Tag Archives: sugar consumption

Hate Hershey’s? The Changing Taste of Chocolate Throughout History

As both an international student and self-professed chocolate lover, I simply cannot stand the taste of Hershey’s. In a nutshell, I would rather eat no chocolate at all than consume a Hershey’s product; quite the statement for a big chocolate fan. Throughout history, events which may have seemed insignificant at the time have had drastic impacts on the ways in which we perceive chocolate around the world today. We often talk about the different types of chocolate which exist, but we rarely discuss (and explain) the differences in tastes of chocolates both today and how these have evolved throughout history. Our society seems to understand that chocolate today is much sweeter than it was in the past, but the true narrative is much more nuanced than that. Furthermore, given chocolate’s incredible presence in our generation, a question we can ask ourselves is: did the recipe for chocolate adapt to changing taste preferences, or did these preferences change as a result of chocolate’s intense popularity? Upon research, it seems as though the answer is likely a combination of the two, with different time periods presenting different directions of causality. In this blog post, we can briefly examine events from the first tasting of chocolate thousands of years ago to the giant manufacturers we see in the world today; discussing what contributed to such a changing taste and its unexpected effects on the rest of the world.

The first Mesoamerican cultivation of cacao was thought to be as long ago as 1500 BC by the Olmec (likely Mayan ancestors). During the classical period of 150-900 AD, the Mayans were documented for using cacao (or, “kakaw”) in many of their practices, including marriage rituals, funerals and other sacred gatherings. It appears as though cacao was used for more spiritual and practical purposes rather than the primary purpose of taste it is used for today. However, even centuries ago there are instances where it seems as though cacao was indeed exploited for its unique taste. Despite much of the literature stating that cacao was consumed solely as a drink in Mayan society, it was also used as a flavoring in food; considered a spice rather than simply a food in its own right.

Many of us understand that chocolate was not always sweet. In fact, sugar was only introduced into chocolate in the 16th century by the Spaniards, after their conquest of the Aztecs. The addition of sugar allowed the unfamiliar bitterness that Europeans did not enjoy to be counteracted and thus minimized. Chocolate would likely not have been accepted as a normal beverage by the Spanish had it remained cold, bitter, and unsweetened. It became heated, sweetened with cane sugar, and spiced with more familiar substances such as cinnamon. (Coe & Coe 250).

% of Colonial European Chocolate Recipe with Specific Ingredients: Carla Martin 2020

Britain commonly used cinnamon as an addition to chocolate in early colonial times; even more so than the more common vanilla (and in some cases, sugar) that we associate chocolate with today. This was, in part, due to Britain’s proximity and colonial ties to Asia, where cinnamon was endemic. It is clear that chocolate has geographically distinctive tastes, but why is this not the case for many other foods? Sampeck & Thayn suggest that this is primarily as a result of the fact that cacao has an unusual transformational ability, where it can be liquid, solid, scent and flavor (73). They argue that this made cacao a “colonial superingestible,” allowing for divergent (yet often connected) tastes.

This is just an example of how a change in consumer taste demographics can result in a fundamental changing of the chocolate recipe; presenting a case for causality in this direction. As another example, in the US, annual sugar consumption per person rose drastically from 2lbs in 1800, to 123lbs in 1970, to its current peak of 152lbs today. In all the societies to which it was introduced, sugar started out as a glamorous luxury for the rich – then worked its way down to the middle class, before becoming a staple for even the poor (Mintz 122). As these transitions occurred, its production increased; and so did its inclusion into chocolate recipes.

US Sugar Consumption Over Time: Stephan Guyenet and Jeremy Landen, Whole Health Source 2012

But this still begs the question: why do I (and my other international friends) have such a visceral distaste for North American chocolate? The answer lies in the history of Hershey’s, and how its creation shaped the taste buds of Americans today. In 1903, Milton S. Hershey and John Schmalbach discovered a method to create chocolate quicker – and therefore cheaper – than the Europeans were able to do so during the same time period (D’Antonio 108). However, one noticeable difference came to fruition as a result: the taste. D’Antonio states: “From the very beginning, Hershey’s milk chocolate has had a distinctive flavor. It is sweet, like the others, but it also carries a single, faintly sour note” (108). The added acidity that D’Antonio describes began as the result of the fermentation of milk fat; an unanticipated byproduct of Schmalbach’s process of slow and low-heat evaporation. D’Antonio adds: “Anyone who knew Swiss milk chocolate would have detected the unusual taste and may have found Hershey’s candy unpleasant. But in the mouths of people who had never tried the stuff made in Europe, Hershey’s milk chocolate would be a revelation” (108). The process of scaling-up chocolate for North American production is ultimately what gave Hershey’s its distinct flavor. The mass-production giant that it is, Hershey’s has come to define the taste of chocolate for Americans today. It’s incredible that an entire nation’s perception of chocolate was decided at the exact moment Milton S. Hershey decided to enlist the help of John Schmalbach on a whim; disregarding the chemists who had previously failed him. Had that process not been discovered in their random experimentation, it is likely Americans would have a vastly different taste of chocolate today. This is just an example of how the causality between changing tastes and changing recipes of chocolate can be reversed; the recipe/preparation techniques helped shape the taste of an entire nation.

The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair 2015


  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007[1996].
  2. Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.
  4. D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2006.
  5. Spices: Exotic Flavors and Medicines (Chocolate), UCLA, 2002, https://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice/index.cfm?displayID=4
  6. CHART OF THE DAY: American Per-Capita Sugar Consumption Hits 100 Pounds Per Year, Business Insider, 2012, https://www.businessinsider.com/chart-american-sugar-consumption-2012-2?r=US&IR=T
  7. Martin, Carla. Colonial European Chocolate Recipe Ingredients, Chocolate Expansion, Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide 30. Spring Academic Year, 2020.
  8. The Chocolate Wars: American vs British Cadbury, Vanity Fair, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lUkZH2pIYM

The Biology and Morality of Chocolate and Sugar Consumption

In the words of Sidney Mintz, “…Sugar is sweet, and human beings like sweetness” (1986). But what about this liking for sugar made chocolate bars one of our most symbolic pieces of food, taking over holidays like Valentine’s Day and Easter? How do we approach the problems of fair working conditions for the farmers who cultivate the cacao and sugar cane? In this blog post I will explore the biological reasoning for why sugar made chocolate such a hot commodity in so many parts of the world. I also offer that this biological predisposition to love the taste of sweetness is, in part, what has given chocolate such a high place in the food industry and our society, despite the moral wrongs associated with chocolate production. To resolve the moral dilemma of chocolate consumption, we must fight against the behind-the-scenes production story, which threatens the basic rights of millions of farmers. 

