Tag Archives: Power

A Sweet Taste of Power: the Rise, Fall, and Legacy of Sugar Subtleties

Sugar is so prevalent in society that one does not often stop to consider its purpose. But as anthropologist Sidney Mintz discusses in her book Sweetness and Power, sugar has historically played many roles as medicine, spice, preservative, decoration, and sweetener (77). One particularly fascinating employment of sugar as a decorative emerged in the Middle Ages through the creation of sugar sculptures called subtleties. When sugar was an incredibly rare substance, subtleties were served at banquets as both edible art and symbols of power, but once it was available to the masses, subtleties became obsolete. The legacy of subtleties, however, can still be seen in the tradition of serving a wedding cake.

A Feast for the Eyes

Sugar sculptures were first created in the 11th century Middle East by artists called sukker nakkasarli (Abbott, Kindle location 336). They would combine highly refined sugar, almonds, and water to form a clay-like paste that could then be molded and baked into various forms (Mintz, 88). Sultans and caliphs alike commissioned the sculptors to create edible table decorations for their sumptuous feasts. As sugar spread from the Middle East to Europe, so too did the practice of sugar sculptures. They appeared in French courts in the 13th century, soon followed by those in England, Italy, and Germany. The European elite specifically referred to them as ‘soliltees,’ or ‘subtleties’ in English (Bovey, the Medieval Diet).

In their purest sense, subtleties were edible art. They were brought out between banquet courses to entertain, amaze, and delight one’s guests (Mintz, 88). This may seem surprising to a modern audience accustomed to eating dessert after dinner, but in the Middle Ages, food was not divided and served by flavor. Many believed sugar could even prepare the stomach for a feast, and so, a specific subtlety called a ‘warner’ was sometimes presented as the very first dish (Bovey, the Medieval Diet). This practice is captured by a 15th-century French illustration of a royal banquet hosted by Richard II for the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Ireland (Chronique d’ Angleterre). As can be seen below, the distinguished group of men are seated around a table. A servant is walking into the room, carrying a ship made entirely of sugar- a subtlety- which they will admire and devour before proceeding to their next course. A boat is just one example of the shapes subtleties were forged into, but there are many others. From animals to churches, to palaces and heroic figurines, the variations were endless.

Richard II dines with dukes, an example of a Medieval feast

A Not So Subtle Display of Power

Subtleties were more than just beautiful decorations, however, but emblems of wealth and power; only those of status could afford to craft, serve, and eat sugar in such gluttonous quantities. The nobility, acutely aware of this connection, were motivated to display sugar in ever grander presentations. Consider the image below, an engraving of the feast served at the Duke of Jülich’s wedding in 1587 (Hogenberg). Rather than just one subtlety, the Duke had an entire table filled with sugar figurines. In one corner stands a replica of his castle, in another, a forest of trees, animals, and fruits. Even his coat of arms can be found throughout the table. It would have cost a staggering amount of money to produce such a display of sugar, but that was precisely the point.

A lavish subtlety display at the Duke of Jülich’s Wedding

Sugar Looses Class

The price of sugar would continue to drop, and as it did, subtleties became less an indication of power and more ornamental. As sugar percolated down to upper-class families in the 16th century, high-end cookbooks began including subtleties. For example, Patridges’s 1584 Century Cookbook contained a recipe for marzipan, and Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplisht Cook provided instructions for making a subtlety in the shape of a ship (Mintz, 92). But by the mid-18th century, sugar was cheap enough for even the middle-class to enjoy, and they, too, were interested in making subtleties. This historic moment is reflected by Hannah Glasses’s 1747 the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, in which she includes a recipe for a marzipan ‘Jumball’ and a hedgehog (Mintz, 93). Glasse’s publication was no ordinary cookbook, but something explicitly written with the lower-classes in mind. She dedicates the opening lines of her book to them:

“I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon: but as I have both seen and found by experience, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable: and, I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of cooking cannot miss of being very good ones” (Glasse, i)

The average family could suddenly use sugar and cookbooks to create cakes, biscuits, and most importantly, sugar sculptures. The wealthy abandoned subtleties once they no longer embodied power. As sugar became increasingly ordinary, they were eventually forgotten by the masses.

