, but instead in deceit.
“Christmas Crack” Saltine Toffee Recipe
Prep + Cook Time: 20 minutes
1.5 sleeves saltine crackers
1.5 sticks butter
1.5 cups brown sugar
2 cups chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
Line baking sheet with one layer of saltine crackers. Crush remaining crackers for later use as a topping.
Place the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then carefully pour the mixture evenly over the crackers. Use a baking spatula to smooth the mixture over all crackers.
Bake the crackers in the oven for 5 minutes, until the toffee is bubbling all over. Carefully remove baking sheet from the oven and let cool for 1 minute.
Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee crackers. Allow to partially melt, then use a baking spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the entire sheet. Add desired toppings.
Freeze the toffee for 30+ minutes. Once frozen, break into small pieces and enjoy!
2. Sampeck, K. Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala. (2019).
3. Mintz, S. W. Sweetness and Power. (1985).
4. Sampeck, K. & Thayn, J. Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. (2017).
5. Kaplan, J., Umaña, F. & Hurst. Cacao residues in vessels from Chocolá, an early Maya polity in the southern Guatemalan piedmont, determined by semi-quantitative testing and high-performance liquid chromatography. Jounrnal Archaeol. Sci. Rep.13, 526–534 (2017).
6. Hobhouse, H. Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind. (Harper & Row, 1986).
A traditional view of the history of chocolate focuses on the growth in mass consumption of chocolate as a byproduct of democratization and the industrial revolution. With time, consumption of chocolate spread from Aztec elites to the European nobility to the common citizens of the Western world. However, I contend that the history of chocolate is not simply one of expanded access fueled by increased political and economic inclusiveness, but rather one of shifting patterns of exploitation. The expansion of chocolate consumption has tracked the political enfranchisement and growth in economic power of white Westerners, but has simultaneously resulted in the brutal exploitation of poor brown and black people, first in Latin America, and now in Africa.
The Elite Origins of Chocolate
In ancient Aztec society, the consumption of chocolate was confined to the elites, which included members of the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants and warriors. Consumed after dinner at royal banquets, it was considered an exotic delicacy and a gift from the gods, a precious treasure not to be wasted on commoners (Coe and Coe, pg. 95). It was also used in religious ceremonies, including marriage rites, to symbolize the sacred nature of matrimonial covenants (Coe and Coe, pgs. 97-101). When the Conquistadors brought chocolate back to the Old World from Mesoamerica, it quickly spread through Europe, becoming a delicious treat for European nobles. Through the displays and pageants of Spain’s Habsburg rulers, the drink quickly gained fame, with powerful oligarchs such as Cosimo de’ Medici becoming “chocoholics” (Coe and Coe, pg. 135). Curiously, chocolate came to be seen as more feminine, as it was popularized with ladies of the royal courts in Europe. It retained its association with marriage, as women intermarried among royal families and brought their love of chocolate with them (Coe and Coe, pgs. 136-137).
The image below displays the status of chocolate drink as both an elite status symbol and a beverage uniquely associated with the idealized image of the noble lady and her well-ordered household:
Chocolate Comes to the Masses
Despite chocolate’s elite origins, a different narrative took form around chocolate as production methods were refined and it became more broadly available to the masses. By the late 17th century in England, chocolate became associated with the intellectual movement towards democratic governance during the Enlightenment era. Chocolate houses and coffee houses became centers of democratic thought, prompting Charles II to issue an ultimately futile decree to close them down in 1675 (Coe and Coe, pg. 168). Chocolate was truly democratized in the mid-19th century, as technological innovation during the Industrial Revolution made chocolate far more accessible to ordinary people. In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the alkalizing process which gave chocolate its familiar dark color and made it milder in flavor. In 1849, Joseph Fry invented the modern chocolate bar, using cocoa butter to transform chocolate into a solid confection (Coe and Coe, pgs. 234 – 241). Simultaneously, sugar, which had come into common usage as both a preservative and an ingredient to supplement the caloric needs of working and middle class citizens in the West, came to be one of the most important components of both chocolate drink and the newly invented bars (Schartzkopf and Sampeck). As the narrative goes, the physical transformation of chocolate represented a revolution in accessibility, carried on a wave of political democratization and the industrialization-fueled growth in mass consumption.
The picture below displays three different styles of modern, mass-produced chocolate bar, complete with sugar for extra flavoring and the familiar dark coloring introduced by Van Houten’s method:
The Thin Veneer of Democracy
Though the history of the spread of chocolate is often portrayed as a triumph of mass democracy, in truth chocolate has been and continues to be a product of extremely unequal, hierarchical systems of racial and class-based oppression, in which poor brown and black people produce chocolate as a luxury good to be enjoyed by better off, mostly white Westerners. The oppressive hierarchies of Western chocolate production trace their origins to the encomienda system of the early 16th century, in which Spanish colonizers virtually enslaved the Native people of their American colonies, forcing them to harvest cash crops such as chocolate beans, often at the expense of their own lives (Yeager). Eventually, the encomienda system came to an end, and chocolate production in the New World gradually became the domain of newly enslaved Africans. As globalization increased, and outright slavery fell out of favor, production shifted from Latin America to Africa, with (technically illegal) slave labor still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome as late as the early 20th century (Satre). In the modern era, the exploitation of African labor continues. 74% of chocolate was produced in Africa during the 2016-2017 season, but Africans only consumed a tiny percentage of the chocolate they produced, and received a comparatively small cut of the profits (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46). In the words of Ghanian farmer Mercy Asabea, when asked about the local scarcity of chocolate, “Ghana made Europe what it is…We have every resource here, yet Ghanians are not progressing at all” (Leissle, pg. 57).