Sugar and the Brain

Let us begin by exploring why taking a sweet bite of anything gives us so much pleasure. It is important to remember that sugars are a part of a large family of carbohydrates, which is one of the main energy sources for our bodies. So, it makes sense that sweetness on the tongue, which signals to our brains that we are consuming carbohydrates, causes a pleasurable response (Reed & McDaniel, 2006). Moreover, following this evolutionary perspective is the reasoning that poisonous foods are not usually sweet-tasting, so our bodies have more justification for why we meet sweet-tasting foods with a positive reaction (Reed & McDaniel, 2006). The short video below describes the science behind sugar consumption; in other words, how sugar affects your brain and body. 

Video 1. How sugar affects the brain, by Nicole Avna. Source: TedEd.

It is not surprising, then, that using sugar as a sweetener for chocolate made us go crazy for it. The cacao that chocolate is derived from was once “food of the gods” served as a bitter drink in Mayan civilizations. However, the sweet candy we know now became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries upon the revolutionary cocoa press, invented in 1828 by Coenraad Johannes van Houten (Klein, 2018). And now we are at the present day, where “the average American consumes 12 lbs. of chocolate each year, and more than $75 billion worldwide is spent on chocolate annually” (Klein, 2018).

The Moral Dilemma

This human quasi-addiction to sugar begins to answer the question, why do we allow the violation of human rights for millions of people just so that we can have our cacao and sugar cane grown? This question, which definitely implicates much more research and perspective, is one that I will only be able to graze the surface of. Nonetheless, I do believe that a biological perspective does hold some merit here, as we find ourselves in a moral dilemma as we enjoy pieces of sweetened chocolate which were produced through the back-breaking and inhumane labor of other human beings, including children. The farmers, not the distributors in the high-income countries, are the ones who are hit the hardest when the market prices fluctuate – For instance, farmers on the Ivory Coast see their cocoa income decrease “by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next” (Fountain & Huetz-Adams, 2018). This is on top of the fact that millions of these farmers are children, and they are making about 31% of a living wage (Fountain & Huetz-Adams, 2018). 

Figure 1. Map of the Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries. Source: Chocolate Phayanak.

What Can We Do?

So, while we are evolutionarily inclined to enjoy this chocolate, cycles of slavery and cruel treatment to farmers all over the world would tell us not to indulge. While there is no straightforward answer here, I suggest that what we should push for is more Fairtrade schemes, which need to be more heavily supported by the governments of rich countries, since these products would be more expensive than non-Fairtrade products. As explained by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, these schemes support the farmers by generating “hundreds of millions of additional dollars for small products in developing countries” and the schemes also protect the farmers rights, including “freedom of association and protection from sexual harassment” (Singer & Mason, 2007).  

Figure 2. Nestle Kit Kat Bard with Fairtrade symbol. This symbol is visible on food items of companies with Fairtrade certification. Source: Campaign.

Additionally, the farmers from these low-income countries need to be making a living wage, and they need more subsidies to protect them from immediate income fluctuation in response to market price changes. They need to be protected from this price volatility and the disproportionate risk that they bear in this supply chain. This is only possible with major support from the governments involved as well as international actors. This also requires consumer awareness – that is, all of us being invested in the dialogue around and action against this structural oppression and poverty.

In conclusion, the harm does not come from our inherent love for all things sweet; rather from our indifference towards the means to get that sweet chocolate bar in our hands. Until we fight against the oppressive labor conditions of the farmers who make it possible for chocolate to be such a symbol in our societies, we will be faced with this very bitter moral dilemma.


Fountain, A., Huetz-Adams, F. (2018). Cacao Barometer 2018. N.p.

Klein, Christopher (2018). The Sweet History of Chocolate. Retrieved 25 March 2020 from <https://www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate>

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Reed, D., McDaniel, A. (2006). The Human Sweet Tooth. BMC Oral Health 6(Suppl 1): S17.

Singer, P., Mason, J. (2007). The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Pennsylvania: Rodale Books.

Figure 1. Chocolate Phayanak (2017). Top 10 Cocoa Producing Countries. [map]. Retrieved from <https://chocolatephayanak.com/unkategorisiert/where-is-cocoa-grown-around-the-world/>

Figure 2. Charles, Gemma (2010). Kit Kat: Nestle Brand. [photo]. Retrieved from <https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/nestle-launches-biggest-ever-cross-category-push/1015362>

Video 1. Avena, Nicole (2014). How Sugar Affects the Brain. . Retrieved from YouTube (TedEd) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=lEXBxijQREo&feature=emb_title>

The Growth of sugar consumption in Britain

From the first introduction of sugar in Europe in 1000 AD until present times, its consumption has skyrocketed amongst British people. The mass availability of sugar in Britain is linked to a global labor market with its roots in chattel slavery. When sugar first entered Britain, it remained a food stuff of the elite in England for centuries before spreading to the common people. After the introduction of sugar to the masses, the consumption of the product grew immensely and solidified itself as a staple of the British diet, well into the present. This paper will first trace the cultivation of sugar in Britain’s sugar plantation in the Americas in order to understand the availability of sugar as a commodity and the impact of the global market on mainland Britain’s consumption habits. Next, this paper will look at the growth of sugar usage among the elite of the country. Sugar then proliferated to the masses through medicinal uses and the popularization of teas, as well as to fit the productive needs to the working class. Therefore, the popularization of sugar in Britain can be attributed to the combination of slavery’s economic system as well as the versatility of the food’s usages from ritual to practical in the daily lives of British civilians.

