Tag Archives: sugar

The Consumption of Sugar in Britain

We will examine British sugar consumption from the time sugar was first introduced to Britain in the twelfth century. There are three central periods to consider, in which sugar took on distinctly different roles for visible reasons: up to 1750, 1750 to 1850, and 1850 to the present. Over the course of time, sugar consumption has increased:

USE IMAGE

I argue that the main causes of increased consumption in Britain until 1750 was the acquisition of Barbados and Jamaica as colonies, the main causes of increase from 1750 – 1850 to 1850 were the introduction of tea to the British diet, and the main causes of increase from 1850 to the present are the growth of capitalism.

For Britain, the first cause of increased consumption was the acquisition of Barbados and Jamaica as colonies in the seventeenth  century (Mintz, 37). These colonies utilized slave labor on their sugar plantations. This permitted a massively increasing amount of sugar to be imported into Britain, exposing more of the population to its taste. Below we see an illustration of the interior of a nineteenth-century sugar boiling-house by R.Bridgens, depicting the mass production of sugar to be shipped to Europe from the Carribean production facilities. These were essential in the first large increase and change in sugar consumption.

Before the supply of sugar for Britain increased, sugar was a kingly luxury. In fact, Mintz suggests it had a “symbolic force” (Mintz, 90). The extremely wealthy would use sugar as decoration. For instance, extravagant feasts would be held in which elaborate sculptures utilizing sugar of animals, buildings, and other striking things would be on display and eaten (Mintz, 89). These displays would confirm the social standing of the individual providing the meal. Those who would eat these attractions would validate the power and social position of the host (Mintz, 90). The “symbolic force” lies in the way sugar was a symbol of status and power in itself. 

As sugar became more readily available due to slave plantations producing it, the symbolic force of sugar decreased and its economic importance grew. That is, as production capabilities increased, sugar became a tool for individuals to gain power through making money through sugar production. In Britain, it was no longer only the most powerful who could obtain sugar. The common people could purchase and consume it. This meant that the consumption of sugar by the powerful in itself mattered less (Mintz, 45). As Mintz puts it, “sugar was transformed from a “luxury of kings into the kingly luxury of commoners” (Mintz, 96). Even, though sugar was transformed in this essential way, it was still used in the manners it had been before, such as decoration. Below are nineteenth century illustrations of desserts by French baker Dubois, revealing the fact that sugar maintained its use as decoration, even though its symbolic force faded.


By 1750, sugar was a common luxury, and as such acquired an “everydayness.” Sugar consumption continued to increase from 1750 to 1850 due to the introduction of tea, and other similar beverages, into the British diet. Tea was first introduced into the British diet toward the end of the seventeenth  century (Mintz, 108). Tea followed the same track as sugar: first being consumed by only the wealthy, and then becoming a common beverage. As it became popularized, sugar became even more common. This is because sugar was used to sweeten tea. For both goods, a “ritualization” (Mintz, 122) occurred in which the commodities gained an everyday quality. Thus over the course of the century following 1750, sugar, through the introduction of tea, became increasingly desired and consumed. 

The final cause of increasing sugar consumption was the growth of capitalism. As capitalism grew, the wage labor force in Britain grew. As the working class grew, more people were seeking low cost food substitutes that provided energy (Mintz, 148). The division of labor led to more and more factories with individuals pursuing individual functions. Laborers who were working in factories now purchased sugary foods to sustain their energy and increase their productivity. Sugar increased energy and productivity and thus “figured importantly into the balancing accounts of capitalism” (Mintz, 148). Further, sugar appeared in more and more foods, such as bread and other staples of the laboring class’ diet. Thus, the intake of sugar increased due to the increased use of sugar in a variety of foods that the laboring class needed to maintain efficiency, a need caused by the driving force of capitalism. That is, sugar took up more of a caloric percentage of individuals’ diets from 1850 onward than from 1750-1850 due to capitalistic forces. 

Clark Ross argues that this is the correct interpretation of what caused the sugar consumption in Britain over time (Ross, 105). He suggests sugars role was complementary to the much more powerful forces already in play. I argue, however, that the sugary diet that was at play in Great Britain permitted the laboring class to increase efficiency in a manner that would not have been possible without such a diet. Indeed, the same capitalistic forces may have driven society overtime, but the diet of sugar spurred those forces to take affect more rapidly, and in doing so, affect the sugar consumption itself.   

In the modern day, the rapid increase in sugar consumption has slowed. This can be attributed to the current health risks associated with sugar intake, such as the development of diabetes and obesity. There are “junk food taxes” in place on foods that have a very high level of sugar so as to limit these risks in the population (Sampeck 2016). 

