Tag Archives: spice

Consumption Patterns of Sugar Through History

           We consume sugar in our everyday lives without even thinking about it. From our morning coffees to our afternoon snacks and evening dinners, sugar is an integral part of the food we ingest, if not constituting the food itself. However, only relatively recently has sugar accessibility and consumption become so widespread. When sugar first was introduced into Europe, it was a very expensive and rare commodity. Over time, the increased availability and affordability of sugar not only drastically increased its consumption, but also shaped many changes in its social perception and usage.

Early Sugar: Spice and Medicine

            Sugar was introduced to Europe in around 1100, and at first, it was considered a spice alongside ingredients like nutmeg, pepper, and ginger. These types of spices were treated as “rare and tropical…imports, used sparingly by those who could afford them at all” (Mintz 79), and sugar was regarded in the same way. Because it was so rare and expensive, sugar was “prized among the wealthy and powerful of western Europe” as something that made diets “more digestible, varied, [and] contrastive” (Mintz 80) – due to its expensive nature, its consumption was a luxury reserved for the elite, but because it was so rare, its main uses were for practical and important needs, and in small amounts.

            The other main function of sugar from the beginning of its consumption in Europe was as a medicine, but unlike its use as a spice, its medicinal uses sustained for much longer. These two functions were actually quite related – as Fischler explains, “literally all spices were believed to have some kind of medicinal significance” (5), which makes sense given that spices were used in food partially to improve digestibility (7). Its medicinal ability was introduced to Europe through Arab pharmacology, though its utility had already long been established in the Islamic world (British Library). Throughout the 13th-18th centuries in Europe, sugar became so useful in medicine that the phrase “like an apothecary without sugar” was coined (Fischler 5).

Sloane Manuscript 1621 (written in mid-to-late 11th century) from the British Library, one of the earliest written records of sugar in England. Starting on line 6, it lists a recipe for Rosatum tertiani febris (‘A conserve of roses for tertian fever’), which includes white syrup as one of the ingredients.

           These early uses of sugar were shaped by its availability (or lack thereof) as a material in the sense that its main, most common uses were for important and essential purposes – to cure illness or to aid digestibility of food – and often in sparing amounts. As sugar trade became more widespread, however, this allowed sugar to be treated as more commonplace and take on more indulgent purposes. A religious debate sparked in the 12th century over whether it counted as a food that broke fast reflected the shifting attitude at the time toward the everyday uses and roles sugar had.

Developments in Sugar: A Symbol of Elite Status

            As time went on, sugar remained expensive but became increasingly accessible. Mintz describes that “during the thirteenth century, sugar was sold both by the loaf and by the pound, and though its price put it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, it could be procured even in remote towns” (82). As it grew more accessible among the rich, its uses morphed to include decoration. Sugar pastes could be used to form sculptures which were not only aesthetic, but also self-preserving and of course, edible. These pastes were often made from combining sugar with oil, crushed nuts, and vegetable gums, which resulted in a clay-like substance that could be molded (Mintz 88). Once formed, the sculptures were baked and hardened.

Jacquy Pfeiffer of the French Pastry School demonstrates how to use sugar to make sculptures.

           These sugar sculptures were often displayed at celebratory events or feasts, such as royal French feasts starting in the 13th century (Mintz 88). Though they were appreciated and eaten, they did not serve the role of the main food entrées, but rather as transitions between banquet courses (Mintz 88). The displays, called “subtleties,” often represented animals, objects, or buildings and later evolved to take on political symbolism (Mintz 89), establishing them as an art form that could be used to express ideas. At this point, sugar was able to be used not for essential needs, but as an accessory and an artistic medium.

A modern recreation of a sugar sculpture that might have been the centerpiece of an 18th century French wedding table. Part of “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals,” a 2015 exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

           In its role as a decoration and art form, sugar also took on socioeconomic meaning. Because the ingredient was precious and used in large quantities, its decorative use was at first limited to kings (Mintz 90). The material was so rare that no others could even afford quantities substantial enough to create sculptures out of. Thus, it was viewed as a display of “wealth, power, and status” for a host to be able to procure such valuable food for guests, and guests eating these symbols validated that status (Mintz 90).

