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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.