Thus, the increase in sugar consumption in Britain over time was a result of the transformation of sugar from a kingly luxury to an everyday commodity. This transformation occurred first due to the acquisition of Caribbean colonies, then by the introduction of tea into the British diet, and finally by capitalistic forces.

Works Cited

Ross, Clark G. Ethnohistory, vol. 34, no. 1, 1987, pp. 103–105.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y: Viking, 1985.

Martin, Carla D and Sampeck, Kathryn E. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocoalte in Europe. 2016.

Health Conscious Humans: Changes in Chocolate Consumption

Dating back to the Olmec civilization starting around 1500 BCE, cacao has taken on uses in religious, cultural, and medicinal contexts (Coe & Coe, 2013). It was featured in early colonial documents alleviating fevers and treating fatigue. Global consumption of sugar and chocolate skyrocketed so that it contributed to the obesity epidemic in America. Americans now question the “healthy” snack that used to “food of the gods” (Lippi, 2009). As our society becomes more health conscious, chocolate consumption declines. Brands like Hershey’s and Mars are adjusting their products, and snackers opt for vitamin-rich dark chocolate, smoothies, and salads. For years to come in the United States, chocolate most likely will remain integral to social events but be consumed in smaller amounts and different contexts, such as protein shakes and bars, more frequently than caloric snacks off the shelves at the cash register.

           Although chocolate was consumed in religious rituals, social settings, and used for decorations, it was also applied to cure illnesses. The ancient Maya believed it had many benefits, including aphrodisiac qualities, which is why we gift it on Valentine’s day (Martin, Feb. 13 Lecture). Manuscripts featured chocolate in medical applications, such as the Badianus Codex of 1552 using cacao flowers to treat fatigue, the Florentine Codex of 1590 using cacao beans to treat hearts, and the Badianus Manuscript of 1552 applying cacao flowers to energize men in public office (Dillinger et al., 2000). The books of Chilam Balamand and The Ritual of the Bacabs are copies of codices and also feature cacao being used as medicine (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). The Maya used it during ceremonies to alleviate fevers, seizures, and skin abnormalities. Their botanical remedies typically featured cacao as the main ingredient to cure such ailments.

This image is from Codex Borgia and depicts an epidemic with vomiting and diarrhea (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008).

Alphonse de Richeliu introduced the treatment to France, and it was taken on for energy, digestion, breast milk production, kidney stones, poor appetite, and other purposes (Coe & Coe). The Spanish even believed it improved conception probability and breast milk quality (Dillinger et al., 2000). Chocolate was thought to have many nutrients, so the Church banned consuming it during religious fasts unless for medicinal purposes. Chocolate was considered a cure for almost any ailment.

Chocolate consumption grew exponentially throughout the 1900s due to several innovations that allowed mass production of cheaper chocolate and enabled it to spread beyond the elite. Incomes rose and production costs fell after the Industrial Revolution. Coenraad Johannes Van Houton invented the hydraulic press, which separated cocoa solids from cocoa butter (Coe & Coe, 2013).

This machine, the hydraulic press, led to Joseph Fry & Son creating the first chocolate bar in 1847.

As shown above, the press is comprised of cylinders, pistons, and hydraulic pipes. A piston is inserted into the small cylinder to create pressure so liquid cocoa can move through the pipes (Coe & Coe, 2013). As it goes through the press, the fat is squeezed out and the result is fat free cocoa powder. Another development was conchin, a stirring process to make chocolate smooth. These inventions allowed chocolate to change from a foamy drink only consumed by the elite to a cheap and delicious option for all classes. Fry & Nestle even created a solid form of chocolate, which further increased accessibility (Coe & Coe, 2013). Mintz noted that sugar production increased so much that it became integral to the English diet (Mintz, 1986). By 1900, sugar constituted 20% of English calories consumed and chocolate was a major part of their diets.

There are positive effects to chocolate. Dark chocolate has a high cocoa content and antioxidants. Harvard Health notes that dark chocolate can help athletes’ oxygen availability during competition (Tello, 2018). Americans adopted chocolate as a delicious treat but had difficulty consuming it in moderation. Today, chocolate mostly is seen as a contributor to obesity. Many favorite snacks are loaded with sugar and fat. Cacao butter is filled with saturated fat and harmful for cholesterol (Mintz, 1986). With America wrestling with an obesity epidemic, chocolate and sugar are identified as culprits.

People take to Twitter to vent about the terrible impact high sugar content has on health (Twitter, 2018).