The following chart shows a harrowing picture of the relationship between modern chocolate production and consumption, with the orange dots representing main exporters and the red dots representing export destinations:
Accusations of highly exploitative labor practices, including forced child labor, continue to this day. This video from the Stolen Lives Project details just a few of the abuses allegedly committed by the modern day chocolate production industry:
Ultimately, it is important for us to develop a realistic perspective on chocolate and its origins. One can both appreciate the expansion of access to this delicious treat, especially in the Western world, yet simultaneously reject purely Western-centered narratives which exclude the experiences of disadvantaged black and brown people in the developing world as they relate to chocolate production and consumption
of Black Swiss Chocolate.” Wikimedia
Commons, 8 Oct. 2015,
Francois. “The Afternoon Meal.” Wikimedia
Commons, 10 Aug. 2017,
Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True
History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial:
Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.
Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate
Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction:
Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf
and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.
Lives Project. Chocolate Slaves. Vimeo, 2 Aug. 2015, vimeo.com/135172005.
Timothy J. “Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor
Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 55, no. 04, 1995, pp.
Bonjour dessert: tout ce que les femmes désirent. The hyperlinked advertisement shows a “sexy” shirtless man, whose apron barely covers him, laboring to make chocolate. The background music and his tone as he whispers French are meant to arouse the female consumer. French is the language of love, and as the male actor concludes in French, Bonjour Dessert are all a woman desires to have. The commercial is actually for a Russian audience and was televised in Bulgaria. While the men are working to produce the chocolate, it seems to be for the consumption of women.
Chocolate consumption can refer to the purchase and eating of chocolate (Fahim 2010). While women eat slightly more chocolate than men (91% versus 87% respectively), the chocolate industry heavily targets women in its advertising (Mintel Research in CNN 2012). Chocolate is marketed as sexy, and women exude lust in chocolate advertisements as seen in the advertisement below. I decided to explore the legitimacy of these claims from the perspective of men. Specifically, how does chocolate marketing influence men’s role in women’s consumption of chocolate? I interviewed seven male students who responded to the following up: a male who has ever bought chocolate for a significant other. I will situate my findings in the appropriate historical and contemporary contexts. All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of my respondents. Based on my analysis, men’s purchase of chocolate is not in direct response to media and marketing influences. Instead, men attribute their motivation to purchase chocolate for significant others because of their semiotic understanding of the product and the expressed needs of their partners, coupled with its affordability.
Chocolate as a romantic gesture
Chocolate is associated with romance or love. When asked about the presence of chocolate in his relationship, John described how he and his girlfriend “once went to the taza chocolate factory; it was an entire date around chocolate. I thought it was a nice date. There was a festival with free chocolate, hot chocolate [and] I bought some. Essentially, chocolate serves as a long memory of that date which was cool”. His girlfriend loves chocolate, but he does not particularly indulge in it. Yet, he planned that date to show his girlfriend that he could be interested in the things that bring her joy. It was a chance for him to be romantic in his actions besides saying I love you. The semiotic association of chocolate with love naturally predates John and all of my respondents.
Marriage vows between a couple in ancient Mayan civilization
In addition to exchanging vows, it was customary for a bride and groom in ancient Mayan civilization to give each other five cacao beans in order to finalize their marriage process (Coe 2013:61). As depicted in the photograph above, cacao beans were integral to to relationships in Mesoamerica and chocolate continues to be a placeholder in that sense. For example, Cadbury invented the heart-shaped box of Valentine’s chocolates in 1861 (Coe 2013:243). The commercialization of Valentine’s Day as a holiday around love has persisted until today. Purchasing a heart-shaped box of chocolates has evolved into a commonplace display of affection for a significant other. More importantly, the box is filled with chocolates, which my respondents associated with love. In his thesis, Fahim describes a Hershey’s commercial in which the girlfriend is upset with her boyfriend. She starts to warm up to him when he offers her Hershey’s kisses. The Hershey’s kisses are how he convinces his girlfriend to listen to him and show him affection (Fahim 2010). I asked respondents to contextualize their chocolate gift-giving experiences. Matt explained “If I meet someone for the first time and I’m interested, I might get a Lindt chocolate bar because it’s still high quality but it’s not the deepest and truest thing to my heart”. Matt associates the actual chocolate with romance, and does not value “cliché packaging” like the heart-shaped box. The more interested he is in someone, the higher the quality chocolate he offers her. Because of this, he would not gift a girl Hershey’s chocolate kisses. Nevertheless, the principle of offering chocolate as a romantic gesture persists although Matt and other respondents do not turn to specific brands because of their advertising. Overall, the amount of care and effort put into impressing the potential significant other speaks to his semiotic understanding of chocolate with romance.
Chocolate as comfort food
Respondents recalled they were likely to purchase chocolate for their girlfriends when the latter needed to be comforted. Brian noted that “whenever [his girlfriend’s] studying, whenever she’s stressed, chocolate is just a go-to. It tastes good, makes her happy, [and in turn] makes me happy”. Chocolate brings relief to his girlfriend in times of stress and provides her with energy. In the nineteenth century, chocolate was marketed to mothers as essential to keeping a healthy family. For example, medicinal recipes involved cocoa and women were meant to make these concoctions, not consume them. Such recipes were perceived solutions to physical ailments like stomach aches and fevers (Grivetti and Shapiro 2009:71). Nowadays, women consume chocolate to calm down. Stressing out or worrying too much can be detrimental to one’s health. So it is interesting to trace the trajectory of chocolate from a remedy to physical illnesses to a potential solution of psychological ones. In the same vein, the gender norms associated with chocolate also changed. Women would traditionally prepare the chocolate-infused medicine for men or their children, but not themselves as it was considered “sinful”. Men now gift chocolate to women to bring them comfort, which signals a change in the target audience for the dietary consumption of chocolate.