The popularization of sugar as a staple in British society could not have come about without the colonial endeavors of Britain and its dependence of slavery in the new world. Europeans first came about the existence of sugar in the early 1000s AD. In Europe, Spain was first to cultivate sugar abroad, but Britain was later to develop its colonial sugar plantations. In 1637, Britain successfully cultivated sugar in Barbados, setting off an expansion of sugar cultivation in Britain’s other colonies (Mintz). In “Sweetness and Power”, Sidney Mintz writes that “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 the system was sugar” (Mintz). With this statement Mintz affirms a very deeply unbreakable connection between Britain’s colonial efforts, slavery, and the availability of sugar for it to even become a staple item in the mainland. In fact, Mintz also asserts that sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than other crops (Mintz) With the increasing importation of slaves to colonial plantations, the availability of sugar began to skyrocket. While the connection between the slave trade and sugar consumption exists, it is key to understand the magnitude of human capital necessary for the popularization of sugar and its availability for social life. The process of making sugar for consumers required constant, back breaking work, that required a year long process. Slave labor was not just menial unskilled labor, as slaves were involved in many tedious steps of planting, harvesting, boiling, and crystalizing (Dunn). This process was so strenuous and relentless that slaves died at alarming rates and had to be replaced constantly. Mintz asserts that by the nineteenth century, sugar was a staple among all British people. In the animation on the slave trade below, it is illustrated that the import of slaves to the Carribbean rose almost exponentially between the first introduction of sugar to British elite and to its popularization among the masses. 


The direct relationship between slave imports and sugar consumption can not be ignored. Further, as Britain’s advancement of its colonial power and its increased productivity of sugar allowed them to increase their market share of the product. Soon, the underdogs were able to compete with other countries, which allowed their prices to decrease and as a result, their domestic consumption of sugar was also able to rise (Mintz). Hence, the slave labor of Africans in Barbados, Jamaica and other colonies was key for the increased consumption of the product at home, which will be illustrated below. 

Even though Britain had fine tuned their production of sugar abroad, the initial consumption of sugar at home was limited to the elites of the country, which made the sugar’s usages in the seventeenth century symbolic of opulence. Mintz writes that 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” (Mintz). Sugar’s utility as a status symbol among the elites of Britain is best exemplified in the popularity of subtleties. Subtleties were figurines made of sugar mixed with other materials. They would be utilized, for example, during banquets of royalty to denote between different courses of meals (Mintz). At this point, sugar was a rare and expensive resource, so the display of sugar in this form was an ultimate display of power and wealth. Large amounts of sugar, of different kinds of colors would be molded into different structures to be admired, and then eaten afterwards. By displaying such art and then eating it, subtleties were a way to flex one’s wealth. With time, the usage of sugar as decorative accessories diffused from the upper elite into the aspiring upper classes who wanted to use subtleties as a way to stake a claim into high status groups. Thus, more people were going out their way to acquire sugar and to display this commodity for its social significance. As this trend continued, Mintz notes cookbooks that appeared in the eighteenth century with sugar subtleties recipes within (Mintz). The existence of these cookbooks can be argued to mean that subtleties were becoming more widely consumed, as now there was an audience interested in producing their own versions. An interesting fact however, is that with the continued spread of the subtleties down the social ladder, the symbolic meaning, and the prestige associated with ornate sugar structures decreased. In a fast forwarding to the present, the “British Bake Off” shows an example of the continuation of intricate dessert pieces. 

In fact, a contestant even once built a colosseum out of cake. One could imagine a king making a subtlety of a colosseum to flex their royal might and descendancy from the ancient Greeks. However today, such shows of sugar artistry are merely for the everyday person’s entertainment on television. 

Beyond the proliferation of sugar among the masses as a means to illustrate one’s prestige, sugar became popular among commoners because of its utility as an energy source for the increasingly busy working class. Mintz writes that the diets of the working British were often harsh, and not full of enough nutrients. Specifically, the complex carbohydrates in the largely grain based diets were difficult for the body to process and to convert into needed energy. Sugar became popular because the body is easier able to access energy from the more simple carbohydrate structure of sucrose. In essence, it became a saving grace for people working long hours, without great nutrition, who couldn’t afford to stop moving. Although by the time sugar reached the masses in the nineteenth century, people were not so educated about why they were so drawn to sugar. Today of course, we have a better understanding. To fully understand why sugar became such a rage, an overview of how it is broken down by the body is important, and can be found below. 

Also helpful to the boom of sugar usage was the increase in consumption of teas in Britain (Mintz). Today, tea has become a cultural signature of British culture in the United States. However, the simultaneous emergence of tea with sugar really allowed people to enjoy tea. Tea has caffeine, and was an energy source for working people. Tea does not have high caffeine content, but it was still a help to people in need of fast energy. Similarly, coffee emerged for British consumers as a source of energy and became intertwined with culture. The growth in popularity of tea and coffee was assisted by sugar, which was used as a sweetener. However, the exact caffeination content of tea and coffee are not so high, so it is interesting that their energy effects popularized them so much. According to the Mayo Clinic, a brewed cup of coffee only has 96mg of caffeine, and a cup of black tea has  46 mg (Mayo Clinic). This is a juxtaposition to energy shots readily available today with 215 mg of caffeine. However, everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine varies, and is unknown in several ways. Well known is that the need for energy has persisted into many cultures today. 

Understanding the changes in sugar consumption among the British is a complicated endeavor involving economic catalysts, status motivations, and the necessities of the working class. While the narrating the full picture would require a much more extensive paper, this paper focused on key causes as expressed by Mintz. Understanding the growth of sugar reveals that the foods we enjoy are not solely determined by random chance, and our taste buds. Although sugar now is a key item in cuisine, this paper shows that it was not always this case. To get to this place, slaves died, kings flaunted, the upper class yearned, and the working class fueled themselves. 