Lingering Traces

Despite this decline, one example of a subtlety still exists today: the wedding cake. At the majority of western weddings, it is customary for a couple to serve a wedding cake with white frosting, multiple tiers, and edible decorations made of sugar paste, marzipan, or buttercream (Wilson, 70). On the one hand, the cake is just a tasty treat to eat, but on the other, it is something to be visually admired and adored. It is a modern-day subtlety, and typically, the richer the couple, the more impressive the sugared display. Just consider when England’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011. As can be seen in the video below, their cake stood at three feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. It had eight tiers, was covered in white fondant, and adorned with 900 sugar paste ribbons, bows, flowers, and leaves (Galarza and Hatic, A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes). It was a public display representing the English crown’s wealth, the tradition of matrimony, and the harmonious match of the couple themselves. The average wedding cake is not nearly as extravagant, and yet, they nonetheless exist.

The popularity of subtleties fluctuated with the changing price of sugar; when sugar was expensive, subtleties were embraced by the rich as artful, edible declarations of power, but once cheap, they were tossed aside and now appear only at special occasions like a wedding. But the history of subtleties represents a much larger narration- the idea that what people eat reflects back on them as individuals. Subtleties no longer appear on the dining room tables of the elite, but other items have taken their place. Just consider the role of caviar, a well-aged wine, or a Kobe beef steak. These dishes are beautiful, delicious, and too expensive for most to afford. Over time, these may also decline in popularity, but the tradition of using food as power will not.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. Duckworth Overlook, 2008.

Bovey, Alixe. “The Medieval Diet.” The Middle Ages, The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015, http://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/the-medieval-diet.

Galarza, Daniela, and Dana Hatic. “A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes.” Eater, Eater, 18 May 2018, http://www.eater.com/2018/5/18/17340392/cake-royal-wedding-meghan-markle-prince-harry-william-kate-elizabeth-history.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

Wilson, Carol. “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History.” Gastronomica, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 69–72., doi:10.1525/gfc.2005.5.2.69.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

Chronique D’ Angleterre (Volume III). The Dukes of York, Gloucester and Ireland dine with King Richard II. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 5 Apr. 2018. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_II_dines_with_dukes_-_Chronique_d%27_Angleterre_(Volume_III)_(late_15th_C),_f.265v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV.jpg>.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. N.p.: n.p., 1747. Internet Archive. Internet Archive, 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/TheArtOfCookery/page/n5&gt;.

Hogenberg, Franz. Table setting for the wedding of Johann Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves and Jacobe, Margravine of Baden, 1587. Digital image. Getty Research Institute. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <http://primo.getty.edu/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=GRI&afterPDS=true&institution=01GRI&docId=GETTY_ROSETTAIE17130&gt;.

Royal Wedding Cake on Show. Dir. On Demand News. YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trb1oenjgNc.&gt;.

The “Power of Sweet”: An Anthropological Perspective on the NCA and Visual Interpretations of Chocolate & Sugar in Industrialized Society

National Confectioners Association, founded in 1884 began as a coalition of trades-people to organize and create viability for their products. The contemporary mission statement on their official website perpetuates that original undertaking; “NCA exists to advance, protect and promote the confectionery industry… serving as a transparent and trustworthy source while building and promoting a responsible industry”. Is anyone else raising their brow at this proclamation of transparency – as it would presumably associate to promoting responsible nutritional standards?

“The medicinal and nutritional aspects of sugar’s role were never far apart, any more than they are today (mid-1980s)” persisted Sidney Mintz in her book Sweetness and Power (106). In 1715, well before the inception of the NCA, the Englishman Dr. Frederick Slare published A Vindication of Sugars Against the Charge of Dr. Willis, Other Physicians, and Common Prejudices: Dedicated to the Ladies. From a contemporary feminist perspective, the title alone makes me chuckle. I’m visualizing Slare on a platform pointing into a crowd, “I’m talking to you there, you miss, and you my lady”. Slare believed that “sugar is a veritable cure-all, its only defect being that it could make ladies too fat”. Well – No thank you Dr. Slare for that prejudgment upon female metabolism, a proclamation which surely added to a persisting gender bias. A notion for refute, Dr. Willis shed light on the topic with his anti-sugar views and clinical findings of what would be later known as diabetes mellitus, (Mintz, 106).

“NCA is proud of the role it plays in the public’s understanding and appreciation of candy’s unique role in a happy, balanced lifestyle.” Certainly, they are proud of their $35 billion-dollar industry totaling 55,000 employees in the U.S. alone. I do not intend to be overly jaded on the matter, but I can’t help but recognize the various clinical analyses and public profiles of high fructose corn syrup in our diets as we understand it today, but that’s a larger discussion in and of itself that would require deeper comparative research. Primarily my concerns lie in the fact that HFCS is often mislabeled as ‘natural flavor’ and during the last three decades, has grown to replace what used to be natural cane sugar in our common grocery foods and candies. Generations before us had already grown accustomed to foods preserved with sugar, becoming complacent with their expectations of taste and economical value through visual culture in advertisements. In my opinion, not much public transparency occurs where reliance on less expensive groceries is present.