Furthermore, I was interested in what sort of chocolate respondents purchased. John admitted his girlfriend likes dark chocolate so he either gets her Dove Dark Chocolate or Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate. Connor always purchases Ghirardelli Raspberry and Dark Chocolate Bar for his girlfriend. Sean recalled, “the particular person I have in mind, she really loved chocolate. So that’s why I bought her chocolate instead of flowers [to help her through a rough time]”. My respondents’ primary motivation for purchasing chocolate to provide comfort was because their girlfriends explicitly said they enjoyed chocolate. They were not consciously responding to chocolate marketing ads. Instead, they were simply trying to be great partners because purchasing chocolate was not an adventure or exploration. Rather than in response to media attempts to sway chocolate consumption, the respondents bought chocolate merely what their significant others already had a strong preference for.
Chocolate is affordable
Overall, chocolate is an accessible treat. I asked respondents why they purchased chocolate for significant others. Six of the seven respondents purchase chocolate for their significant other because it is affordable. John explained that “chocolate is a small constant reminder that I care about her and want her to be happy. I’m willing to pay four bucks for two weeks worth of chocolate to make that point”. Chocolate was not always this affordable. The Industrial Revolution was instrumental to the drop in pricing because of drastic improvements in four areas of manufacturing: preservation, mechanization, retail/wholesale and transportation (Goody 2013:85). These improvements exponentially increased the number of manufactured foods, which in turn made them more accessible and affordable to the average shopper.
Beyond manufacturing improvements, the production of cacao also influence the supply chain. The cacao-chocolate industry has a long history of ethical problems in its supply chain as it pertains to forced labor and slavery on cacao plantations. From slavery in Latin America to forced labor in Sao Tome and Principe to “the worst forms of child labor” in Ivory Coast, the chocolate we consume is often tainted (Coe 2013:192; Mintz 1985:48-50; Off 2006: 122). Cacao is a commodity that large chocolate manufacturers can buy in huge amounts and farmers are not involved in the price-setting discussions. Furthermore, farmers are not always paid on time and therefore struggle to wholly rely on cacao production to make ends meet (Martin Lecture 2017). The respondents were neither aware of nor concerned with the labor abuses and low standard of living of cacao farmers. Respondents did not seek to buy ethically-sourced chocolate and did not look for logos like FairTrade certification. The one respondent who arguably spent more than “four bucks on chocolate” valued the quality of the chocolate he purchased for significant others. Particularly, he would procure Limonoro Sorrento Madagascar-Tohisoa, an exquisite Italian chocolate bar with single-sourced cacao from Madagascar (pictured to the right). Still, his primary motivation for purchasing such chocolate was the quality of the chocolate and not its ethical considerations. Therefore acquiring it at a lower price compared to bean-to-bar chocolate makers. There are attempts to ethically source chocolate through certifications like FairTrade, Rainforest Alliance Certified and UTZ Certified. Yet, consumers are largely unaware of the distinctions and from my small sample size, not worried about the ramifications of their dollars.
Food for thought?
None of my respondents attribute their purchase of chocolate for significant others to successful chocolate marketing. When asked why they thought chocolate was in fact their “go-to treat” for their girlfriends John argued, “if my girlfriend was into licorice, I would always have a supply of licorice in my room [instead of chocolate]. I just want to make her happy”. According to John, chocolate was not the inherent solution to romance or comfort. Instead, it was because his partner explicitly suggested she was into it that he bought it for her. For the most part, my respondents bought chocolate with the direct intent to please their girlfriends. This explains why they stuck to the one brand of chocolate they knew would elicit joy from their girlfriends, whether it was Ferrero Rocher or Dove Dark Chocolate. Chocolate marketing did not influence them to purchase the chocolate that a specific advertisement claimed would help men score points with women. While this key distinction important in men’s understanding of their role in women’s consumption, I cannot fully argue that chocolate marketing played no role in men’s semiotic understanding of chocolate.
While respondents did not buy the advertised chocolate, chocolate marketing as it stands today reinforces and rewards the notion that men should purchase chocolate for women’s consumption. Therefore, there is a possibility that chocolate marketing subconsciously influenced my respondents to feel affirmed in their chocolate consumption and therefore continue purchasing chocolate for their girlfriends. I understand that there are limits to my sample of Harvard students and sample size of seven and I cannot make generalizations on the underlying factors of men’s purchases. Furthermore, the scope of paper is heteronormative because all male respondents had female significant others. Respondents also assumed significant other referred to a girlfriend as opposed to a close friend of any gender.
Overall, this blog post serves as an exploration of men’s understanding of their role in women’s dietary consumption of chocolate, especially when they are in a relationship. My respondents believed purchasing chocolate was an easy and affordable way for them to brighten their girlfriends’ moods. They also purchase it because their girlfriends explicitly asked for chocolate. They did not purchase chocolate as a direct response to chocolate marketing efforts. Still, it does not mean chocolate marketing cannot subconsciously affirm men’s decision to purchase chocolate. The investigation begs the question of women’s motivating factors to consume chocolate and if chocolate marketing efforts play a more salient role in their perspective.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
You may be surprised to find out that the chocolate that we know today is a relatively new, tasty discovery- one that came about from the Industrial Age.
When the Industrial Revolution took place, the world revolutionized with it, and industries of all kinds were forever altered. The chocolate industry, still in the Mayan age, sprouted into a new field and its effects can still be traced today. The technology in the Industrial Revolution provided the tools to advance the field of chocolate, which allowed for mass consumption and commercialization, giving way to the “Chocolate Age.”
Chocolate’s “God-Like” Beginnings
Cacao was considered the “food of the gods,” and was treated as such: before the Industrial Age, chocolate was made the traditional way that the Mayans made it with a long, drawn-out process of cracking shells and traditional grinding to create a bitter chocolate drink (unlike the chocolate of today) (Szogyi, 1997).