Rather than focusing on the medicinal qualities of chocolate, society now raises concerns about high sugar content (Twitter). Low prices of huge sharing size bags lead to some consuming excessive amounts of sugar in one sitting. A bag of Hershey’s individually wrapped chocolate bars contains up to 81 grams of sugar (Google Images). The negative health effects commercial chocolate contains are gaining media attention, and people are adjusting their eating habits accordingly.

The image shows nutrition facts and total sugars in a sharing bag of chocolate that people sometimes consume by themselves.

Consumption of chocolate is now falling in America because of trends toward being healthier and losing weight. Diet brands are raking in dollars as consumers opt for more nutritious options with less sugar. Salad chains, Weight Watchers, and workout classes such as Barry’s Boot Camp and Soul Cycle have become popular. Chocolate consumption drops. The average American ate 12.6 lbs of chocolate in 2007 but only 9.5 lbs in 2015 (Wong, 2016). Healthier brands like Atkins and Kind are selling better than Hershey’s and forcing companies to adjust to their audiences. A recent Skinny Pop commercial depicts the new trend:

The commercial shows children examining snack ingredients.

The commercial ends with a child remarking, “It’s all real, that’s pretty cool” regarding the three ingredients in Skinny Pop (popcorn, sunflower oil, salt). The next generation is being raised to be more health conscious and to consume natural ingredients rather than sugar and saturated fat.

The consumption decline is shown by dominant brands diversifying as they lose market share. More than 50% of confectionary market share was controlled by only five brands: Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Craft, and Ferrero (Coe & Coe, 2013). Hershey’s recently acquired amplify snack brands, which owns Skinny Pop, in a $1.6 billion deal (Global News Wire, 2017). Hershey’s is even beginning to produce meat bars, as their former best sellers are no longer sailing off shelves. Hershey’s isn’t the only old dominant brand struggling. Mars invested in Kind Bars, which features health conscious mottos on their labels (Global news Wire, 2017). Chocolate brands adjust their products and tailor to a changing audience, which will alter how chocolate is consumed.

Not only are Americans consuming less chocolate, but when they do it is in different contexts. Fitness spots such as Equinox still sell chocolate but offer bars that are gluten, dairy, sugar alcohol, and trans fat free.

Barry’s featured a photo of a chocolate recovery shake on Instagram (Instagram, 2018)

Chocolate is featured in low sugar bars and protein shakes more frequently than in caloric foamy drinks. The turn in society towards healthier lifestyles, less sugar consumption, and increased fitness has caused vendor diversification and is changing the way chocolate is consumed.

Despite chocolate and cacao’s widespread medicinal uses in the past, it has been demoted to a sugary dessert in America. As people fight the obesity crisis, consumers practice self-control and grab alternative foods off the shelves. Brands with “skinny” in the name have grown in number: skinny pop, skinny cow, and halo top with the number of calories in huge print. Advertisements featuring natural ingredients, such as the Skinny Pop commercial, are successful. The chocolate market may never be the same—Hershey’s with the famous brown sealed chocolate bar now is selling popcorn and even meat bars (yuck). Not only has chocolate consumption declined, but the way the population consume it has changed because it is being revamped into healthier foods and not just sweet desserts.

Sources:

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition.        London: Thames & Hudson.

Dillinger, Teresa, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” Oxford Academic The Journal of Nutrition, Oxford University Press, 1 Aug. 2000, academic.oup.com/jn/article/130/8/2057S/4686320.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Google Search, Google, www.google.com/search?q=hersheys%2Bsharing%2Bbag%2Bnutrition%2Bfacts&rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS768US769&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiqu6TVzOzgAhWQg-AKHSS6DLkQ_AUIDigB&biw=1009&bih=658#imgrc=ovjpEWmHHdY-uM:

Google Image Search, Google, www.google.com/search?rlz=1C5CHFA_enUS768US769&biw=1418&bih=658&tbm=isch&sa=1&ei=1z5_XKqZPOuxggfR-7uAAw&q=hydraulic%2Bpress%2Bmaking%2Bchocolate&oq=hydraulic%2Bpress%2Bmaking%2Bchocolate&gs_l=img.3…1922.4213..4249…1.0..0.206.1336.14j2j1……1….1..gws-wiz-img…….0j0i67j0i8i30j0i24.hcnFkDDU_Rk#imgrc=aSVPvbsdA1Cf1M:

Hershey Company. “Hershey Enters Into Agreement to Acquire Amplify Snack Brands, Inc.” GlobeNewswire News Room, “GlobeNewswire”, 18 Dec. 2017, globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/12/18/1263249/0/en/Hershey-Enters-Into-Agreement-to-Acquire-Amplify-Snack-Brands-Inc.html.