Works Cited

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

How Do Carbohydrates Impact Your Health? – Richard J. Wood. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxzc_2c6GMg&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

“How Much Caffeine Is in Your Cup?” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20049372. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” Slate, June 2015. Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html.

Top 10 British Bake-Off Treats. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJS7JWP1NEo. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Dunn, Richard S., and Institute of Early American History Culture. Sugar and Slaves; the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

The Transforming Use of Sugar

Since the initial introduction of sugar to the world to now, its purpose has changed dramatically. However, if we track the consumptive changes to sugar over Britain’s history, we are able to see that it had more of a use rather than just as a sweetener in desserts and dishes that we often find ourselves gravitating towards. We can track the historical change in sugar’s consumption by juxtaposing it with who it was often used by. Earlier in Europe’s history around 1100 A.D., sugar was associated with spices such as pepper, ginger, saffron, among others because it was not affordable to many (Mintz, 1986). Therefore, it would make sense why it was used sparingly as many spices are used instead of in large amounts as we do now that it is much cheaper and drastically more available. It is interesting to see how sugar was used in the past though, especially when it was used to season oysters (Mintz, 1986). It is a testament to how preferences in taste can change over time, depending on the social customs associated with certain foods and tastes.

By the 16th century, sugar began to be used as decorative material. The whiter sugar was, the more expensive it was seen to be because pure sucrose was white (Mintz, 1986). Because sugar was an indicator of power in these very visual ways and because it was preservable, sugar began to be used to decorate in wealthier households. It would be used to create sculptures that were both preservable and edible; these would be called marzipan (Mintz, 1986). These decorative pieces would not just be applauded because they were edible and beautiful, but also because they made comments on the political environment through its subtleties (Mintz, 1986). While it may seem odd to us that sugar, something we eat in high volume today, was used to create such coveted pieces of art, it may occur to us that those of high status did this because they wanted to use and showcase their wealth. Not only were they able to afford this expensive commodity to eat, but they were able to put it on display and create social meaning out of it as well. This combined effort would have taken a lot of investment, and so it held symbolic importance.

As time passed, sugar became more available to the public and thus lost some of its symbolic importance and became more affordable. Therefore, it began to take on a new role in society as medicine, especially as it gained its medicinal credibility from sources like a ninth-century Arab manuscript from Iraq (Mintz, 1986). Sugar was not used as a medicine just on its own – it was combined with honey, fruits, flowers petals, hot water, among other ingredients (Mintz, 1986). Specifically in Britain in the 13th century, medicinal tonics with sugar began to pave its way in society. While to us this may seem absurd, to people in Europe, they thought it so necessary and common that they developed an expression “like an apothecary without sugar” to refer to something so helpless or useless (Mintz, 1986). Of course, sugar being used medicinally was not met without controversy or backlash, especially later in history in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Its use as a medicine would disappear especially as it began to be used as a sweetener and preservative. We see remnants of sugar’s reference as a medicinal supplement come up in works of popular culture like the famous song “Spoonful of Sugar” where the lyrics propose that it helps the medicine go down. Meanwhile, many of us would not be able to imagine a world today where we would realistically do such a thing.

Sugar began to be used in conjunction with other bitter tasting substances that were introduced to Britain like tea, coffee, and chocolate, although it is not known when this habit began (Highmore, 2011). Among these three, the success of tea and sugar in Britain seemed to be most closely tied, especially because the production of tea was profitable as it was from a British colony and thus powerful (Mintz, 1986). As mentioned before, sugar was on its way to continuously being more affordable and attainable to the greater public, not just to those with wealth. While it could be used to sweeten certain foods and beverages in Britain, it also began to be used as a preservative. For example, the British learned that sugar could be used to preserve fruit, which began to be consumed in high volumes in the English diet (Mintz, 1986). This preservation of food would help society as a whole with its consumption choices especially because it widened the horizons of what people could eat because it would last for longer. In sugar’s purpose as a sweetener and a preservative, it becomes obvious that its usefulness is paired with other goods that were rising in popularity like tea, coffee, and fruits. This idea reinforced the notion that globalization of goods through trade was becoming more prominent and apparent in everyday choices. 

Throughout history until now, sugar has been ever present in British society, although the form in which it presents itself may change. In terms of sugar’s modern day use in Britain, the government made an effort to reduce sugar consumption by putting a “sugar tax” on sweetened drinks in 2016 (Colborne, 2016). The fact that sugar needs to be taxed because of its common usage is testament to its affordability and availability. This plan of action is reminiscent of other countries such as France, Finland, Mexico, and Hungary that have also taxed sugar-sweetened drinks (Colborne, 2016). The motivation for the sugar tax comes from an effort to lower risks of “type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and common cancers” (Colborne, 2016). Sugar’s role in society may be steady but it is not without efforts to decrease it for health reasons, an interesting development given its previous use as a medicinal property. As we saw throughout Britain’s history, sugar’s value is relative to its social use. It will be important to continue to track the use of goods like sugar because it also serves as a way to gauge society’s current pulse.

Works Cited

Chrisman-Campbell, K. (2015, November 26). Instagramming Your Thanksgiving Dinner: A 16th-Century Tradition. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/11/the-16th-century-origins-of-food-porn/417639/

Colborne, M. (2016, May 17). Britain’s “sugar tax” tackles obesity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4868617/

Highmore, B. (2011). Introduction: Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness – Sugar on the Move. New Formations, 74(74), 5–17. doi: 10.3898/newf.74.introduction.2011

[Jean Belmondo]. (2017, June 23). A Spoonful of Sugar – Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins in 1964 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_L4qauTiCY4.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.

Sugar Sugar Sugar! The Rise in British Sugar Consumption

Historical changes in British sugar consumption were influenced by many different factors, whether that includes the slave trade or the many different uses that were being discovered for the product. Some of the uses that developed in the 18th and 19th centuries include medicine, decorative material, sweetener, preservative, and a spice-condiment. These uses increased both the supply and demand in the market for sugar as it became more readily available to everyone and not just the elites. The dynamic of social status changed, as sugar consumption slowly trickled down to the middle class because of the massive increase in production.