Modern Mayan woman demonstrating how her ancestors
would grind cacao (Smithsonian)
This treat was considered to be a drink that was both a commodity and spiritual experience; although it was available to the masses, the wealthy certainly had more access to the treat because they could afford it. Cacao was taken as such a serious product that the Mayans used its seeds as currency; further, it was used to promote fertility and life, and cacao pods are found all over elite and ancient artifacts, temples, and palaces. Clearly, these uses and techniques demonstrate how luxurious chocolate was to them; these processes stayed this way even during the era of the Aztec empire and many centuries later (Horn, 2016 & Szogyi).
The Industrial Difference
This process of chocolate was so revered that it essentially did not change until the Industrial Age with a ground-breaking invention for grinding that used the newly-innovated steam and hydraulic process; in 1778, Doret, a Frenchman, invented a hydraulic machine that grinds cocoa beans into a paste (Beckett, Horn). Before then, the process of grinding was long and tedious and this machine allowed the process to become easier to create for the masses. Soon after, more inventions came along for grinding that further made consumption more popular. For instance, Dubuisson invented a steam chocolate grinder in France because it was even cheaper to replicate than Doret’s product, which allowed for an even higher level of mass consumption of chocolate. The Industrial Age created the environment to allow for this change – without steam and hydraulics, and the friendly and booming business atmosphere for support, Doret and Dubuisson would certainly not have been able to create these inventions. Where would be chocolate be today? One could reasonably predict that we could have eventually have had these technologies, but it is safe to assume that it would have taken the chocolate industry much longer to reach its glory.
The steam engine and hydraulic system are considered staples of this Industrial Age with new technologies across the boards for trains, factories, and buildings, but we can also appreciate how these technologies allowed for the advancement of chocolate technology. The value of chocolate significantly decreased because it was accessible to everyone; from here on, it was no longer an “elite” product or just a “food of the gods,” but, rather, a food for everyone. Thus, the Industrial Age that changed the world on so many fronts quickly churned into the “Chocolate Age” as well.
The idea of the mass consumption of chocolate from the Industrial Age can be traced along the later part of the history of chocolate. Quickly after the revelation with the cocoa beans came a new way to make chocolate an even more accessible product with commercialization – via “dutching” (Squiciarinni & Swinnen, 2016). In 1828, Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented a method to press cocoa by separating the cocoa butter by pressing it with alkali, making the matter soften up enough to produce cocoa powder, which was light and fluffy; unlike the current chocolate of that time, dutching made chocolate highly digestible, which would attract new consumers and open up a whole new market for chocolate – just like these technologies helped do so in other industries such as the construction field (i.e. making materials more affordable and attractive for building).
Van Houten’s cocoa press (World Standards)
Additionally, cocoa powder was the secret ingredient needed for the chocolate industry and companies to seamlessly make solid chocolate bars and coat them as well as bring in new flavors such as white chocolate. From there, a second wave of the Chocolate Age had been set and was about to take place.
A Second Wave of the Age – Mass Commercialization and the Chocolate Bar
With the mass consumption of chocolate from these new Industrial technologies came mass commercialization. Quite simply, we can see that chocolate companies would not be what they are today without this commercial influence; specifically, the dutching process sparked a spread of commercialization across Europe, which allowed for the worldwide chocolate industry we have come to know and love. For example, Cadbury, one of the largest chocolate companies today, and Joseph Fry (founder of what is known as Mondolez International today) bought the dutching press; these two companies are credited to be the first companies to create and sell the chocolate bar. They also made the chocolate bar a highly accessible treat with aggressive advertising; this marketing scheme raked in millions of dollars for these companies (Beckett, Horn). It was the catalyst behind the beginning of giant factories built to keep up with this demand.
Thus, the chocolate bar became (and still is) a symbol for a quick, delicious treat for everyone and anyone.
Fry’s chocolate bar packaging (Foods of England)
Moreover, the dutching system then inspired the chocolate exportation business that brought chocolate on to an international stage – a few decades after the start of the chocolate bar, the Van Houten presses became powered by steam engines, and, just like with the Dubuisson’s steam engine, came with another Chocolate Revolution. The mass consumption and commercialization of chocolate began in European countries such as Germany and France, which eventually led its way to the United States (Beckett, Szogyi). These countries then started their own chocolate giants such as Hershey’s and Nestlé, which embody the same mass consumption and commercialization ideals that have advanced the history of chocolate along and allowed it to further churn.
Without the Industrial age, chocolate would just not be the same. It is literally unrecognizable from its Olmec and Mayan roots. From the Industrial Age, the Chocolate Age churned on and on – all starting with the advancements in steam and hydraulics.
Beckett, S.T, et al. Industrial Chocolate – Manufacture and Use. Wiley Publishers: Hoboken.
Horn, Jeff. The Industrial Revolution: History, Documents, and Key Questions. (2016). ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara.
Squicciarini, Mara P & Swinnen, Johan. (2016). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/power-chocolate-reveals-true-roots-celebrated-food
Szogyi, Alex. (1997). Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport.
The Foods of England. Retrieved from http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/chocolate.htm
World Standards. Retrieved from http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html
From its origins, chocolate has been linked to notions of class, and, in particular, chocolate has been associated with upper class culture. Elites, from Mesoamerica to Baroque Europe, have been principal consumers of chocolate, devoted to perfecting the preparation and consumption of the commodity. For example, the European nobility built a complex material and social culture around chocolate, crafting specialized objects and recipes to enhance the quality and presentation of chocolate. (Coe and Coe, 125) However, as the historiography contends, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, with mass production technologies and the rise of companies such as Hershey’s and Mars, chocolate was transformed from an elite privilege to a cheap commodity consumed widely throughout society, and sold at every corner store in America and throughout much of the world.