           Sugar importation stabilized in the 14th century, and this practice had trickled down to merchants and nobility by the 16th century (Mintz 90). By the late 16th century, it had permeated families who were not considered noble or particularly wealthy, even if they were still in England’s higher socioeconomic levels (Mintz 91). Recipes for sugar pastes began to appear in cookbooks and became increasingly widespread (Mintz 92), indicating their use among more common households. As sugar sculptures continued to trickle downward, they inevitably became less grand, compared to what kings might have displayed previously. This was also in part because as recipes became more common, they adapted to the more commonplace needs and resources of consumers. For example, one adaptation in Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery described “jumballs” and “hedgehogs,” which were little dough confections cut into pretty figures that were meant to be admired and eaten (Mintz 93). The focus became less on the ability to spin art and decoration out of sugar, and more on providing quantities of sugar to guests.

            Though today, sugar does not carry the same signal of status, these ornamental practices still persist to some degree. We still often use sugar as a decoration on treats, albeit on a much smaller scale and solely for the purpose of aesthetics. And on special holidays or occasions, we still seem to turn to sugar to symbolize our feelings.

Sugar Today: Food Staple

           As sugar’s symbolic importance to the elite declined, its importance in the general population increased, contributing to how we consume it today. Today, sugar is no longer expensive as it once was, and it is very easily acquirable. Though it has lost its original meaning as a status symbol, the increased accessibility has allowed it to rise up as a household staple. It is an integral part of many food recipes, and in many cases, sugar is the main food itself – whether we are consuming it as dessert, as a sweet snack, or as a candy treat. Often, we consume sugar without even thinking about it or even realizing that we are. In fact, in many countries, sugar is consumed on the order of many tens of kilograms per person per year, on average. Thus, as sugar has shed its previous defining limitations of expensiveness and scarcity, it has become fully integrated with everyday life, spanning consumption purposes which vary from the medicinal to the decorative to the nourishing.

Works Cited

A spoonful of sugar. British Library, 2018, https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2018/11/aspoonful-of-sugar.html. Accessed 23 March 2020.

Fischler, Claude. Attitudes Towards Sugar and Sweetness in Historical and Social Perspective. In Sweetness. J. Dobbing, ed. pp. 83-98. Berlin, Springer-Verlag, 1987.

“How was it made? Sugar Sculpture.” Youtube, uploaded by Victoria and Albert Museum, 9 September 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqpz7hN-Bkg.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, Penguin Books, 1986.

Swanson, Abbie F. Let them eat sugar sculpture! The Getty celebrates edible table art. KPCC, 2015, https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/11/20/55779/let-them-eat-sugar-sculpture-thegetty-celebrates/. Accessed 23 March 2020.

Sugar becomes the Opiate of the Masses

 

Sugar was introduced into the British Empire as a luxury of the rich, over time and across many uses, it found its way into the homes of the average man and also became a staple in the everyday diet. How and why this change occurred is of great importance into understanding the shift in the consumption of sugar. Sugar was introduced as a spice and medicine into the British household, but came to included three other uses: as a decoration, sweetener and preservative. As sugar moved down the list of its uses, it also had social and economic impacts. The progression of sugar usage effected consumption in the British society and caused the shift from sugar as a luxurious good to an opiate of the masses.

In the early decades of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Britain established Caribbean plantations for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane. Britain’s first attempt at doing this occurred upon the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 which was the first English colony in the New World (Mintz 36). Sugar cane was brought in 1619 as were the first African slaves to reach the English colony (Mintz 36). Unfortunately, the sugar cane would not grow. The British Empire was hard pressed to see this mission successful as there was a high demand for sugar at home.