The Life & Candy ideology expressed by NCA is particularly interesting in how they use the age old economical reach upon our physical and social values. Influenced by hegemonic notions of pollution and purity of the body, nutritional attitudes across all human societies have interpreted this punitive dichotomy for generations. NCA’s marketing lingo is reflective of the influential nature in which our collective emotional experiences in health, reinforce our ritualized notions within cultural practices surrounding holidays and special events.

Never mind the daily addicted chocolate and candy consumer- See this promotional video echoing the “power, power, power of sweet”, as seen through the lens of the confectioners’ industry workers.


We see a progressive move towards less expensive goods that used to be considered only for the elite prior to 18th century Europe and American society. The custom of drinking and consuming chocolate had spread through most of Europe and “one thing that didn’t change – at first, anyhow – was the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing” (Prescilla, 25).

See in the Cadbury ad to your right just how politically inclined a chocolate company was in 1901. The advertising poster was a rousing salute to Edward VII and his wife when he took the British throne (Morton, 86).

Cadbury.Edwardvii“In 1898 in the United States a dollar bought forty-two percent more milk, fifty-one percent more coffee, a third more beef, twice as much sugar, and twice as much flour as in 1872” (Laudan, 41). The NCA began actively lobbying for chocolate companies in the early decades of the 1900s to commercialize chocolate for holidays, and as noted earlier, to this day the NCA still portrays a high relevance with candy to our community practices. I ponder, as Laudan suggests, has “culinary modernism provided what was wanted… the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford”? On that notion, has the National Confectioners Association also prevailed a political platform for chocolate, sugar, and food companies to exploit on the desire to consume what is considered socially elite?

Throughout the creation of anthropology as formal discipline during the 19th century, a new worldview was being introduced, one with scientific tools. With the arrival and maturation of the scientific revolution, the period of enlightenment facilitated human consciousness for the means to alter old world views. In a cultural setting, when interpellation is presumably present, “the experience of the viewer influences the images meaning”. With this known, hegemonic Cadbury.firemangeneralizations can become an illogical way of analyzing an influence of an image upon the whole group of viewers. Therefore, counter-hegemony is an “alternative force that leads us to undo concepts of hegemony”, allowing us to see how the image influences the viewer from a comparative perspective (S & C, 2009).

Coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate long being known as stimulants, we see this reflected in the early 1900s in another – among many – Cadbury advertisements, portraying its popularity with English firemen. Sugar promoting stamina was a lasting notion. See this Baby Ruth ad below that speaks to just that.

babyruth.dextroseGendered advertising was also sewn into most visual aspects of material culture, including in the marketing of candy such as the Tootsie Roll. I think we can reflect upon our social context during these time periods and find parallels between social constructs within advertisements. From a counter-hegemonic perspective, it’s not to say this image below is meant to reinforce gender roles with the consumption of chocolate and sugar products, yet it does create a lens into the artists’ view of the American social scene. tootsieroll.lifeoftheparty

We see thirteen men pictured here, strategically positioned facing this seemingly gleeful American woman holding a Toostie Roll. She, alike the Tootsie, “is the life of every party” as the text reads. I don’t know about you, but if thirteen men were staring at me eating a Tootsie Roll at a party, I’d be finding the closest exit and calling 1-800-N0-T00T$I3!

During a time when women were subjective to the ideologies imposed by men, we see this through the material culture we create. Where heterosexuality is the normal or preferred sexual orientation in most American households. Heteronormative notions in our visual culture is nothing new and we still see advertisements daily, selling sex, and I can’t help but reflect upon Dr. Slares remarks. They indulge the viewer or the reader into a glimpse of the cultural attitudes of the time. The National Confectioners Association has been no stranger to it.


Cartwright, Lisa and Sturken, Marita   2009   Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York, NY  Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe   2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson
Martin, Carla    2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. Laudan, Rachel on Culinary Modernism (p.41)
Mintz, Sidney   1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books
Morton, Marcia and Frederic.   1986   Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY   Cadbury Limited images (pg.82 + 87)
National Confectioners Association, 2017
The Power of Sweet – That Power. National Confectioners Association advertisement
Organic Consumers Association, 2017 (Mercola)   2007    How High Fructose Corn Syrup Damages Your Body.
Presilla, Maricel   2009   The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Toop, C. R., Muhlhausler, B. S., O’Dea, K. and Gentili, S.   2014    Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease. Consumption of sucrose, but not high fructose corn syrup, leads to increased adiposity and dyslipidaemia in the pregnant and lactating rat.
Unknown Artist, “The LIFE of the Party” Tootsie Roll advertisement
Unknown Artist, “Keep Going with Baby Ruth”