In my project, I seek to examine the extent to which chocolate remains linked to class, and re-evaluate the narrative that chocolate was transformed from an elite privilege into a universally consumed staple food, and today exists simply as a symbol of our universal sweet tooth. While the industrialization of food enabled chocolate to be consumed by the whole of society, I contend that recent trends in the chocolate industry, specifically the growth in fine chocolate producers and the increasing differentiations between different brands and products, particularly the new emphasis on Fair Trade, organic, single origin, and artisan, have cemented distinctions in food consumption as indicators of class and identity. By further analyzing the contemporary link between chocolate and class, we can learn more about food as a social differentiator, and individual consumption preferences.
The industrialization of food, and particularly the developments of preservation, mechanization, retailing and transportation, were central to democratizing access to food (Goody). Indeed, these innovations and “culinary modernism” generally “has provided…the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford” (Laudan, 40). However, the growing distinctions between different chocolate producers and types of chocolate, as I explored with a tasting and interviews with Harvard students, indicate the extent to which chocolate functions as a differentiator of class and consumers’ preferences for particular chocolates, show social identity.
“Taste has come to play a role in defining social ranking and identity… Taste as an aesthetic has become a sign of privilege” – Julie Guthman, Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow,” p. 497
Pierre Bordieu, French sociologist, anthropologist and author of Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, contended that “cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences” (Bordieu, 7). In this vein of thought, Julie Guthman argues that the growth of the organic industry was driven by “gentrification and the class differentiation that necessarily entailed” (Guthman, 497). The growth of the artisan chocolate industry, including organic chocolate, has been driven by similar factors, as producers recognize the opportunity to earn a devoted customer base by catering to an upper-class clientele who are inclined to consume distinctly “high-end” foods that separate them from, as one survey/tasting participant put it, “the Hershey’s consuming public.” For American producers, the craft business can be lucrative and satisfying, and allow them to compete in the international economy as they turn to gourmet shops, specialty stores, and community gatherings to target the bourgeois market and capitalize on the eagerness of more affluent Americans to buy specialized food (Eber, 155).
As Jim Eber notes in Raising the Bar: the Future of Fine Chocolate, there has been a recent explosion in the number of small manufacturers and chocolatiers (Eber, 144) and at the time of the book’s publication (2012), nearly fifty American fine flavor chocolate brands had been established in the past seven years (Eber, 155). Consumers are buying more fine cacao; premium chocolate accounted for $2.9 billion of the $20 billion in US chocolate sales in 2013, with an expected annual growth of 10% (Eber, 167). Author and philosopher Carolyn Korsmeyer argues in Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy that“the pursuit of taste for pleasure alone…seems a frivolous pursuit permitted only to a leisured few” (Korsmeyer, 1). Bordieu, too, argues that it is uniquely the “upper classes, who are more interested in treating food as an art form” (Korsmeyer, 89). The fine chocolate market is driven by the keenness of the wealthiest consumers to “indulge” in a distinctly gourmet treat, and one that is healthier from its mass-market, chemical-filled alternatives.
“Food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say — social class” – Adam Drewnowski, What Food Says About Class in America
To look further into this issue of chocolate preferences as related to social class and lifestyle, I conducted individual sampling/tastings with twenty Harvard College students. I selected six chocolate bars, and presented all six to each person that I spoke to, carefully explaining the details of each bar, before asking each student to answer a few questions. I asked the students to consider: 1) Are all of these chocolates appealing to you? 2) Which of these chocolates is most appealing to you and why? 3) Which of these chocolates is least appealing to you and why? 4) When choosing a chocolate to consume, what factors determine your preference? before sampling. Students were given the option to sample all six chocolate, but many declined to taste all. Here is a list of the chocolates I used, and the elements about each that I pointed out or read:
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate
Divine Dark Chocolate with Mint
Mast Goat Milk Chocolate
Dove Dark Chocolate
Taza 70% Dark Stone Ground
Dolfin 38% Cacao
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate: Purchased at CVS, note the large company logo emblazoned across the front.
Divine Dark Chocolate with Mint: Fair Trade label, Purchased at Cardullo’s,“Cocoa, vanilla, and sugar in chocolate: traded in compliance with Fairtrade Standards, total 94% of the product’s ingredients,” “Divine chocolate is made with the finest quality Fairtrade cocoa beans from Kuapa Kokoo, a co-operative of small-holder farmers in Ghana. The cocoa is grown in the shade of the tropical rainforest, and slowly fermented and dried in the sun by the farmers, who take great pride in the chocolate company they co-own.”
Mast Goat Milk Chocolate: Purchased at Cardullo’s,“Goat Milk Chocolate: Made in New York,” “60% Cacao, Cane Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Goat Milk Powder”
Taza 70% Dark Stone Ground Organic Chocolate: Purchased at Cardullo’s,USDA Organic label, Taza Direct Trade Certified Cacao label, Non GMO Project Verified label, Certified Gluten-Free label, Dairy Free, Soy Free, Vegan Label, “Dominican Republic Single Origin,” “Organic,” “We keep the bean in the bar. We make stone ground, organic chocolate, Cacao is so complex in flavor that we want to let it shout loud and proud. That is why we do less to bring you more. We stone grind cacao beans into perfectly unrefined, minimally processed chocolate with bold flavor and texture, unlike anything you have ever tasted.”
Dolfin 38% Cacao: Purchased at Cardullo’s, “Made in Belgium,” “The Art of Blending, Natural & Tasty, Tradition & Quality,”
Dove Dark Chocolate: Purchased at CVS, Rainforest Alliance Certified Cocoa label, “Our special patented and proprietary Cocoapro process helps retain much of the naturally occurring cocoa flavanols.”