Slaves working in a sugar cane plantation in British-West Indies
A Sugar Cane Plantation in the West Indies

The settlement of Barbados in 1627 proved to be the turning point in British attempts as production with the successful production of “clayed sugars” and “muscovado”. (Mintz 37). “The first British sugar islands was Barbados followed by St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. Grenada and Trinidad were added to the bunch in the late 19th century” (clements.umich.edu). Sugar supply for Britain now came directly from her settlements in the West Indies and added drastically to the consumption of sugar at home as it was now more accessible. “As supply for sugar increased, England’s demands for sugar kept pace. So much so that productions on the islands were barely able to keep up” (Mintz 39). Britain was importing huge amounts of sugar and the condiment in question came to define the “English Character” (Mintz 39).

Sugar Mill, Standard Mill in the West Indies
Sugar Mill

 

The sugar trade was successful because it was a highly priced commodity regardless of the volatility of the sugar market, the demands for it rose as consumption did (clements.umich.edu).  Sugar production increased as a direct correlation of its consumption. As availability of sugar rose in Britain, so did the many uses of sugar. The British households found new ways to incorporate sugar into their social lives.

British sugar consumption chart
British Sugar Consumption Chart

Mintz mentions five uses of sugar: 1) as medicine, 2) spice-condiment, 3) decorative material, 4) as a sweetener, 5) as a preservative. The use of sugar in these many forms although coming into usage progressively, also happened interchangeably. Sugar was first introduced into the British household as a Spice and Medicine, in this form, it remained a luxurious good only available to the rich. “The first written mention of sugar was in the pipe scrolls, the official records of royal income and expenditures in 1154-89(Mintz 82).  The quantities of sugar at this time were relatively small and since this was an account of the expenditures of the rich, meant that only this class of people could afford to consume sugar. “By the thirteenth century, sugar was still being sold by the loaf and by the pound and although still quite pricey and only accessible to the rich, it was now available even in the remotest areas” (Mintz 82). The shift from a luxury to a commodity available to all would happen in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and with the introduction of other uses of sugar.

 

In the seventeenth century, the use of sugar as a spice declined and this time period, “saw the prices, supplies and customary uses of sugar change rapidly” (Mintz 86). Sugar featured as a decorative item after this time and was not only available to the noble and rich but now made its way downward to the middle class. As sugar progressed in the list of uses, so did the decline in its exclusiveness and the more prolific it became, the more it was consumed by all. Sugar consumption also had economic ramification as well, “the decline in sugar importance went hand in hand with its increase in economic and dietary importance” (Mintz 95). As sugar became more plentiful, it now became available to the poor.

Sugar became available to the poor in the form of a sweetener and preservative; this accessibility would be responsible for the upward swing of the consumption of sugar. The rise of chocolate, tea and coffee into the British household massively contributed to the large amount of sugar consumption. The use of sugar as a sweetener in tea propelled the “Sugar Equalization Act” which removed the import tariff and lowered the price of sugar of which the direct result was the proliferation of sugar everywhere (clements.umich.edu). The poor used sugar not only as a sweetener but also to supplement their diets as well.

As sugar become more widely used in many forms, it made its way into the household of all citizens regardless of class, this was directly responsible in the shift of sugar consumption in the British society. Sugar in the form of a sweetener and preservative became an everyday commodity, which meant that consumption would greatly rise as it permeated every single dish that was eaten by the British citizens. This standard has come to hold true across the world as sugar features in every single dietary item we consume. However, there is a marked difference in the reception of this commodity, at some point highly revered, sugar is now a social pariah, an evil that has been thrust upon society and should be eradicated.