Sugar + Transatlantic slave trade = Capitalism + Enormous Transformation

Warren Buffet, among the top five richest men in the world, once said: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive” (Albritton 344). Sugar, which is fairly cheap (wasn’t always the case), produces a craving, and is essentially addicting. Not only is sugar addicting, but it plays a role that “food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status, culture, and even occupation” (Mintz). This post argues how sugar made a rigorous transformation on many different variables as a whole. I begin by describing an ambiguous term “meaning”, and give my feedback on how one pursues it. Then, I describe how capitalism was created, and give my feedback on the results and impacts that capitalism not only allowed, but created. Capitalism therefor rigged our food choices, and shaped our social, cultural, economic and political ordering in the sugar world, particularly in so far as leading to an obesity epidemic.

imagesocietySource: http://www.bcsbd.org.bd/bcsregistration/images/imagesociety.jpg

In imagining a meaning of life, I believe we are collecting bits of our own thoughts and experience to build a realm of our own based on our own beliefs. This realm is what I would call our ego, or consciousness. While meaning is ultimately a personal, artistic creation that is changeable, it has been defined “very broadly-encompassing many other psychological constructs, such as goals, beliefs, well-being and satisfaction and life narrative-and very deeply, referring to the core of human existence. It is also defined as a process where one increases his or her understanding in a way that allows one to regain a sense of purpose” (Park 3). Therefore, meaning can be everywhere if one’s imagination created such a realm, and unfortunately possibly be discovered in a false mortality, perceived incorrectly causing one to find significance in addiction or harmful sustenance. In this realm of consciousness, one builds a model of who they are, and thus derives what their life to be. In order for the mind to build a model, knowledge and experience must be available. But where does this knowledge come from to create meaning? It comes from our ever-changing society, foods, culture, friends, studies, and our teachers. One great change that has changed very rapidly is the impact of different meaning of sugar through its transformation from a rarity to a necessity with the invention of capitalism.

triangulartrademap                                                                                Source:http://w3.salemstate.edu/~cmauriello/Course%20Development/WorldCIVII/Images/triangulartrademap.gif

Although a few Europeans knew of the existence of cane sugar around 1100 CE, it was still a “rarity until the 1650’s, only a luxury in the 1750’s, and a necessity by 1850’s” (5-6, Mintz). In turn, sugar took on its social role as a produce that marked one’s socio-economic class, becoming valuable and cherished by anyone who could get a hold of it. The role as an indicator of social status that sugar took on between the 16th and 17th century was key to the change of sugar to sweetener, as the demand for sugar among individuals across socio-economic class boundaries greatly increased, creating a new market and an opportunity for businesses to seek out an economically viable supply of sugar, especially since sugar could not be cultivated in Europe. This source came to be overseas, part of the notorious supply chain known as the Transatlantic Slave trade. Thus, the alteration in British consumption of sugar as a spice to a sweetener was deeply rooted in the creation of chattel slavery.                                                                                                                                                    Chattel Slavery, slavery in which people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of an owner, and are bought and sold as commodities had the greatest result from sugar (Martin). “The institutionalization of slavery in the New World led directly to the slave trade due to the fact that demand for slaves outpaced the growth in supply by natural increase nearly everywhere in the Americas” (Cumo). As there was massive demand for labor, the Europeans looked to Africa. The African’s themselves sold African slaves as a commodity in return for goods such as rum, guns, textiles and other goods to exchange for slaves, and then transported them across the Atlantic to sell to plantation-owners, and then returned with sugar and coffee, also fueled the first great wave of economic globalization (The Economist). The slaves had “little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then to buy new ones, to fill their places” (Fraser-Reid 4). By the Africans selling their own people, they enriched their own realms and strengthened them too. This is not only where the dehumanization aimed at Africans begins, but where capitalism starts as Mintz states:          “The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation. At the same time, the owners of the immense fortunes created by the labor of millions of slaves stolen from Africa, on millions of acres of the New World stolen from the Indians – wealth in the form of commodities like sugar, molasses, and rum to be sold to Africans, Indians, colonials, and the British working class alike – has become even more solidly attached to the centers of power in English society at large. Many individuals’ merchants, planters, and entrepreneurs lost out, but the long-term economic successes of the new commodity markets at home were never in doubt after the mid-seventeenth century. What sugar meant, from this vantage point, was what all such colonial production, trade, and metropolitan consumption came to mean: the growing strength and solidity of the empire and of the classes that dictated its policies.” ( Mintz, p. 157)