Fast food and organic/slow food are posed as class binaries (Guthman, 506). Likewise, as articulated through readings and demonstrated by my tastings and conversations with Harvard students, mass-market chocolates, such as Hershey’s and Dove, are perceived in opposition to “fine chocolate.” While the Harvard students I spoke with were not necessarily clear about the specific differences between different types of chocolate, they unanimously preferred the more expensive Mast, Divine, Dolfin, and Taza bars — I did not disclose exact price to my student subjects, although the different presentations of the bars serve as an indication of price — to the CVS-distributed Hershey’s and Dove varieties. When discussing the difference between these two groups, in relation to the chocolates we tasted, students used descriptors like “organic,” “better quality,” “artisanal,” “healthier,” “better for the environment and the world,” and “fair trade” to articulate why they preferred the above. “I prefer chocolate with a high quality reputation, whatever that means,” one student remarked when asked about his consumption preferences. “If someone offered me Hershey’s for free, like you are doing right now, I would never take it,” another added.
Most students selected their preferred chocolate on the basis of packaging, labeling, and/or percentage of cacao. Commentary included: “Either the Dolfin or Mast chocolate. Cute wrappers,” “I definitely prefer the pink one because it looks the best from the packaging,” and “I think I will like the Mast chocolate because the design is simplistic and modern.”
Angelo Agostoni, President of Italian chocolate producer ICAM, notes a recent “purist trend,” in which consumers have a preference for a “single origin, a bean type or a percentage of cacao” (Eber, 161). Many participants that I spoke to claimed that the main, or only, factor they considered when purchasing or consuming chocolate was the percentage of cacao. “I like to buy dark chocolate, at least 60 percent cacao,” one remarked. Participants did not seem as concerned with the origin of the cacao. “Other than the percentage, I don’t care about specific factors of the chocolate, like what country it comes from,” said another.
Curtis Vreeland of Vreeland & Associates, confectionary industry leader in market research and analysis, notes that premium chocolate is considered to be “chocolate selling for greater than $8.00 a pound… qualitative factors: better quality ingredients, better execution, upscale packaging etc” (Eber, 168). Are these distinctions significant beyond the price differential and their appeal to the high-end consumer? While fine cacao or fine chocolate is indeed sold at a higher price based on perceived quality (Martin, “Popular sweet tooths or scandal”), as we discussed in lecture, Fairtrade, Direct Trade, and organic certifications do not necessarily indicate a higher quality product. During my chocolate tasting, a participant recognized that her partiality for so-called natural or healthier products was likely grounded in rhetorical appeal, rather than objective quality distinction. After expressing her preference for the Taza bar, she noted the effectiveness of the slogan “Stone ground chocolate.” “Stone ground chocolate makes me think that the Taza chocolate is natural and artisanal, even though for all I know, all chocolate could be stone ground, or the stone grinding could have absolutely no effect on the taste of the chocolate,” she admitted.
As the commentary of my sample population of the Harvard student body indicates, the presentation of chocolate, including the retail channel, brand name, package design, information included on the packaging, phrasing of the information, and any included labels signal to the consumer whether or not the chocolate bar is one that they would want to consume, without any awareness of the taste of the actual product, or, in fact, perhaps despite the taste. A participant, who initially expressed her preference for the Divine bar, remarked that although she had not tried the brand before, “I like the Fair Trade aspect and not all the processed junk in it.” Upon sampling the Divine chocolate, she did not like the taste of the mint as much as she expected. However, she still asserted that she would prefer to eat the Divine bar over the Hershey’s bar, despite the fact that she preferred the taste of the Hershey’s. “I don’t want to eat a chocolate that I can’t imagine being sold at Whole Foods, such as Hershey’s. And even if I prefer the taste, I also assume that there are a ton of unhealthy chemicals that I don’t want to put in my body.” One student cited the relative difficulty of reading the list of ingredients in a Hershey’s bar as a concern: “You have to really fold back the flap and open the wrapper to read the list.”
For higher-income, highly educated consumers concerned with the consumption of socially conscious, healthy, or natural products, of which I will classify the population of Harvard students that I sampled as generally falling under, presentation and labeling are paramount. However, according to fine flavor industry experts, “up to 90% of what you read on the average chocolate package is “marketing” (or “lies” or “propaganda”)” (Eber, 169). Additionally, there are several major issues with certification labels specifically: certification is very costly for many farmers (who must bear a significant portion of the costs themselves) to obtain, and furthermore, there is little evidence of impact or higher quality associated with certification (Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”).
Looking to the future, it is important that we recognize the extent to which chocolate preferences, as representative of a larger trend in consumer behavior, are dictated by personal identity, social class, and lifestyle motivations, and the degree to which chocolate, like many other foods, is, often falsely, perceived as existing in dichotomy (e.g. mass market vs. fine). For the consumer who can afford to spend over $8 on a chocolate bar, likely in search of a product that is delicious, high quality, natural, healthier, and artisanal, as supported by research and personal inquiry, the presentation of the good is significant. Producers and consumers alike should evaluate the factors that draw an individual to a particular chocolate product to reflect on the influence of social milieu and the realities of the commodity.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. Print.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. Print.
Goody, Jack. Fast Food/Organic Food: Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 72-88. Print.
Guthman, Julie. Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow”Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 496-509. Print.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Cornell UP, 2014. Print.
Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food.” Gastroeconomics: the Journal of Food and Culture 1.1 (2001): 36-44. Web.
Walk into any convenience or grocery store in the U.S. and you will likely be greeted by a display of brightly wrapped candies. Many of these contain chocolate; a 2012 Bloomberg study found M&Ms to be the top-selling American candy, followed by Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, and Snickers Bars (Arndt). All four of these products are marketed as chocolate-based sweets, but it is sweetness, not chocolate, that seems to be the main focus. The nutrition label for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, for example (pictured right), lists sugar as the primary ingredient, and then milk. Only after these two does chocolate appear. The addition of sugar and milk to eating chocolate goes back to the 1800s, largely motivated by that fact that, in a trend that continues to this day, cacao was more expensive than sugar or milk. It was the relative cheapness of the latter two ingredients that allowed for mass production – and thus true mass consumption – of eating chocolate from the late 1800s onwards. As the list of candies above attests, this combination still shapes modern chocolate preferences.