This increase in production is due to slavery and an increase in production and availability. This primarily comes from the Triangular Trade that occurred over many years in the 17th and 18th centuries across the Atlantic Ocean. This trade included many important commodities; the most important being the slaves that were transported out of Africa. “Britain’s annual per capita consumption of sugar was 4lbs in 1704, 18lbs in 1800, 90lbs in 1901 – a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe. And while slavery had been abolished (lastly in Cuba, in 1884), cheapness was sustained by new flows of indentured labour from India, Africa and China” (The Guardian). Because of the large import of slaves, this allowed sugar to become much more available to everyone in Britain. Due to the slave trade, “the owners of the immense fortunes created by the labor of millions of slaves stolen from Africa, on millions of acres of the New World stolen from the Indians – wealth in the form of commodities like sugar, molasses, and rum to be sold to Africans, Indians, colonials, and the British working class alike – has become even more solidly attached to the centers of power in English society at large” (Mintz 157). This was known to be an inhumane way to earn massive profits but was acceptable at the time by companies because they wanted to be ahead of everyone else in sugar production.

Image of the Triangular Trade

Sugar was also able to shift society from being more hierarchal to incorporating more citizens in a democratic way. Sidney Mintz discusses these historical changes in British sugar consumption in his book Sweetness and Power. Sidney Mintz highlights the drastic changes in sugar consumption by Europeans as he says “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. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz 5 & 6). This emphasizes how much the different uses of sugar impacted society as a whole and made the use of sugar transition to more of a social norm, rather than a display of wealth and power. The incorporation of sugar into Britain’s diet that I mentioned from Sidney Mintz above, is due to the many uses of sugar that were developed over time. These uses historically changed British sugar consumption because sugar could be used as a decorative material, medicine, sweetener, preservative, and a spice-condiment.

Image of an 18th century sugar plantation

Because of these many uses “The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation” (Mintz 157). It is pretty to recognize the transition in British sugar consumption, because at firs “sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for status-chasing elites. Shaped into elaborate sculptures, mixed into wines, sprinkled on tarts and on glazed roasted meats” (Godoy). It is interesting to see the change in how sugar consumption slowly trickled down to the middle class because of the massive increase in production due to slavery and an increase in production and availability. Sugar consumption created many benefits for the British economy when it became readily available to everyone, as according to NPR “tea-and-sugar monies helped supply the British navy with better foodstuffs, Laudan says, including vegetables when available. And that navy was key to spreading British might across the globe” (Godoy). The exponential increase in British sugar consumption allowed Britain to have a democratic element with the incorporation of everyone in the consumption of sugar, regardless of class, although it began with the elites. This incorporation allowed Britain to thrive economically both in that time and prepared them to thrive in the future.

A video further describing the methods and facts about the Atlantic Slave Trade

Works Cited

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

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News, and Media, 12 Oct. 2007, www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire.” NPR, NPR, 7 Apr. 2015, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2019.

“The Triangular Trade.” National Archives, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/africa_caribbean/docs/trade_routes.htm.Simkin, John. “Sugar Plantations.” Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational, spartacus-educational.com/USASsugar.htm.

Hazard, Anthony, director. The Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You. YouTube, 22 Dec. 2014, youtu.be/3NXC4Q_4JVg.

The Contradiction of Capitalism: Sugar Plantations in the early 1800s

           When we think of sugar, we usually think of candy, decadence, and sweet treats. We associate sugar with emotions of joy, celebration, and excitement. Despite our immediate associations with sugar, what often goes unknown is the darker histories of sugar and its legacy today. Particularly in the 1800s, sugar began to be seen as a commodity of the masses in England, and at the same time, capitalism had newly emerged as an economic system. During this time, sugar became an increasing necessity and a marker of socioeconomic equality within England, but it remained as the foundation of capitalism and racial hierarchy on a global scale. Sugar’s existence exemplifies the contradictory nature of capitalism, how it can seemingly become a food of the masses in 1800s England but in actuality be the root of exploitation. To use sugar to examine the contradictory nature of capitalism, I will first explore the seeming equality that sugar symbolized in England then explain how in actuality, it perpetuated enormous amounts of inequality and hierarchy both within England and on a global scale.

The Rise of Capitalism in the late 1700s

Capitalism became a governing economic form in the late eighteenth century, as we see the rise of mass production and mass consumption governed by the presupposed markets for wage labor (Harvey 66). However, the rise of capitalism can also be seen as involved in “the destruction of economic systems that had preceded it – notably, European feudalism – and the creation of a system of world trade” (Mintz 55). As the New World imported slaves to the Caribbean plantations, this process was vital to the destruction of preceding economic systems and the emergence of capitalism. Now that I’ve set the scene of the late 1700s as the rise of capitalism, I will delve into the contradictory aspects surrounding the so-called equality that capitalism brought with it.

Slaves cutting sugar cane in the 1800s in Trinidad

The So-called Symbolic Equality of Sugar in 17th Century England

           Historically, sugar had been a marker of wealth before the 1800s, but the status of who was consuming sugar changed over time as it became incorporated into the diet of every English person by the 1800s. According to Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power, very few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar, in 1000 AD. By 1650, the nobility and the wealthy in England consumed much sugar and used it in their medicine, literature, and status symbols. In 1800, sugar became a necessity that existed in the diet of every English person, though it might have been costly and not as accessible to those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Clearly, in 1800s England, sugar was in the process of transitioning from being a food of the wealthy to a food of the masses.

“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. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.”

Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power (pp 5-6)

           In fact, in the mid-1800s, George R. Porter, a broker in sugar and an observer of English eating habits wrote that “long habit has in this country led almost every class to the daily use of it” (Mintz 174). England had in essence become a “nation of sucrose eaters” (174). Sucrose or sugar in the early 1800s was transitioning into a food of the masses, and by the mid-1800s it had seemingly been well incorporated into the nation as a whole and not as divisive based on economic status. Upon first glance, it seems like every English person has access to sugar and that sugar is a commodity of the people.