Lippi, D. “Chocolate and Medicine: Dangerous Liaisons?” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19818277.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 13 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.Popcorn, SkinnyPop. “SkinnyPop | Simple Tastes Better.” YouTube, YouTube, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iCta8t7BmU.

Tello, Monique. “Can Dark Chocolate Improve Vision?” Harvard Health Blog, Harvard Health Publishing, 1 May 2018, http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-dark-chocolate-improve-vision-2018050313767?utm_content=buffer4fdfe&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=buffer.

Wong, Venessa. “Hershey Shifts Gears As Chocolate Consumption Slows.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed News, 26 Apr. 2016, www.buzzfeednews.com/article/venessawong/people-just-dont-eat-chocolate-like-they-used-to.

Sugar: A Sweet Transformation

In the second millennium, the introduction of sugar transformed the Western diet. Today, the extreme rate of consumption is both a major health concern and a staple of the modern diet. Only a handful of centuries ago, sugar was a rare commodity reserved only to be used sparingly by the wealthy. Within time, however, production increased and with that came an increase in the accessibility of sugar. In the 18th century alone, British sugar consumption nearly quintupled (Mintz 67). Throughout Europe, sugar consumption transformed from a delicacy to an essential ingredient used as a sweetener, a medicine, and a preservative among other things. Today, we continue to experience the outcome of this landmark growth.

The figure shows a sharp and consistent increase in sugar consumption over time.

Sugar as a Spice

Historians estimate that sugar was first introduced in Europe around the turn of the 12th century. At the time, traders grouped the product with ‘spices’ (Mintz 79). This trend was matched in the kitchen as when studying the ‘cookbooks’ of the era, one can see that sugar was considered only but a ‘spice’ or condiment as they used it only in very small quantities in their recipes. This was due in large part to the exorbitant price of the new commodity. The product was only accessibly priced to the rich and even they struggled to afford it.

New Uses for Sugar

Soon, however, drawn by the natural human liking to sugar’s sweet flavor, people found ways to increase the production of sugar. By the 16th century, sugar had become more plentiful and more affordable. In turn, the product was no longer reserved to be used in small quantities by the wealthy (Mintz 86). Therefore, there were various new uses of sugar that emerged. First, artists used the the pure, white, and durable nature of sugar to make decorations (87). These artists would combine sugar with other foods to create sculptures such as animals or palaces (89). Due to sugar’s continued luxury status, these decorations gloriously boasted one’s class and wealth (95).

People still use sugar as a decoration today when they make chocolate bunnies or wedding cakes.

Second, many used the sweet stimulant, ironically, as a medicine. Today, experts agree that, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, sugary products can cause obesity (Coe 31). When sugar was first introduced to Europe, however, scholars pointed to the the medicinal lore of sugar referenced in classical Islamic texts (Mintz 96). Many went so far as to argue that sugar was a type of panacea. Soon, the stimulant was a staple of apothecaries across Europe (101).

Additionally, sugar was used as a preservative. Sucrose, the chemical compound found in sugar, has a capacity to draw out moisture. This prevents microorganisms from developing a breeding environment (Mintz 123). Thus, sugar can be used as a seal for edible materials against destructive bacteria. Recognizing this, people used sugar to protect an array of edible goods ranging from fruits to cheeses. This revolutionized the shelf life of nearly every food, thus impacting the common diet of Europeans.

Human’s fundamentally and innately enjoy the sweet taste of sugar. Watch this baby’s first taste of sugar! The natural appeal made sugar a useful sweetener.

Perhaps the most important usage of sugar, however, was as a sweetener. This effect was highlighted in juxtaposition to the introduction of exotic products such as coffee, tea, and chocolate (Mintz 108). In the 13th century, a Marco Polo led expedition connected the Western world to the Silk Road, a trade route that traversed Asia. Two centuries later, Christopher Columbus sailed the Santa Maria to the New World. These new discoveries introduced Europe to a myriad of new foods and flavors. These culinary discoveries famously include modern staples such as tea, coffee, and chocolate. All three of these products were introduced to Europe with luxurious undertones; the exotic nature of these products naturally made them delicacies that were associated with the wealthy and thus heavily sought after. Each has a bitter taste, however, that can be repulsive at first. People needed a second flavor to sell their taste buds on these products (109). Their solution was sugar: a flavor so sweet and naturally appealing to the human tongue that it can save any bitter flavor. This preference shined in arguably the most pivotal centuries of culinary history. With newfound globalization, new foods and beverages were being introduced and incorporated into daily life at a staggering pace (120). With these new food and beverages came new tastes and new urges to enjoy different tastes. At that moment, sugar shined as the great sweetener that it is. It no longer was the rare spice of the 12th century but an ingredient of foundational importance in everybody’s diet.