Here what Mintz is really arguing here is that capitalism, the strength of empire as defined by access to wealth, and the ability to dictate policies, to govern, developed as a result of this work to supply, and to create demand for sugar. Linking the development of our current economic system with this sweet taste of sugar that we biologically evolved to desire. (Martin lecture 6)





Source : https://www.wholesomeone.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Are-You-Addicted-to-Sugar-.jpg

Focusing on an excerpt from Tasting Empire, Norton states that “Spaniards learned to like chocolate because of their continued material dependence on Indians” (Norton 677). Converging on this, the capitalist modernization model expresses a lot. As Bourdieu states that “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed” (Norton 663). While some of the most pleasurable and enjoyable memories of a person has to do with sweets, such as on one’s birthday eating a delicious cake that mother or father made decorated with frosting and glazes, or getting a lollipop after going through getting a shot at the doctor’s office, we usually seek sweets as a reward system, or celebration. Digging into this deeper, since we were just a baby, we grow up with these classifications of sweets being used all the time for rewards, and usually classify sweets with the distinctions of a substance that is beautiful on top of advertisements being at fault for these illusions. Not only do we have a dependence on sugar, but we biologically crave it.

Being no longer unified due to capitalism, most of us don’t know what’s really going on at the supply chain of our foods, and we can only build an illusory view such as the classification one may create in the advertisement above, which we create a particularly false meaning. The ad above gives the power of the perception of how sugar can demonstrate itself through various social parameters but only extensively. The gorgeous woman is portraying her love for powdered donuts, and is displaying the power of sugar in reference to a much more highly addictive, yet dangerous substance, cocaine. This ad slightly speaks volumes to the traditions of modern western culture that invoke the greatest effect, as “adverts have perpetuated western sexist ideologies under a veneer of pleasurable consumption which have divorced foods from the conditions of production” (Robertson 10). The misguided meaning many ads portray, now aids in creating mass cultural stereotypes from building false illusions and separate us from the reality of the production of our sugar, although this ad is particularly true in sugar being addictive, many other advertisements such as ads regarding McDonald’s or other fast food chains give most of us a false message, allowing one to see the desire of the substance, and not the dangerous aftereffects when consuming sugar, and carbs at large, not in moderation. Sugar should be used in moderation, but it is not due to the capitalist society we live in today.



Sources: (http://uthmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/arab-youth-obesity-987×520.jpg)  (http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Essays/Marx%20files/Capitalism2.jpg)

Not only do we build these craving memories which is a factor that leads one to the over consumption of sugar, but it is also evolutionary as Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University states, “sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving” (Spector).  Refined sugars were absent in the diet of most people until very recently in human history as sugar was “rarity until the 1650’s, only a luxury in the 1750’s, and a necessity by 1850’s” (6, Mintz). Apart from honey, most of the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate were no sweeter than a carrot and that “15 million years ago in a time of global cooling, a mutation occurred that increased the apelike creatures’ sensitivity to fructose so that even small amounts were stored as fat. This adaptation was a survival mechanism: Eat fructose and decrease the likelihood you will starve to death” (Spector). Thus, looking back at our ancestors, we have biologically trained ourselves to crave sweets.

While our prehistoric ancestors trained themselves to crave sweets biologically, the problem we face today is that humans have too much of the sweet stuff available to them, which is why over consumption of diets rich in sugars contributes together with other factors to drive the current obesity epidemic due to capitalism and sugar.

Depending on the sociologist, causes and solutions can be different. To begin with, Karl Marx views social issues as a issue due to economic inequality. In a capitalist society, he believes each individual acts selfishly and does what best suits him or her. A more appropriate society I would argue would be one in which people had equal access to different aspects of modern day culture (Cliggett 102). Thus, when looking at the rise in obesity, Marx would blame the issue on three major issues: power, poverty and education. When looking at a case, where the                                                                                                                 “UN’s World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture proposed a guideline widely supported by nutritionists, which recommended that added sugars should not exceed 10 percent of daily calorie intake, congress was threatened to cut off $400,000 annual funding if they did not remove the offending norm from their report” (Robert 345).                 As the UN bodies gave in, this scenario once again expresses the image above where the first two tiers “rule and fool you” as they are the ones with the power to feed poison to poor, and uneducated people. When looking at price distinctions in foods, there is a drastic difference between the cost of healthy foods and junks foods. Even if an individual can find fresh produce, cheaper usually means worse quality. Organic foods also tend to be more costly than conventional items. In the view of Marx, these price differences lead to the fact that poorer people do not have the same access to healthy food options as more affluent.                                                                                                                                                                 In reverence to modern society and obesity, different groups have access to different levels of education and different types of food options. Varying levels of education leads to different knowledge about nutrition. One status group will understand the meaning of calorie counts and fat percentages but another group will not. The less knowledgeable group will make worse decisions when determining what to eat. The lack of understanding adds to the rise rate of obesity. Status groups may also be separated by their abilities to access food choices. A less fortunate group may only have access to unhealthy foods, such as fast food, while another group has the choice of organic meals.  While the structure of the food market is rapidly changing around individuals, they will be unable to adjust their actions in order to prevent obesity.