Dismantling the Symbolic Equality of Sugar

           While sugar lost its symbol as wealth in England and instead became a commodity of the people, its role on the global scale reinforced labor structures that were fundamental to vast amounts of inequality.

            Sugar was a major contributor in the popularity of chattel slavery that existed between the 1600s to 1800s. African slaves were brought to Caribbean plantations to produce crops, primarily consisting of sugar. The only party that benefited from the plantation system were the planters, or slaveowners, themselves. Under harsh working schedules and conditions, slaves became exhausted, often taking on the heavy pulling work at a sugar mill that could kill off bulls and horses (Hollsten 255). Slaves faced malnourishment, sexual abuse, extremely difficult and laborious work, and inhumane punishments (Hollsten 256). The production of sugar was deeply rooted in the intense laborious processes and inhumane treatment that slaves received.

This map of the Triangular Trade shows how sugar was produced and exported to Europe and New England from slave labor in the Caribbean.

           Even within Britain, a deeper examination of accessibility to sugar showed that it was inherently unequal. The government taxed the poor regressively for their sugar, which kept sugar consumption lower among the poor (Mintz 175). Even as the poor in England were grappling with learning to use sugar, their use of it was limited – sugar was a minor item in the family budget of the rich in England and they would purchase the same amount regardless of the price, but this was not the case with those who were poor in England, making regressive taxes so prohibitive. In short, “the enslaved Africans who produced the sugar were linked in clear economic relationships to the British laboring people who were learning to eat it” (Mintz 175). Inequality was more present than at glimpse on the surface level of the “nation of sucrose eaters” – it was extant in both England and also on a global scale.

           Thus, as seen by both instances of inhumanity and inequality on a global level and even within Britain, the seeming symbolic equality of sugar tied with “free trade” and emerging markets was, in fact, rife with disparity.

The Contradiction

           Even today, sugar and candy are generally accessible to most individuals in first-world countries but not necessarily to the individuals who are producing the sugar in the first place. While U.S. residents, for example, might not blink an eye when thinking about whether individuals have access to sugar, the way labor markets are structured to this day make it so that there is vast inequality between the global south and the global north, the producers and the consumers respectively of sugar. The emerging economic system of capitalism in the 1800s, rooted in the plantation slavery of the sugar plantations, laid the foundation for the contradictions at the time and its legacy today – symbolic, performative equality of access to sugar in the Global North but inhumane working conditions, inaccessibility to the commodity itself in the Global South.


“Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836.” Wikimedia Commons, 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cutting_Sugar_Cane_in_Trinidad,_1836,_lithograph.jpg.

“Detailed Triangle Trade.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detailed_Triangle_Trade.jpg.

Harvey, Mark. “Slavery, Indenture and the Development of British Industrial Capitalism.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 88, no. 1, 2019, pp. 66–88.

Hollsten, Laura. “Night Time and Entangled Spaces on Early Modern Caribbean Sugar Plantations.” Journal of Global Slavery, vol. 1, no. 2-3, 2016, pp. 248–273.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1986.

Sugar in French and Haitian Cuisines

Sugar consumption had a dramatic rise tied directly to the expansion of the Triangle trade and shifting eating habits. Over time this simple substance became a cornerstone in European food. We can see just how cemented sugar is in modern cuisine by the sheer amount that we consume on a daily basis. In the U.S. the average person consumes a staggering 126.4 grams per day, followed by Germany and the Netherlands at 102.9 grams and 102.5 grams, respectively. England, who we’ll discuss again in this post, consumes a whopping 93.2 grams.

Infographic from the Washington Post

We’ve discussed this meteoric rise before in class, in particular the way sugar uses our instinctual love of sweet things to work its way into our everyday cuisine. But sugar hasn’t fully invaded all cuisines. France, even with a recent rise as processed foods enter common everyday consumption, consumes only 68.5 grams of sugar each day placing it 3rd to last among European countries for sugar consumption. Haitians consume even less, averaging about 41 grams each day or a third that of the average american (Helgilibrary). Why is this? Surely a craving for sweetness is a universal trait, but how have these cultures resisted the temptation so well? In this post, I posit that the low sugar consumption in France and Haiti can be tied directly to the cuisines in each country. As we’ll explore, there are peculiarities in each cuisine that bring about cooler relationships with sugar than that of other nations like England and the U.S. who heavily rely on processed and refined sugars.

The unusual health of the French people is a widely recognized phenomenon. In particular, their low intake of sugar is touted as the source of their lean statures. Diet blogs have published numerous articles on “How to Eat like the French,” which suggest cutting sugar and leaving high-fat foods like butter and cheese in one’s diet. We know that the French eat significantly less sugar per-capita than other European nations and the United States, but how did a country so complicit in the sugar trade through the 17th and 18th centuries keep such an indifferent relationship with the substance? The answer may lie in the French cuisine itself, a collection of fatty and savory tastes that, while leveraging sugar occasionally (primarily in baking), doesn’t have any central role for sugar to take on. In England, for example, we can see sugar taking on a central role as English tastes favored heavily sweetened tea and sugar-rich desserts both at meals and as snacks (Sweetness and Power, 189). With a heavy reliance on sugar for even everyday dishes, we can see why England consumes as much sugar as it does: it’s simply part of the cuisine now. In the case of French cuisine history, sweetened teas never supplanted wine (or coffee, for that matter), and dessert is dominated by cheeses (Sweetness and Power, 189). With both of these niches filled, sugar had little room to enter French cuisine outside of baked goods which have little influence on the everyday life of the average French person. Compare this with English daily tea practices and we can already see a source for the disparity in consumption. For these reasons, sugar hasn’t played a dominant role in French cuisine until more recent times as processed foods enter the everyday eating habits of everyone, including the French.