Europeans have been adding sugar to drinking chocolate since the early 1500s, when cacao was first introduced to the West. It comes as no surprise, then, that the first chocolate bar made expressly for eating, invented by Joseph Fry in 1847, was molded from a combination of cocoa powder, melted cacao butter, and sugar (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quaker Capitalists”). Soon after, in 1867, Henri Nestlé found a way to manufacture
powdered milk, and the first milk chocolate bar – an advertisement for which is shown on the left – a joint creation of Nestlé and Daniel Peter, was born in 1879 (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Switzerland”). From 1903 onwards, Milton Hershey built his company around milk chocolate and cocoa powder, though he developed his chocolate using liquid condensed milk rather than the powdered variety. Liquid milk was easier and faster – and therefore cheaper – to transport from one end of a factory to another, allowing Hershey to make and sell his products domestically for a lower price (D’Antonio 107).
Milk chocolate was to become the foundation of popular chocolate consumption,
originally for price but later because of a developed taste for the added sweetness. To make it, one adds milk in with the other ingredients before refining and conching the mixture. Milk and sugar both add flavor and volume, allowing manufacturers to use less chocolate liquor – made from cacao beans – than would otherwise be needed (Coe and Coe Ch.8, “Quality vs. Quantity”). This makes the chocolate cheaper to produce, and men like Hershey would have recognized this when building companies. Over the past century, cacao has generally been more expensive than sugar or milk. The trend
continues on in today’s market, as shown by the provided graphs (cacao above right, sugar on the left). At its lowest price between 2006 and 2012, a ton of cacao cost over 15,000 USD; by contrast, at its highest price over the similar time period 2002-2009, a ton of sugar (after conversion from cents/lb) could be bought for less than 500 USD.
Milk and sugar were thus cheaper to obtain for companies looking to mass produce chocolate after the late 1800s. This made sweet milk chocolate less expensive to make than dark chocolate, which required more chocolate liquor. By the same token, it also meant milk chocolate could be sold at lower prices, making it attractive and accessible to consumers. Where before chocolate had been largely consumed by the wealthy, Hershey’s bars could be bought for only a nickel in the 1920s, a very affordable fee for the average person (Brenner 55). Cost was thus an important consideration on both sides, as the success of Mars’ Milky Way further demonstrates. Created in 1924, the Milky Way “tasted just as chocolatey” as a bar but was much less expensive to manufacture (Brenner 55). It’s main ingredient was nougat, “a whipped filling made of egg whites and corn syrup,” with only a thin chocolate casing (Brenner 54). Nougat was cheaper to produce than chocolate, and so Mars could make Milky Ways much bigger than traditional chocolate bars for the same expense. Consumers loved the candy for its price, size, and sweet taste; another Mars creation, the Snickers bar, enjoyed similar success, and continues to be the fourth best-selling candy in the U.S. (Arndt).
Today, milk chocolate candies remain vastly more popular than their dark chocolate counterparts. Although price remains a factor, a major reason for this is the acquired tastes of consumers for sweeter chocolate. It is expected that candy and chocolate will be packed with sugar, and this assumption stems from over a century of eating the sweetened milk chocolate of Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury, and other such companies. The practice of adding milk and sugar stemmed from the cost of these ingredients relative to cacao, and what began as a method for cheaply producing chocolate has grown to shape the Western world’s perception of chocolate. Although dark chocolate has a strong following, milk chocolate still reigns supreme.
In most developed countries around the world, the sense that sugar is somehow a birthright is ubiquitous. Found in the diet of many western countries, it is an ever-present ingredient in many foods, most of which are pre-packaged or prepared in a fast, convenient manner. The United Kingdom comes to mind as one of these western countries; for example, one cannot help but think of the stereotypical British custom of High Tea in the afternoon, drinking tea with sugar while snacking on sweet cakes and tidbits before supper. As popular as sugar is today, mass consumption of it was unheard of a few hundred years ago. In Britain, sugar was once hard to find and used very sparingly; this is in stark contrast to how much sugar is prevalent in the present day as well as the alarming rise in preventable diseases.
In his book Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz said “Sugar was a rarity in the mid 1600’s, a luxury in the mid 1700’s and virtual necessity by the mid 1800’s” (Mintz, 1986, pp. 147-148). Over time, as sugar became more popular in Britain, there were five main uses for it: sugar in medicine, sugar as a spice, sugar as decorative art, sugar as a sweetener, and finally sugar as a preservative. Sugar was a rarity before the seventeenth century as it was very difficult to access, mostly because of how much it cost. Although many people in Europe knew about sugar since the 1100’s, it was quite expensive to acquire. As such, for many years it was used in the diets of only the very elite and royalty (Martin, 2015).
Mintz states how sugar as a spice seemed to reach a peak approximately a hundred years earlier, in the sixteenth century (Mintz, 1986, p. 86). It was shortly after this time that production of sugar became much more cost effective. New British colonies in places where sugar cane could grow successfully, along with the influx of African slaves as free labor, cut the exorbitant costs associated with sugar (Cohen, 2013). Lower costs and greater production allowed more of the public in general to have access to sugar. In 1770, sugar consumption in Britain was five times greater than what it had been just sixty years earlier in 1710 (Taylor, 2012). By the nineteenth century, on average, sugar accounted for around one-sixth of the daily caloric intake for the British public (Mintz, 1986, p. 149).