In conclusion sugar is the driver behind two of the worst tragedies we face today, slavery and obesity, by allowing a greedy rigged system that shapes our social, cultural, economic and political ordering that some of us have little to no control over. In the video below, one can see how the government is in power with the obesity epidemic we now face, as sugar is all around us and money is a very powerful tool.


Work cited:

Cumo, Christopher. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1750–1900.” World History Encyclopedia. Alfred J. Andrea. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Credo Reference. Web.

Cliggett, Lisa, and Richard R. Wilk. Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Boulder: Westview, Array. Anthropology Online. Web. 12 May 2016.

Fraser-Reid, Bertram O. From Sugar to Splenda: A personal and Scientific Journey of a Carbohydrate Chemist and Expert Witness. Heidelberg: Springer, 2012. Print.

International: Breaking the chains; slavery. (2007, Feb 24). The Economist, 382, 64-73. Web.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2016. Lecture.

Mintz, S. (1985). “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History”. New York: Penguin Books. Print.

Park, Crystal L. “Religion and Meaning.” Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Park. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.

Robertson, Emma. “Chocolate, women and empire: A Social and Cultural History.” Manchester University Press, New York. 2010. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

Spector, Dina. “An Evolutionary Explanation For Why We Crave Sugar.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 2014. Web. 11 May 2016.




Power. The ultimate aphrodisiac. It is intangible, yet felt, immeasurable, but detectible. We yearn for it, crave it, dream of it; it arouses us without hesitation. Each and every day we strive to empower ourselves, whether it be through education, exercise, style or socialization. From how we dress and walk, to what we eat and with whom we talk, all of our actions are rooted in an inherent desire to become more influential. As history has progressed, this universal appetite for power has been reflected in the societal standards of both the past and present. Consequently, we venerate the wealthy, distinguish those of status, and yearn for the sexual. Few possessions in the world display wealth, status, and sexuality more poignantly than chocolate. From its inauguration, chocolate has influenced the social issues that are both etched in our textbooks and echoed from our TV screens. Classism. Sexism. Racism. Capable of being both the “food of the gods” in one era and the “food of the masses” the next, chocolate has both widened and bridged the gap between the wealthy and the poor, the elite and the forgotten, and the pristine and the sexualized. Therefore, chocolate—both as an exotic luxury and a ubiquitous treat—exemplifies American society’s ongoing struggle between equality and empowerment.

Dating back as early as the Mesoamerican period, chocolate has played an integral part in the both construction and preservation of social classes. In fact, our understanding of the Mayan use of cacao is predominantly found etched upon elegant vessels unearthed in the tombs of the elite (Coe & Coe, 2013). Furthermore, some of these excavated vases contain chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao, suggesting that their contents once were liquid (Coe & Coe, 2013). Thus, from both glyphs and painted scenes on these Mayan vessels, it is evident that chocolate was drunk both by kings and nobles (Presilla, 2009). However, evidence from concurrent excavations suggests that chocolate was used across all classes, particularly during rites of passage. Nevertheless, only the elite used and buried themselves with drinking vessels resistant to decay, symbolizing the dignifying effect of chocolate (Presilla, 2009). In addition, apart from regal furnishing in burial chambers, chocolate was a crucial element of opulent feasts amongst the elite; hosts of these feasts were obliged to present their guests with the finest vases they could afford to consume chocolate (Presilla, 2009). Cacao also was linked with many sacred Mayan traditions, such as fertility rites, marriage rituals, banquets, baptism, and rites of death (Martin, 2016). For example, during marriage negotiations in Mayan society, cacao drinks were essential during royal marriage and cacao seeds were often used as legal currency for marriage dowry (Martin, 2016). Furthermore, in Mayan warfare, cacao—due to the stimulating effects of theobromine—caused warriors to feel energized, stronger, even invincible. Therefore, for the Mayans, chocolate served as a medium of communicating power, distinguishing the common man from the noble through wealth and status in both life and death.