We’ve explored how France could avoid sugar despite owning sugar colonies, but what if you were a sugar colony? How could a place like Haiti maintain such a low reliance on sugar despite still farming and exporting sugarcane products? In some ways, fault may still lie with the French. Claimed by Spaniard Christopher Columbus in 1492, Haiti existed under sole Spanish influence until Saint-Domingue came under French control in 1625. With the treaty of Ryswick in 1697, these influences effectively split Haiti in half, setting up a century of heavy French influence until the Haitian Revolution that resulted in independence and the first Black Republic in 1804. With such a long period of influence from the French, it would naturally follow that Haitian cuisine would have strong similarities to French cuisine, but the low sugar-per-capita consumption remains an interesting quirk considering the history of sugar in the country. We know from reported statistics that Haitians consume almost a third less sugar than the French, despite whatever similarities might have been developed between their cuisines.

This could, in part, be attributed to economic pressure and poverty leading to difficult access to the sugar products that are produced in the country. However, there is also a unique and vibrant relationship to sugarcane in Haitian cooking that upon closer inspection can give us the ability to explain these statistics. It has much to do with the usage of non-processed sugarcane in dishes. For example, it is common practice to use sugarcane directly in Haitian cooking in the form of sugarcane juice to sweeten beverages or raw sugarcane as an ingredient to stewed dishes. Even rum produced on the island uses sugarcane juice as opposed to the traditional molasses, giving a unique flavor and name (Rhum) (Food by Country). What we see in Haitian cooking is a healthy relationship with sugarcane, not processed and refined sugar. By using sugar in a raw form as opposed to the concentrated and densified version in processed products, Haitians can actually consume less sugar than their European and North American counterparts.

A popular Haitian dish, Pate Kòde (Fried Haitian Patties)

Despite a growing reliance on processed, sugar-heavy foods that skew more recent statistics, France and Haiti have a rich culinary history that, in their own ways, resist an over-reliance on sugar compared to other cultures. While some of these resistances are habitual in nature, like in the case of France and their relationship with wine and cheese in place of tea and sugary desserts, others are more intriguing. I particularly found Haitian usage of sugarcane in cooking to be an interesting characteristic of their cuisine, similar to sources of sweetness in other cuisines like piloncillo in Latino and Mexican cuisine or palm sugar in Thai cuisine. In a way, there are many ways in which we incorporate sugar and sweetness into our foods, and while refined sugar is a convenient metric, it doesn’t always capture the depth of traditional dishes and sources.

Works Cited:

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.

Exploring the Explosion of British Sugar Production: A Supply and Demand Analysis

By the beginning of the 1900s, sugar had become a complete staple of British diets. So much so, that it composed twenty (20%) percent of the average caloric intake (Mintz 6). Since sugar remains such a dominant source of energy in our diets today, this may not seem surprising. However, before 1000 AD, few Europeans even knew of sugar’s existence. This dramatic shift in historical sugar consumption can be explained, in part, by a supply and demand analysis. Demand was fueled by humans’ neurologically wired love for sugar and supply was entirely supported by the slave trade, making it both financially possible and profitable for the British to produce vast quantities of sugar.

Why sugar? What makes sugar so much more popular than other crops? Humans are neurologically programmed to crave sugar. We are wired in such a way that sugar presses the “pleasure” button in our brains more than most other foods. Moreover, as the video below details, unlike with other healthier foods, we have an almost insatiable neurological desire for sugar, that does not diminish with sugar intake. This makes sugar highly addictive, acting almost like modern addictive drugs.

Consequently, from the moment Europeans were introduced to sugar in 1100 CE, sugar was bound to reach high levels of demand. However, satisfying this universal infatuation would not be easy. Sugar can only grow in tropical climates and is quite labor intensive. Therefore, producers would need substantial land in warm climates and a tremendous amount of cheap labor to meet future demand. Enter, the British.

In 1625, Portugal was supplying nearly all of Europe with Brazilian sugar. The British, who learned sugar production methods from the Dutch, subsequently dominated the industry after their humble beginnings in the 1640s on the island of Barbados. The British quickly engulfed the entire island and even expanded into Jamaica.

Mintz argues, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves (to her own colonies and, in absolute numbers, in her own bottoms), and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar. Coffee, chocolate (cacao), nutmeg, and coconut were among the other products; but the amount of sugar produced, the number of its users, and the range of its uses exceeded the others; it remained the principal product for centuries” (Mintz 38). 

However, sugar production was not a risk-free endeavor.  Dunn remarks, “sugar making was a highly volatile business; with the right combination of skill, drive, and luck, a planter could make a quick fortune, but careless management, a tropical storm, an epidemic disease, a slave revolt, or a French invasion could ruin the most flourishing plantation overnight” (Dunn 189). Planters depended on (1) English merchants’ loans for slave and equipment acquisition and (2) the government to provide military and naval protection. These factors were key for Britain’s success in the sugar business. With these high risks came high financial rewards for those who were able to successfully navigate these challenges.

Despite the risks, the British facilitated astounding sugar production growth, fueled by the exploitation of Africans sold in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Sugar production accounted for a greater influx of slaves than any other crop. They enslaved 263,000 individuals alone, with half of their slaves going to the island of Barbados. Slave importation grew exponentially; in all of the English West Indies, the black population grew from forty-two (42%) percent of the total population in 1660, to eighty-one (81%) percent by 1700. The video below explains how Europeans were able to purchase so many slaves from Africa over the decades, and the long-lasting effects of this trade on Africa’s tumultuous political climate.

Agricultural practices on Caribbean sugar plantations differed from English and North American farms. The work force on sugar plantations primarily comprised unskilled forced field workers – nearly one laborer per acre of cane on an average seventeenth-century Barbados plantation. Here, laborers did the work traditionally performed by animals. Such tasks as planting and cultivating, performed on English or North American farms by horse-driven plows and harrows, were carried out in the Indies entirely by hand (Dunn 198). Dunn argues this work was purposely completely inefficiently in the Indies to keep slaves busy year-round, as Cane cultivation is very seasonal and this would have prevented slave rebellions during the offseason. These practices helped the British avoid slave rebellions and ensure steady production growth.

Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the English succeeded in establishing a monopoly on the production of sugar, partially attributable to a rigorous policy of the English Navigation Acts that drove out the Dutch from the sugar trade. With England being at the center of the world’s sugar production, consumption followed suit. Despite fluctuating conditions of supply and demand over the years, English sugar consumption consistently trended upward. Ellis writes, “the price of sugar was falling, and its consumption was spreading rapidly among the English people. By the end of the period sugar had passed well out from among the luxuries and was regarded by increasingly greater numbers as necessary to comfort and happiness” (Ellis 86).

As is clear from the figure above, English sugar consumption per capita grew substantially from the early beginnings in the 1640s on Barbados through the eighteenth century. Sugar went from something only the wealthy could enjoy to a household item. Were it not for the slave trade, producing mass quantities of the good — at such a low cost — would not have been possible. Moreover, we it not for the universal love of sugar, there would not have been the demand to support the high consumption. Therefore, these factors both played a key role in ensuring the explosion of British sugar production.

Works Cited

Dunn, Richard S., and Institute of Early American History Culture. Sugar and Slaves; the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Ellis, Ellen Deborah. An Introduction to the History of Sugar as a Commodity. J. C. Winston Co., 1905.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books. 

The Sweet Taste of Success: Using Sugar to Display Wealth

Today, in the United States, we are so used to sugar being present in the foods and drinks that we consume daily. The overabundance of sugar present in modern consumption has contributed to a public health crisis and sugar has now garnered a negative reputation.[1] Although our contemporary view of sugar differs drastically from when sugar was first introduced to Europe, there is one important similarity that remains. Sugar is an extremely effective medium to convey to others one’s power and wealth, because of its visual and consumptive properties. Visually, sugar is easy to mold as evident in the elaborate decorative displays in both the past (e.g. subtleties) and the present (e.g. wedding cakes). Moreover, because these intricate displays are edible, guests acknowledged the power and wealth of the host by consuming the sugar displays.[2]

The above figure shows the routes of the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. As shown, sugar was an important commodity in the trade. (Popkin)

Sugar was first introduced to Europe around 1100 A.D. and was grouped together with other spices like pepper and ginger.[3] All of these spices were extremely expensive because of how rare they were and only the wealthy were able to afford them. By the fifteen century, sugar imports increased because the wealthy class demand for sugar was increasing, not because sugar had percolated downward to the common class. As a result, sugar became an important part of the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.[4] By the sixteenth century, sugar started to be consumed in a different form: as decoration.

First and foremost, sugar is able to be visually impressive because of its chemical properties. Sugar easily combines with other food components like almond oil, rice, and different gums. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz describes sugar’s properties in his book Sweetness and Power, “The important feature of these [sugar] recipes is that the resulting pastes were used to sculpture forms—forms having an aesthetic aspect but also preservable and edible.”[5] Because sugar could be molded in such a way, the practice of using sugar as a decoration began to spread from North Africa to Europe. Initially, because only the extremely wealthy, like the royalty, could afford sugar in Europe, they were the only ones who could afford to have sugar decorations at their meals. These people included the king, the nobility, the knighthood, and the church. Sugar was combined with other substances like oil and vegetable gums to make a “plastic, claylike substance.” Confectioners could then sculpt grand displays out of this claylike substance, which were called “subtleties.” These subtleties were served in between banquets and took the forms of animals, objects, buildings, and more.[6]

The sugar subtleties pictured above transformed banquets into grand displays. (Willan)

Because sugar was so limited and expensive during this time period, subtleties essentially emphasized someone’s wealth. Not only were the extremely wealthy able to hoard and consume sugar in their daily lives, they were able to explicitly convey their wealth to others by commissioning grand subtleties. Being able to convey one’s wealth with different symbols has always been a feature of the elite, from clothing to language.[7] In this case, subtleties became a new way for someone to convey their wealth to others. Essentially, sugar allowed the wealthy to be in-your-face about their wealth.

Additionally, what makes sugar particularly effective at being a symbol of wealth is because subtleties are edible and, in most cases, meant to be eaten by guests. This property is unique because a lot of physical displays of wealth are physically impressive as in the case of clothing or items molded in silver. However, there are not many edible displays of such grandeur. Furthermore, the edible nature of the subtleties meant that the displays were not meant to last for a long time, compared to items like expensive clothing and silver. Subtleties were often presented at banquets in between courses, destroyed, and then eaten by the guests. In this way, hosts were able to showcase not only that they were able to afford to commission this piece of art but to also destroy it. In turn, guests would be wowed by these sculptures and then would have to accept the host’s wealth by consuming the sugar. Mintz describes this symbolism, “To be able to provide one’s guests with attractive food, which also embodied in display the host’s wealth, power, and status, must have been a special pleasure for the sovereign. By eating these strange symbols of his power, his guests validated that power.”[8]

As time passed, sugar became less and less exclusive. By the late sixteenth century, subtleties expanded between the extremely wealthy classes like the merchant class. This is evident in that subtlety recipes began to appear in cookbooks, so it was no longer an exclusive practice for the select few.[9]

Even though today, sugar is abundant and present in everything we eat, displays of sugar are still common in the form of different desserts. For example, wedding cakes can become tremendously expensive depending on how grand the couple wants their cake to be. Thus, subtleties are not necessarily items relegated to the past and instead, are still relevant today as a display of wealth and grandeur.

Works Cited

[1] C. A. Grimes et al., “Dietary Salt Intake, Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption, and Obesity Risk,” Pediatrics 131, no. 1 (October 2012): pp. 14-21.

[2] Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986, 90.

[3] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 79.

[4] Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

[5] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 88.

[6] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 89.

[7] Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. “Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments.” Sociological Theory 6, no. 2 (1988): 153.

[8] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 90.

[9] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 93.


Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third. Thames & Hudson.

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Title-Page: Glasse, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” n.d. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/bf/d5/d1b945439258ef0255875ef8d3a2.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0014985.html. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Title-page;_Glasse,_%22The_art_of_cookery_made_plain_and_easy%22_Wellcome_L0014985.jpg.