 

Bibliography

Scholarly Sources:

Clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. Document. 21 March 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. 274. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

brave.info, land of the. Sugar Act. n.d. image. 21 March 2016.

clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. image. 21 March 2016.

czarnikow.com. The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption. 1 May 2014. image. 21 March 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spicy to Sweet: The Transition of Sugar’s Use and Its Effects on Society

sugarcane-field-4204446_396x233
Fields of sugar cane

The introduction of sugar into England dating back to the twelfth century marks the conception of a rapidly expanding market in England. Beginning from its immediate introduction into Europe and continuing on into the present day, sugar has been marked by its  broad spectrum of uses. Sidney Mintz classifies the many applications of sugar into five main categories: medicinal uses, uses as a spice-condiment, uses as a sweetener, decorative uses and preservative uses (Mintz 78). Although these five purposes demonstrate a lot of overlap (for example, sugar used in jams both preserves the fruit and sweetens the substance), the transition between sugar being used a spice to sugar being used a sweetener exhibits an important turning point in its history. This transition, seen between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, marks the beginning of sugar’s central role in modern society and the point at which sugar became widely available to members of lower classes.

From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, sugar was prominently used as a spice to add to foods without making the food necessarily sweet (Mintz 80). It could be added to plates such as pastas, sauces, meats, fish, and soups to increase the flavor content of the dish. The dependency on spices in these centuries is a result of overall monotony of the average Englishman’s diet and the lack of high quality food preparatory practices. Some meats were excessively cured or smoked and others were rotten; sugar would be added to these meats to improve the flavor quality and increase nutrition. Sugar as a spice would often be used to allay off-putting strong spice flavors already apparent in the meal.

In the eighteenth century, sugar consumers began focusing less on using sugar as a spice and more as using sugar as a sweetener for their foods. There is evidence that sugar was initially noticed for its ability to sweeten when it was added to the popular bitter beverages of the time: chocolate, coffee and tea (Mintz 109). Drinkers noticed that sugar complimented and masked the bitterness of these beverages and began adding it into their daily drinks. Aside from the connection with these bitter beverages, sugar became the focal ingredient of both commonplace desserts and festive feasts. It became a show of rank and status at festivities held by the elite classes and a well known luxury for those of the lower classes.

This transition from sugar as a spice-condiment to a sweetener is the beginning of a massive sugar explosion in the global economy and culinary culture. In the twenty-first century, sugar is an essential, constant aspect of everyday life. It is now available to be bought in cheap, bulk quantities, it is present in almost every meal ranging from sweet soups to snack bars to chocolate candies, and it is the focal point (both economically and socially) of many Western holidays such as Easter, Halloween, and Christmas. Sugar is so widely known that it has synonyms on ingredient lists, such as “corn syrup,” “fructose,” “cane sugar,” and “high fructose corn syrup,” to disguise its presence. When compared to the commonplace characteristic of sugar in the twenty-first century it is shocking that sugar was reserved for use by the elite and the nobility prior to the seventeenth century. It was not until this transition into a sweetener that sugar became more widely available to members of the working and poor classes.

Consumers who belonged to the working class adopted and desired the taste for sweetness rapidly. As demand grew, prices declined (albeit marginally and slowly), and sugar became a more widely available commodity. From 1750 to 1850, sugar evolved from a luxury to a massively consumed commodity. As sugar became more widely desired, it became more widely available. Sugar’s market has the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food market (Martin).

“Only the privileged few could enjoy these luxurious even in the sixteenth century in England. Int the subsequent centuries, however, the combination of sugars and fruit became more common, and the cost of jams, jellies, marmalades, and preserved fruits declined.” (Mintz 99)

english_sugar_prices_consumption

 

An overarching result of the transition from a spice to a sweetener and the resultant increase of availability was the emergence of two cultural processes known as “intensification,” and  “extensification.” Mintz explains that intensification refers to the replication and imitation of existing rituals whereas extensification refers to the replacement of old significances with new meanings (Mintz 152). In short, through rapid commercialization and availability, sugar lost its ancient ties to sacredness, human life, and divinity. It gained a new meaning of success and wealth among the European elite which was later replaced by the idea that sugar represented a forced equalization among the social classes- the working class refused to allow the higher classes to dominate the sugar industry and became active consumers in its market. Additionally, sugar’s spike in popularity after its eighteenth century emergence as a sweetener caused a higher need for larger labor forces; manufacturers found this labor in the form of slavery and indentured servitude.