In the United Kingdom today, the average adult (ages 19 to 64) consumes an average of 58.8 grams of added sugar per day (Jeavans, 2014). Multiply the total amount of grams by 365 days, and when converted to imperial units, equates to a total of 47.3 pounds (according to one’s own calculations) throughout one calendar year.
According to Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco, “Sugar is a poison by itself when consumed at high doses” (Cohen, 2013). This level of consumption easily qualifies for a high amount of sugar, considering it is an average for an entire nation of people. Chronic diseases are also linked with intakes of large amounts of sugar, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as an increased risk of obesity (Howard & Wylie-Rosett, 2002). Such diseases are indeed on the rise and are more prevalent than before. There is a consensus that the rapid rise in the role sugar places in our diet could be responsible for this (Cohen, 2013).
Around the world, the demand for sugar has never been higher. However, like the old saying goes, “you can have too much of a good thing.” Within the last few years, individuals are realizing the impact so much sugar can have on their overall health. Many people today who live in countries where consumption of sugar is high are not employed in occupations where a large amount of energy is required for work. People simply do not need to eat as much as they once had to, because they do not have the means to burn off all the energy and calories they consume on a typical day to day basis. The average daily amount of calories per day necessary for a farmer in Yorkshire in 1715 is not the same as a stockbroker in London in 2015; the farmer simply required more calories, as he did more physically strenuous work. Moderation is the key to almost everything in life, and this without a doubt, includes sugar. It would not be much of a stretch to see partitions partaking in iconic British High Tea using alternative sweeteners in their tea and snacks, without even noticing much of a difference!
How has sugar become such a large part of our lives? It is hard not to consume food anthropologist Sidney Mintz explains, “If we choose not to eat sugar, it takes vigilance and effort, for modern societies are overflowing with it” (1985). Sugar has seen the greatest increase in production of any major food product in recent years (Martin, February 11). Following the ever-skyrocketing popularity of sugar may give a sense of how American sugar consumption increased from 2 pounds per year 200 years ago to 152 pounds per year today (Martin, February 25). To fully understand these major changes over time, we look to the history of sugar consumption in Great Britain.
Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History describes the many social uses of sugar: as a medicine, decoration, spice, sweetener, preservative. These uses certainly made it versatile and contributed to the large increases in sugar consumption. However, we can further Mintz’s theory by adding the element of economics to the argument. When sugar was first introduced to the English diet, it was very expensive and therefore not available to anyone but the wealthiest. Using this fact, we will gain a deeper understanding of how mass consumption of sugar arose.
Sugar was often used as a medicine in the past, preposterous as it sounds now. Licensed doctors of the past proclaimed sugar as a “veritable cure-all, its only defect being that it could make ladies too fat” (Mintz 1985). There was nothing a little sugar could not cure and very few drawbacks to its uses as well. As technology improved, sugar became easier to refine, resulting in a very fine white powder. At this time, the color white was still very closely associated with purity. Therefore, following the Galen humoral scheme, sugar was a very effective medicine because it could rid the body of black biles and other negative entities. When the cost of sugar decreased, it became more accessible to the poor and the niche of sugar in medicine changed. Not only was it used as a general medicine, but it could make other bitter tasting medicines slightly more palatable. As Mary Poppins would say, “a spoonful of sugar will help the medicine to go down” (Martin, February 25). Here, we see that as the cost of sugar decreased, a larger portion of the population gained access to it, and its multiple functions also grew far and varied.
The transformation of sugar from a spice to a sweetener is responsible for its most prominent function today. Sugar, because of its high costs in the 13th century, was mainly used as a spice to give flavor to the drab foods that most were consuming daily (Mintz 1985). Therefore, it was added sparingly, even to the dishes of the richest of the rich. It was the fashion to spice bland foods but later, it became a sweetener, especially following the introductions of tea, coffee, and chocolate (Mintz 1985). And as the prices of sugar continued to drop, it became more accessible to a larger population. As Mintz aptly describes, “Sugar as a sweetener seems glaringly obvious to us; but the shift from spice to sweetener was historically important, and sugar use in Britain changed qualitatively when this became economically possible.” The main difference between the uses of sugar as a spice and as a sweetener differ only in that one is used more sparingly, while in the other, sugar is the main ingredient; the main cause of this change in frequency of use lies in the economics of sugar. So, the uses of sugar increased in population and dramatically in the amounts utilized mainly due to economic feasibility.
The use of sugar as a method of preservation and the changes it has experienced over time perhaps show most clearly the influence of economics. Sugar served well as a preservative, especially for those whose growing months were short and where food rotted quickly. When sugar was still an expensive commodity in the 15th century, only the members of the English royalty could afford to preserve fruits with sugar (Mintz 1985). It was a luxury that not everyone could afford, no matter how useful. But, as sugar became more affordable, jams and jellies were later seen as food of the working class—they were the ones who needed sugar as a preservative because they could not afford to buy fresh foods or meats. Mintz describes how “when the price of sugar fell sharply after the big victories of the free-trade movement of the mid-nineteenth century, jam consumption began to catch hold among working people” (1985). The main cause of this development is the decreasing price of sugar. Otherwise, this subset of the population would never have had access to sugar.
Throughout these examples, we see the common trend that sugar seems to be losing its meaning as the cost of sugar drops and the working class obtains more access. Because more people now have access to the sugar, it is nothing special, though it is unique in that so much of it is available and accessible today. Both the economic and social perspectives are necessary in order to gain the full picture of just how sugar became so widely used in our generation. As prices of sugar decreased, its use in our diets increased and its other symbolic meanings fell out of use. Indeed, it is a necessary luxury today.
Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking.
Mintz, S. (2008). Time, Sugar, and Sweetness. In Counihan, C. & Van Esterik, P. (Eds.), Food and Culture (91-103). Routledge: New York.
Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. February 11, 2015. Lecture 5: Chocolate Expansion.
Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. February 25, 2015. Lecture 9: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.