Concluding Thoughts

Sugar consumption in Europe rose brilliantly in the 2nd millennium in Britain and the rest of Europe with wonders such as candy decorations and delicious chocolate. The joyful increase in consumption emerged hand-in-hand with a darker rise of production. With a big, untapped market for sugar, people needed to find ways to produce the crop more plentifully in the middle of the millennium. The dark solution to this problem was slavery. Europeans stole people from Africa to be used as slaves in the Caribbean to produce enough sugar to match the demand at home. The two ends of the Gulf Stream showed two very different realities of sugar. While Europeans enjoyed the sweet taste of sugar at home, African slaves were victims of the cruel business of sugar production in the Caribbean. Each sweet grain of the final product was sadly built on the shoulders of men who dare dream of nothing sweeter than freedom. The legacy of this tragedy today is a continued, heavy sugar trade imbalance where poor countries like India tend to produce most of the sugar and rich countries like the U.S. consume more than their share (USDA). The ubiquitous sugar universe we live in today is all thanks to centuries of injustice, and the health issues that arise from the modern rate of consumption are perhaps a late piece of karma that is pounding down the foothold of the sugar industry.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power.. Penguin Books, 1985.

United States Department of Agriculture. Sugar: World Markets and Trade. November 2018.

Cacao: Then and Now

The influence of chocolate in Mesoamerica was seen in many aspects of Mesoamerican life prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas: it was present in cultural, religious, and economic areas of life in Mayan communities. In Mayan culture, it is clear that they believed that the “gods provided recipes for making cocoa drinks, which gave those drinks high status and political significance”. 1 It is true that many aspects of Mesoamerican life changed after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in what is modern day Mexico and parts of Central America. The strong influence in Mesoamerican culture was one of the aspects of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture that did survive many of the transformations that occurred once the Spanish began to introduce European culture into the way of life of the Mayans. Although chocolate was still a mainstay in Mesoamerican society after the Spanish arrived, there were many aspects of the role of chocolate that did change from the time that chocolate was seen as a sacred item in Mayan society. One clear example is how in “ancient Maya religion cacao was the first food to grow from the body of the maize god.” 2 This shows how cacao was not only used practically in religious rituals, such as during Mayan marriage and baptism rituals 3, but it held a critical role in the sacred texts and stories that served as the foundation of what quotidian Mayan life was like. Similarly, cacao seeds were also seen as important because they were used as currency which you could use to buy food and other items in Mayan society.4 We see traces of the power that had been assigned to chocolate in modern Mesoamerica—which exemplifies the power that the cacao seeds had in Mayan societies since it was able to maintain a role culturally despite the massive cultural changes that were imposed on indigenous people once the colonial period began. The most striking example of how the role of cacao seeds has largely remained unchanged is how it is still used to make chocolate beverages that are still very similar to the recipes that were being used during the colonial period by the indigenous population.5 Although the essence of the chocolate beverage drink has remained the same since the Spanish conquered the Mayan people, there has been a couple of changes to the original chocolate beverage recipe: the indigenous people now use chocolate tablets when they start making the drink instead of starting from scratch with cacao seeds.6 What is most telling of the evolution of this ingredient is the fact that these tablets are usually purchased and they are made in a factory—quite different from the rigorous process of grounding the kernel and beaten with “water, flavorings, and usually maize to make a drink.” 7 Similar to this aforementioned change in chocolate, indigenous people now add sugar to the chocolate beverage recipes—which is different from the classic Maya hot chocolate and a byproduct of the evolution of hot chocolate once there was European influenced involved8, as you can see in the video published by National Geographic (that can be accessed through https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/ ). Yet, if we fast forward to modern day Mesoamerica we do see a more dramatic change in how current-day Mayans use cacao seeds in their culture and in their society. A significant change we can see is that Mayans no longer use cacao seeds as currency as they used to back in Pre-Columbian times since researchers have not been able to find any 20th century ethnographers that have been able to document the use of cacao as money. 9

An explanation for why people may no longer use cacao as currency is because the new generation of indigenous people in Mexico see a tie between chocolate and poverty since it is so laborious to cultivate and not financially sustainable.10 As mentioned in the video below.