The exchange of cacao between Mesoamerican gods highlights its divinity.

Similarly, the Aztecs also use chocolate to illuminate the power of the elite. Instead of being accessible to all people, chocolate was reserved only for nobility, lords, royalty, and the warrior class (Coe & Coe, 2013). For example, in Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún describes the significance of cacao as unmistakably an elite food, recounting that it was proverbially called “heart and blood,” to be drunk by those of wealth and status (Martin, 2016). Additionally, cacao served as a cure to the skin eruptions, seizures and fevers, as well as illness that often were attributed to the Aztec gods; a number of botanical remedies included cacao in their recipes. Thus, cacao was viewed as a divine gift, a tangible, measureable embodiment of power. Such a treasured substance was the birthright of the distinguished; if one of the common people drank it without sanction from their superiors, it would cost them their life (Presilla, 2009). Thus, cacao was also referred to as yolloti eztli: the price of blood and heart. The severity of the crime for simply consuming cacao as a commoner exemplifies the conflict between equality and power observed hundreds of years before and after; for equality to exist, the elite must give up their divine gift, an unfathomable option. Consequently, those who dared to bridge the gap between the elite and the forgotten by—in this case—consuming cacao were met with indiscriminate punishment.

Thus, due to its immense value in Aztec society, cacao evolved from prestigious commodity and divine medication to a form of currency. Ranking amongst gold and precious gems, cacao reached the rooftops of imperial storehouses due to its usage in tributary offerings (Presilla, 2009). For instance, Motecuhzoma II (reigned 1502-1520) reportedly banked 40,000 xiquipilli or 960,000,000 cacao beans. Everything from avocados to full-grown turkeys could be priced by cacao (Martin, 2016). In effect, to simply drink cacao exhibited immense wealth and proved to be the ultimate display of power during the 16th century.

This marriage of wealth, divinity, and status through cacao subsequently was embraced by European nations. Arriving in the New World during the zenith of Mesoamerican chocolate culture, the Spanish deeply embraced the history of cacao consumption dating back to the Mayans. As a result, the central aspects of chocolate use in ancient Mesoamerica were preserved and disseminated throughout many of the Latin American colonies and as far as the Philippines (Presilla, 2009). Recognizing the power inherent to cacao, the Spanish conquistador Cortés wrote to the emperor Charles V requesting a grant of land for a Pacific Coast plantation containing two thousand cacao trees (Presilla, 2009). Not only did the farm prove immensely profitable, but it also catalyzed cacao’s entrance into Europe; both chocolate and cacao quickly became pillars of the Spanish economy. Naturally, people in Spain adopted the custom of drinking chocolate. However, just as in Mesoamerica, the relationship of the elite and the consumption of chocolate remained inseparable; arriving as an exotic luxury, chocolate was experienced first by the powerful (Presilla, 2009).

A painting of Spanish aristocrats enjoying chocolate, showcasing its association with the elite.

Requiring special pains, paraphernalia, and acutely roasted beans, chocolate consumption amongst the Spaniards was an elite privilege. However, as the production of cacao grew extensively amongst every rank of colonial society, chocolate closed the gap the elite and common man. Eventually, by the 18th century, chocolate drinking became routine from the top to the bottom of society (Presilla, 2009).

However, this ubiquitous consumption of chocolate that is observed today did not occur naturally. Rather, the growth in cacao production was largely the result of the African slavery and forced labor. From 1500-1900, between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the cacao growing regions of the New World in order to substantially increase cacao production (Martin, 2016). However, although the repercussions of African slavery included racism, racial characteristics did not factor into the decision of Europeans to use African slaves (Martin, 2016). Rather, due to geographical proximity to European nations seeking cheap labor, Africans and their descendants were condemned to enforced labor. Working painstakingly in 18-hour shifts, African slaves were forced to not only cultivate cacao, but also cotton, tobacco, rice and sugar (Martin, 2016). The labor that produced these commodity crops funded the development of capitalism in European society, poignantly illustrating the dichotomy between equality and power; unwilling to relinquish their newfound accumulation of wealth, the Europeans preserved slavery for centuries. As the widespread consumption of commodity goods, such as chocolate, bridged the gap between the lower-middle class and the elite, slavery readily became standardized (Martin, 2016). Subsequently, as chocolate lost its luxury status, European classism gradually diminished while racism rapidly took its place. Once European consumers tasted the power that had been locked behind the doors of being born into an elite family, abandoning slavery was a laughable proposition. Therefore, as Eric Williams, author of Slavery & Capitalism, states, no country thought of abolishing the slave trade until its economic value declined considerably (Martin, 2016). Ultimately, as Mintz (1986) elaborates, the power of chocolate led to it “being supplied to so many, in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering.”

