Tag Archives: sweetness and power

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.

Grimes, C. A., L. J. Riddell, K. J. Campbell, and C. A. Nowson. 2013. “Dietary Salt Intake, Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption, and Obesity Risk.” PEDIATRICS 131 (1): 14–21. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-1628.

Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. 1988. “Cultural Capital: Allusions, Gaps and Glissandos in Recent Theoretical Developments.” Sociological Theory 6 (2): 153. https://doi.org/10.2307/202113.

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

Popkin, Barry. n.d. “Figure 1: The Atlantic Trade Routes between Africa, the New World And…” ResearchGate. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Atlantic-trade-routes-between-Africa-the-New-World-and-Europe-The-trade-triangle_fig2_49676792.

Willan, Anne. 2016. “How Raw Sugar Transformed the European Banquet.” The Getty Iris (blog). February 23, 2016. https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/how-raw-sugar-transformed-the-european-banquet/.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse. n.d. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/5d/84/fae6076fcf6cc9867c26985f2650.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0034892.html Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-04-03): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/d766bfa8 CC-BY-4.0. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Art_of_Cookery_made_Plain_and_Easy%27_by_Hannah_Glasse_Wellcome_L0034892.jpg.

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.

The Danger of Sugar Consumption: A History of British Sugar Consumption and its Importance in America Today

Throughout history, sugar has undergone many changes in terms of its use, how much of it is consumed and who is able to consume it. Historically, sugar was used as medicine, spice-condiments, decorative material, sweetener and preservative material (Mintz 1985, 78). Today, sugar is most commonly consumed as a food. Apart from sugar’s change in function, the amount of sugar consumed has also changed. Today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar per year (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). Furthermore, sugar is no longer consumed primarily by the wealthy and elite, but rather as an inexpensive food consumed by everyone, particularly the impoverished. While sugar historically was socially important as a symbol of class and power, today sugar is important due to its severe health implications. 

In regards to the historical timeline, sugar came to England in the 12th century. At this time, it was only consumed by privileged groups. In the 16th century, the usage of sugar as a spice, where sugar altered the flavour of food, reached its peak (Mintz 1985, 86). In addition, there was a practice of using sugar as decoration (Mintz 1985, 87), and the medicinal uses of sugar also became common (Mintz 1985, 103). During this time, sugar was believed to provide a more varied diet and improve digestion, and the practice of using sugar as a decorative material arose from sugar’s uses in medicine due to its blendable properties. These blendable properties permitted the creation of art and sculptures out of sugar. In the 18th century, sugar’s medicinal role diminished and it was instead used as a sweetener and preservative (Mintz 1985, 108). In the late 18th century, sugar as food emerged and in the 19th century, it moved from being haute cuisine to a relatively inexpensive commodity that was common in the British diet.

Historically, the consumption of sugar was socially important because it was a symbol of class and power. The first recorded mention of sugar can be found in records of royal income and expenditures (Mintz 1985, 82), as sugar was a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy. Differences in quantity and form of consumption expressed social and economic differences within the national population. For example, there is a connection between elaborate manufactures of sweet edibles and the validation of social position (Mintz 1985, 90). It was only the wealthy who were able to create decorative pieces out of sugar and these pieces were displayed at dinner parties to demonstrate one’s elevated socioeconomic status. However, as sugar became cheaper and more plentiful, its potency as a symbol of power declined. In turn, it’s importance within diets increased.

Sugar began to gain importance again when the shift from sugar as a spice to sweetener occurred. This shift was important because sweet-tasting substances insinuate themselves much more quickly into the preferences of consumers (Mintz 1985, 109). Consequently, the preference for sugar as a food emerged amongst consumers. World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). This increase in production is due to a massive increase in consumption. For instance, 200 years ago, the average American ate only 2 pounds of sugar a year. In comparison, today, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year (Lecture 04: Sugar and Cacao). 

As sugar consumption increased, so did the resulting health concerns surrounding sugar consumption. Today, it may be difficult to imagine sugar having once served a medicinal function because it has become controversial in modern discussions of health, diet and nutrition. 