Additionally, there are examples of how much more localized the use of cacao has become in modern Mayan societies. Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras have a cacao market where trade is restricted within the “Maya and Ladino communities in which it is produced or between closely associated areas.” This is in contrast to the use of cacao and cacao-based feasts during feasts that were intended to create sociopolitical alliances between different tribes and different Mayan factions.11 All in all, the connection between cacao and Mayan culture has evolved and/or disappeared, but there are also many characteristics of Mayan culture that have remained the same throughout the years and throughout all of the political and cultural changes that started happening during the Colonia Period. However, it is certain that ever since 1900 BCE12 —the earliest record of cacao seeds, cacao has been a critical part of Mesoamerican culture that has transformed and evolved from the chocolate beverages that the Mayans prepared in Pre-Columbian times to the chocolate bars that indigenous people now use to help emulate the chocolate drinks that their ancestors drank. This is eloquently explained in the video below by Ted-ed.


1 Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 21
2 Cameron L. McNeil, “Introduction,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 14.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Mary Ann Mahony, review of Chocolate in Mesoamerica, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009. Review page 175
5 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 346.
6 Ibid, 348.
7 Terrence Kaufman and Justeson, “The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.
8 Gulnaz Khan, “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making,” National Geographic, September 11, 2017, Accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
9 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 356.
10 The Perennial Plate, “An Act of Resistance,” Filmed [February 2014], Vimeo video, 04:03. Posted [February 2014], https://vimeo.com/85727477.
11 Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 209.
12 Ted-ed, “The history of chocolate,” Filmed [March 2017], YouTube video, 04:40. Posted [March 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk.

An Analysis on the Significant Increase of Sugar Consumption in England

Before the discovery of sugar, many Western societies had meals that were centered around common carbohydrates. Sidney Mintz, one of the founders of the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins University, stated, “The most striking [aspect of the] English diet at that time was its complete ordinariness and meagerness…. Most Europeans produced their own food locally” (74). The majority of families in Britain did not eat rare foods, or even meat, dairy, or fruit. The most common foods in British households stemmed from grains and starches. Members of the nobility and wealthy families were able to obtain and dine with more extravagant foods, since they could afford to purchase them from distant locations. Accordingly, when sugar was discovered and brought to European civilization in the mid-1600s, only this wealthy class of people had access to it. There was a sense of power and high social status that coincided with the ability to consume such a product. After over a hundred years, there was a large shift in the British appetite for sugar. British consumption of sugar accelerated at almost an exponential level from the mid-1800s to the end of the 20th century, which was caused by newly discovered uses of sugar, increased access to sugar by the working and lower classes, and the plantation system that was implemented in the Caribbean, allowing for the mass production of sugar.

Sugar consumption increased at almost an exponential rate after the mid-1800s in England. The two major dips in sugar consumption were due to World War I and World War II.

Source: Johnson, Richard J. et al, Sugar Intake per Capita in the United Kingdom

When sugar reached the families of Western society, several uses were discovered that made sugar a vertaile product. Mintz stated, “In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank” (5). Members of the nobility deemed sugar to be much more than a food with a new, distinct taste. Sugar had medicinal value and was used for a variety of ailments. This medical association was derived from Greek medical practices that were embraced by many British physicians. Discussing the history of sugar, The Guardian published, “[Sugar’s]  consumption rose rapidly among European populations from the 17th century. Like tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and rum, it had physiological, consoling effects, particularly in children.” The consumers of sugar had many positive associations with the product and believed that it played a pivotal role in the healing process. This association of sugar and healing continued for centuries. In addition to the medicinal value placed on sugar, there were several other important uses that the British realized. Mintz stated, “Sucrose can be described initially in terms of five principal uses or ‘functions’: as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative” (78). Even though in today’s era sugar as a sweetener seems to be a given, in the 1800s, sugar was even more useful as a spice. Sugar was presented to Europeans along with the other spices that were seen as rare at that time. The modern association of sugar being a main determinant of taste was a construct developed many years after sugar had been ingrained in European cultural and dietary habits. The various uses of sugar that the British explored made it extremely popular. Vincent Mahler stated, “With the turn of the nineteenth century the sugar boom seemed likely to continue indefinitely: colonial sugar was England’s single most important import in every year from 1703 until 1814” (473). The British were infatuated with the idea of sugar, and they began to associate it with all realms of life: religion, nutrition, politics, gender, and sexuality.

The British elite and wealthy were the first individuals in England to be introduced to sugar. They believed that the consumption of sugar was a representation of their high social status. Sugar was served with several foods and beverages, including tea.