The greatest cost that slavery deferred to society was racism. Following slavery’s abolishment in the 19th century and the rise of big chocolate production on a global scale in the 20th century, the chocolate industry perpetuated the inequality across race and class observed a century before. Most notably, in order to display the power of both the company and their white consumers, many chocolate companies during the mid-20th century created ads that reinforced the 2nd class status of African Americans (Robertson, 2010). For example, in 1947, York-based chocolate company introduced a marketing character named “Honeybunch.” A caricature of Africans, Honeybunch’s broken dialect is drawn from stereotypes of black speech, turning her into a minstrel character.

Honeybunch reinforced the idea of supremacy and power of the English.

This cartoon, as shown to the left, is juxtaposed with real images of a white mother and her children who speak perfect English. Thus, the use of imperfect language by a black character is intended to amuse the white audience; the advertisement reinforces the idea of the supremacy and power of the English language, and more broadly of whiteness (Robertson, 2010). Conversely, Honeybunch’s depiction emphasizes ignorance and the lack of power in blackness. Nevertheless, following the progressive steps towards equality during the Civil Rights Movement, chocolate advertisers began to adjust the tone of their racist beliefs, specifically through sexuality (Robertson, 2010). As Oscar Wilde states, “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Hence, drawing upon the exotic origins of cacao, and thus of Africans, chocolate companies pushed forward the idea that vanilla and chocolate serve as cultural metaphors for both race and sex (Martin, 2016). Accordingly, chocolate is to blackness as vanilla is to whiteness. More specifically, whiteness exemplifies power in the old-sense: regality, purity, and wealth. However, in order to appeal to a more diversified and less discriminatory consumer base, advertisers began to promote sexuality, the most modern form of power. Hence, blackness embodies desire, impurity, and craving.

As a result, sexual depictions of black men and all women have been used both to sell chocolate products and maintain both the inequality of races and disempowerment of women in America. As detailed by Robertson (2010), the stereotypical depictions of black men and women of all races in the advertisements are not novel. Throughout the history of chocolate consumption and production, femininity and blackness have been used to create spectacles of the exotic and erotic for profit.

The sexualization of chocolate both empowers and belittles its audience.

This blatant objectification and simplification of black men and women not only mocks the consumers of chocolate, but also its producers; many African men and women invest their lives in the cacao production process (Kawash, 2016). Thus, the constant juxtaposition of beautiful women and chocolate along with the belittling of black men as exotic, physical specimens illustrates society’s ongoing struggle between equality and empowerment. Since the chocolate industry has forced fed the idea that sex and empowerment are two sides of the same coin, the inherent sexism and racism of these advertisements is largely disregarded. Although there has been public outcry in response to the most extreme versions of these advertisements, such as Honeybunch, those of the modern era profit by constructing a relationship between race and sex that masks racism and sexism through the power of beauty. Therefore, just like the Aztec elites and the proletariat of 19th century Europe, modern American society has chosen the allure of power over the altruism of equality.

Ultimately, chocolate is one of the most powerful commodities in the last millennia. Due to its divinity, luxury, and sheer necessity, chocolate has played a significant role in shaping the socioeconomic atmosphere of multiple continents. Due to its divinity, chocolate immortalized the Mesoamerican elite in death; due to its luxury, chocolate granted immense wealth to Conquistadors; due to its necessity, chocolate closed the gap between the European elite and middle class. At the same, chocolate left in its wake classism that ravaged the Mesoamericans, racism that enslaved over 10 million Africans, and sexism that objectified men and women across the globe. Consequently, due to its ability to empower, chocolate has seduced generations into embracing social norms that perpetuate inequality across race, class and gender.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Kawash, Samira. “Sex and Candy.” The New York Times. Web. 08 April 2016

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 16: Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 3: Chocolate Expansion.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAS 119x Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Web. 26 April 2016.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women, and empire: a social and cultural history. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. 124-125. Print.

Multimedia Sources/Links

Godiva Appeals to Women with “Diva” Campaign. Digital Image. http://media260chocolate.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2014/03/03/godiva-appeals-to-women-with-diva-campaign/. Web. 4 May. 2016

Mayan Gods Exchanging Chocolate. Digital image. University of Oregon. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 May 2016. <http://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/files/2013/11/Chocolate-2-1az3lcd.jpeg&gt;.

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14–17.JSTOR. Web. 4 May. 2016. Accessed at: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/25163677

Rowntree Cocoa: Screenshot from Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.