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The transition from a spice used by the elite to flavor dishes into a sweetener desired by members of all English social classes made sugar more popular and, thus, more available. Consumers were interested in the taste of sweetness that sugar could bring to food and beverages and they caused a rapid increase in sugar consumption in England. In turn, this demand caused sugar to adapt a new cultural significance and perpetuated the system of enslaved labor.

Works Cited:

“Australia’s ‘Sugar Slaves’ Remembered.” Radio National. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.
“Increasing Population on Plantations.” Sugar Cane. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

“Lakshmi Sugar Mill, Iquabal Pur, Roorkee.” Lakshmi Sugar Mill RSS. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

“Louisiana Archaeology Ashland Belle Helene Plantation: Introduction.” Louisiana Archaeology Ashland Belle Helene Plantation: Introduction. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food, Cambridge. 17 February 2016. Lecture.

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

—. “Time, Sugar and Sweetness.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp 91-103. Print.

“Normal Eating® Blog.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

 

 

A Spicy History

Chocolate and spice were married long before Lindt began producing its iconic chili-flavored chocolate bars.  In fact, spices were found in chocolate when the Spaniards invaded the Aztec Empire, meaning that they have been integrated in chocolate for over 500 years.  Over the course of chocolate’s lifetime, the amounts and kinds of spices used have varied widely and consumer’s attitudes towards them have changed drastically.

Figure 2.3

Though there is no concrete evidence of the first use of spice in chocolate, it is relatively safe to assume that chocolate was first consumed without spices.  I assume this because most mixed products are originally consumed as separate ingredients simply because they must be tasted first in order to discern where they fall on the flavor spectrum.  Only then can tasters determine which ingredients should be combined to maximize flavor sensation.  When the Spaniards arrived, spices and flowers like chili peppers and “ear flowers” were used universally in chocolate (Coe and Coe 2013). As chocolate is thought to have first been consumed by the Olmecs (1500-400 BCE), spices must have been added sometime between 1500 BCE and 500 CE, approximately when Cortés invaded. As spice was so firmly intertwined with chocolate when Cortés arrived, it was probably introduced and perfected earlier on in that time period.  In addition to ear flower and chili peppers, Mesoamericans also used vanilla, achiote, and mecaxóchitl (Mexican pepperleaf) to flavor their chocolate (Norton 2004).  The spices and flowers used had a wide variety of heat and appearance (see pictures below), but they were used either to complement each other or as individual flavorings.  The main use of these original spices was for flavor and not appearance as the chocolate was so dark that it would take a large amount of spice to alter the entire appearance of the chocolate.  Chocolate’s consumption as a liquid also enhanced the use of spice for taste rather than flavor because liquid chocolate is well mixed, so spices cannot easily be placed at the top for a dramatic visual effect.

Figure2.2

Some of the invading Spaniards took kindly to the spices in chocolate, but others did not.  The flavors were so foreign to the Spaniards that they were not immediately appreciated.  When chocolate made its way over to Europe, not all the spices came along for the journey.  There are two leading theories for this lack of migration.  First, Spaniards returning from Mesoamerica believed that their mainland counterparts would not enjoy the additional spice in the chocolate.  Second, importing spices along with cacao beans would have increased the number of imports (Norton 2006).  As silver and gold were so valuable and chocolate was so desired, spices for chocolate flavoring kind of fell by the wayside.  Personally, I believe that both of these theories have some merit.  Lack of space and lack of desire for spices by Spaniards made not including them in the Spanish diet very easy.

Though spices were consumed in moderation by some Spaniards, as Norton explains in her article Conquests of Chocolate, by “the end of the eighteenth century [in Spain], all that remained of the spice complex was cinnamon and sugar” (Norton 2004). Essentially, Spaniards substituted more familiar spices (like cinnamon) for use in chocolate and largely ignored the traditional Mesoamerican spices.  Sugar use in chocolate continued to increase as sugar consumption in Europe increased, leading to sugar’s emergence as the primary supplement to cacao beans. Cinnamon was also frequently used, though mainly in chocolate drinks instead of in chocolate bars (sugar was used both in bars and drinks).