Source: Tenre, Henry, Five O’Clock Tea

The largest growth in sugar consumption occurred when the working and lower classes gained access it. Access to sugar was expanded due to the mass production of sugar, which made each serving cheaper, the production of lower quality, less refined sugar, and the increase in wages of the working class. David Richardson stated, “Contemporary writers referred also to the wider use of meat, tea, and sugar in northern working-class diets. Such dietary changes were made possible by relative improvements in real wages after 1750 in industrializing counties” (752). These areas focused on industrialization gave the working class the ability to pay for sugar and utilize many of the aspects of sugar enjoyed by the wealthy. One of those aspects of sugar that was used heavily by the working class once the use of sugar became more widespread was its function as a preservative. Mintz stated, “Sweetened preserves, which could be left standing indefinitely without spoiling and without refrigeration, which were cheap and appealing to children, and which tasted better than more costly butter with store-purchased bread, outstripped or replaced porridge” (130). It saved time for wives in working and lower class families that had jobs outside of the home. This use of sugar as a preservative made the product even more appealing to families who already were drawn to the taste itself. Tea, which was also considered a luxury in Europe when it was first introduced, had trickled down to the realm of the working class and had been used in conjunction with sugar. Richardson stated, “Explanations for the growth of British sugar consumption and its divergence from continental levels have largely focused upon changes in taste and diet, particularly the growth of tea and coffee drinking in Britain” (748). This phenomenon led to the increased use of sugar as well.

The growing domestic demand of sugar in Britain was met because of the foothold the British established in the slave trade and the plantation system in the Caribbean. Slaves worked in unbearable conditions and were essential to mass production.

Source: Clark, William, Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane

With the growing interest and consumption of sugar, production needed to be expanded in order to meet the demand. The British used the slave trade as an avenue to meet their economic goals, and they were viewed as being at the forefront of capitalizing off of the institution of slavery. Mintz stated, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar” (38). The British recognized the opportunity to not only meet the increasing demand of the country, but also profit off of the use of free labor. They established plantations throughout the Caribbean, beginning in Barbados and expanding into Jamaica, transporting millions and millions of slaves to produce sugar in mass quantities. Richardson stated, “Published estimates have suggested that British traders may have carried between 2.5 and 3.7 million slaves from African between 1701 and 1807” (741). The production of the large amounts of sugar that was dependent upon slave labor allowed the British to meet the growing demand for sugar domestically, while also allowing them to export the product past the country’s borders. Mahler stated, “Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean had entered the nineteenth century as perhaps her most valuable foreign economic interest” (474). The British dominance in the Caribbean boosted England’s economy and expanded its reach as an economic and political world power.

Sugar served as a very powerful and influential tool in Britain, especially after the beginning of the 19th century. Even though the wealthy families of England were the first to be introduced to sugar, it quickly garnered traction throughout the country and was popularized as a food that many individuals in Western society wanted access to. With its versatile functionality as a medicine, spice, sweetener, preservative, and decorative material and its associations with religion, politics, and wealth, sugar became one of England’s most popular commodities. As demand increased and the working and lower classes had access to the product, Britain established a strong foothold in the slave trade and the plantation system in order to meet their domestic demands and profit off of the increased international consumption of sugar.

Works Cited:

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007.

Clark, William. Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane. Antigua, 1823.

Johnson, Richard J, et al. “Potential Role of Sugar (Fructose) in the Epidemic of Hypertension, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 86, no. 4, 1 Oct. 2007, pp. 899–906.

Mahler, Vincent A. “Britain, the European Community, and the Developing Commonwealth: Dependence, Interdependence, and the Political Economy of Sugar.” International Organization, vol. 35, no. 3, 1981, pp. 467–492.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.

Richardson, David. “The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748-1776.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1987, pp. 739–769.

Tenre, Henry. Five O’Clock Tea. Paris, 1906.


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;.

Sweetness and Bitterness: A Common Path

For those who are interested in the ethnic and historical origins of foods, chocolate and sugar may be two of the most exciting elements of the traditional English diet (see fig. 1). Linked by their indigenous sourcing and early production during the British colonial period, the bitter taste of chocolate and the ground sweetness of sugar grew in demand and influenced the commercialization of one another. Both, used as food condiments or spices, in medical remedies or as a source of energy and calories share a history of conquest, adventure, social evolution and slavery. Thus, when it comes to England and perhaps other European nations, it is fair to believe that today’s spike in sugar consumption –as suggested by Harvard University professor Carla Martin in her “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” class is owed in great part to the expansion and ever-growing demands of the chocolate industry.

Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.
Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.

Long before Colombus arrived to the Americas, sugar was known in Europe thanks to the Crusades and the conquests of the British empire (SKIL – History of Sugar). The European expansion beyond the Caribbean plateau brought the discovery of the cacao tree and chocolate, highly praised by the natives, according to chapters One and Two from The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. This discovery increased the European interest in the region causing the assimilation of local elements that helped export indigenous recipes, traditions and beliefs to the wealthiest European social groups and consequently, to the British. This is commonly known as “hybridization” and it resulted in the adoption and rapid commercialization of chocolate throughout Europe (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. 18th century illustration of a chocolate house in London.

Chocolate quickly became a sensation among the British bourgeoisie. The enigmatic cocoa powder traditionally obtained by a long process of selecting cacao beans, drying, toasting and hand-grinding them with an hand made “molinillo” (Presilla 26) was an edible bounty for the wealthy. Early colonizers learned from the Mesoamerican aborigines that chocolate was “food of the gods” and such was the official name they gave to it as described in The True History of Chocolate (D. Coe and D. Coe 18). The belief that it had magical and medical properties head its way into England where soon the chocolate drink and the cocoa powder were used in medical recipes, as sources of energy and as mood enhancers.

Around the same period of time, sugar had also medical and multiple other uses in Britain. Sugar was an “everything” type of remedy or food condiment. The influence of sugar in the Anglo-Saxon world was such that as professor Martin denoted in class, it moved beyond the Hollywood era so we can recall popular movies like Mary Poppins carry the reminiscent of it in song lyrics that talk about sugar and sweetness, as for instance Disney’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” shown below.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” from the Mary Poppins film.

In 1847, the English company J.S. Fry & Sons produced a chocolate bar from the mixture of sugar and chocolate powder with cocoa butter, which according to the authors of the research paper Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering “had a grainy texture and lacked the smooth flavor of today’s chocolates” (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2). This, in turn, prompted Henry Nestle and Daniel Peters to experiment further by adding milk to the mixture, creating the first milk chocolate bar as early as 1876 (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2).

Henceforth, sugar and chocolate crossed a common path: that of the “bitter-sweetness.” This bitter-sweetness is a descriptive metaphor derived from their combination: chocolate is naturally bitter and sugar is the embodiment of sweet. From the history of their discovery, production and consumption the bittersweet blend evokes a distant grief infused with human slavery which was viewed by its wealthy consumers like the “necessary evil” –as professor Martin puts it, to achieve the finest tasting, sweetest chocolate cup or chocolate bar.

Knowing the historical and socio economical factors that made possible a “rendezvous” of chocolate and sugar, it is possible to find correlation between the sugar consumption and the production of chocolate. Professor Martin illustrates this in class with visualizations of the rise in sugar consumption from the colonial times before chocolate was brought to Europe up to the present times. Those graphs shown by professor Martin reveal a dramatic curve of growth. It is then evident that the discovery and commercialization of chocolate influenced the consumption and demand of sugar. The image below illustrates the period of time in which the sugar consumption rose in England, which coincides with the time in which chocolate began to commercialize during the 1800’s, as well as the corresponding price depreciation per pound (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Spike in sugar consumption after the creation of the first chocolate bar in England during the 19th century.

In conclusion, the social contexts of contemporary Britain, the Anglo-Saxon culture and all of Europe keep sugar and chocolate forever bound in tasty combinations. Often is our own “sweet tooth” that helps move chocolates off the shelves because some of us suffer a disease called “chocolate craving.” Yet, one thing is certain: today’s chocolates are generally sweeter than those of yesterday… either because they have thrice the amount of sugar, or because they no longer come from the bitter tears of slavery.


Works Cited

Chocolate House in London (18th Century). Digital image. “The World of Chocolate.” Worldstandards.eu. 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1996, New York, Print. Feb. 2017.

Fry’s Five Boys Milk Chocolate. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Jarrold & Sons, Ltd., 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

“How Sugar is Made – the History.” SKIL – History of Sugar, 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017, http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 22 Feb. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 1 Mar. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Patton, Christi L., Ford, Laura P., and Daniel W. Crunkleton. Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering. Strong Point Center in Process Systems Engineering, Trondheim, Norway. 2005. Web. 5 Mar. 2017. http://folk.ntnu.no/skoge/prost/proceedings/aiche-2005/non-topical/Non%20topical/papers/162e.pdf

Presilla, Maricel E. “Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate.” The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009, Berkeley, Print. Feb. 2017.

Real Sugar Prices and Sugar Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850. Digital image.
“Sugar: How Much Is Too Much?” Normal Eating Blog. 18 Jun. 2012. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Walt Disney Records, DisneyMusicVEVO. “A Spoonful Of Sugar.” Mary Poppins. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.