Though 18th century chocolate was largely spice-less, modern chocolate often includes chili peppers, sea salt, vanilla, or cinnamon.  So how did spices become popular again? Today, spiced chocolate is viewed almost as a delicacy and as a food for those with refined tastes.  This is a complete turnaround from a few hundred years earlier, when those spices were a mark of the Mesoamerican roots of chocolate.  I believe this turnaround occurred for two primary reasons.  Following the industrial revolution and in tandem with increased ease of travel, people began to venture further from their homes.  The ability to travel was a marker of class (because travel could be expensive), and thus a taste for “exotic” ingredients became an indicator or how well-traveled, and therefore financially well-off, a person was.  Spicy ingredients like chili peppers fell into this “exotic” category and thus experienced an upswing in popularity.  Second, the ease of travel also meant a greater ease of transportation of goods.  Transportation is now much quicker and more efficient than in 18th century Spain, meaning that more goods can be imported and exported.  Thus the cost of importing spices is reduced, and more spices can be imported to chocolate-consuming countries.

In the modern era, neither of the original factors that prevented spices from becoming popular in Spain apply — there is a desire for the spices and there is a means to acquire those spices.  Spices have become incredibly popular in western chocolate, with bakeries developing that specialize in chocolate and spice (like this one in Las Vegas).  Because of the additional cost, spices are seen as somewhat of fancier ingredient for use in chocolate, but it is nevertheless available to most of the masses because of its use by companies like Lindt. Spice use in chocolate seems to have come full circle. Originally, Mesoamerican spices were mixed in, then abandoned for more European-friendly spices like cinnamon, and now both Mesoamerican and non-Mesoamerican spices are included in chocolate bars and drinks. I predict that the level of spice use in chocolate will only increase. Western consumers (largely the drivers of the chocolate market) now have a taste for both Mesoamerican and other spices, and that taste and the ability to satisfy it fairly economically indicate that spices will continue to enhance chocolate for the foreseeable future.

 

 

Works Cited

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

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14-17. Web.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660-91. Web.

 

Multimedia Sources

Figure 1 – Sandberg, Anders. Lindt Chocolate. Digital image. Flickr, n.d. Web.

Figure 2A) – Dry Chili Pepper. Digital image. Wikimedia, n.d. Web.

Figure 2B) – Fou, Augustine. Vanilla-beans-bundles-2x. Digital image. Flickr, n.d. Web.

Figure 2C) – Open fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), showing the seeds from which annatto is extracted; photographed in Campinas, Brazil (January 2009). Digital image. Annato. Wikipedia, n.d. Web.

Figure 2D) – Piper Friedrichsthalii. Digital image. Piper (genus). Wikipedia, n.d. Web.

Hyperlink – “Chocolate and Spice Bakery.” Las Vegas Cake Bakery. Cubic IT Consulting, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

We Can’t Escape Sugar: Examining the Rise of Sugar through Social and Economic Lenses

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.

World sugar consumption has skyrocketed in a very short period of time, and it continues to trend upward.

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.

The humoral scheme was the leading medical theory until the discovery of germ theory. It claimed that people become sick because they had an imbalance of humors. Sugar was used as a wet substance to counteract bad dryness.

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.

Sugar was often used as a way to make medicines more palatable, especially for children.

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.

 

 

Works Cited

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.

Image 1: Taken from https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/G5ckhuI9b1Qv_FVbtlmPYYTbXSyp9EEEP6uBid4zlCc=w698-h422-p-no.

Image 2: Taken from http://www.themitralvalve.org/mitralvalve/admin/uploads/Homur.jpg.

Image 3: Taken from https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/1c42d-mp.jpg.