For instance, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 9.5 tsp of sugar/day.
For instance, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 9.5 tsp of sugar/day. 
However, the average American is still consuming around 22 tsps of sugar/day.
However, the average American is still consuming around 22 tsps of sugar/day.

According to Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, consuming excessive amounts of sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes and can have a serious impact on cardiac health (Hu 2017). Therefore, there is a need for adequate responses to address the rising issue of sugar consumption. 

Today, we see responses in the form of awareness campaigns within the media and through policy recommendations by the government. For example, the 2011 “Sugar Pack”campaign was a marketing campaign which aimed to increase awareness about the number of sugar packets contained in sugary drinks and the health effects of obesity in order to motivate the public to reduce their consumption of such drinks. Subsequently, Congress passed a bill in 2015 that imposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, the revenue of which is dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and research of diet-related health conditions.

In conclusion, sugar has served many functions and proven significant throughout history. The decline in the symbolic importance of sugar has corresponded with an increase in its dietary importance. Sugar’s most dangerous function has been as a food. When sugar’s function as a food emerged and when it became an inexpensive commodity, there was a rise in sugar consumption amongst all classes. This sugar consumption has caused nutritionists to be worried about the health of our population today. However, well-crafted media campaigns and policies, like the Sugar Pack campaign and national soda tax, are likely to reduce the consumption of sugar and therefore health related problems: like obesity and diabetes. This would in turn, reduce health care costs, and the revenue from something such as a soda tax can be used towards education about the dangers of overconsumption of sugar.

Works Cited:

Bittman, Mark. Introducing the National Soda Tax.” The New York Times, 29 July 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/opinion/mark-bittman-introducing-the-national-soda-tax.html.

How Much Sugar in Soda? Too Many Sugary Drinks?Youtube, 1 Mar. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=23&v=wKhi8uaoDeo&feature=emb_logo.

Hu, Frank. The Sweet Danger of Sugar. Harvard Health Publishing, May 2017, http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar.

Liao, Tien-Min. Sugar of the Day. CC Search, search.creativecommons.org/photos/247073d4-797f-4dff-9975-601f97bb7dbf.

Liao, Tien-Min. Sugar of the Day. CC Search, 


Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao” AFRAMER 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 19 Feb. 2020.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power.

United States, Congress, House, Ways and Means; Energy and Commerce. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2015Congress. Gov, 2015.

Tales of the “Christmas Crack”: Cracking into the Not-So-Sweet History of Cacao and Sugar Production

At my family’s most recent holiday party, I spotted my favorite dessert: my mom’s famous salt, butter, and sugar of the Earth, homemade “Christmas Crack.” In other words, a chocolatey saltine toffee delight that seemed to have been sent to us by the Mayan Cacao God himself (Figure 1). I eagerly grabbed a piece, brought it to my lips, and closed my eyes in anticipation…only to have them fly open in horror, as I remembered that the hundreds of years of labor atrocities that plagued the production of its key components were anything but sweet.

Figure 1.1 The Mayan Cacao God, depicted on an ancient stone bowl. Some anthropologists argue that the deity is not a unique Cacao God, but in fact the Maize God embodying a cacao tree.1 The Mayans revered cacao because it “originated from the gods,” giving it economic value and ritualistic significance.1 Cacao was representative of power, a view that was strongly paralleled in Europe in the 1500s-1800s.2

Society perceives chocolate to be a comfort food and luxury, views that are perhaps reminiscent of its introduction to wealthy and noble Europeans in the 1500s-1600s.3 At this time, the lower classes desired the security of high-society individuals – likewise, they aspired to emulate their habits, and in doing so, associated the act of eating sugar and chocolate with happiness and wellbeing.3 Increasing demand for sugar and cacao amongst all social classes in Europe aided in the New World’s shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery, perpetuating a cycle of mass demand, mass production, and egregious human rights abuses until abolition in the mid-1800s.

Modern chocolate was born of the encomienda system in the 1500s in the Central American Izalcos region, which had the perfect combination of environmental conditions for the Theobroma cacao tree – and thus, forced labor – to thrive (Figure 2).4 Instituted by the Spanish crown, the encomienda system granted colonists the right to impose substantial production quotas on the indigenous people of the region, under the guise that it was payment for Spanish “protection” and “Christianization.”2 This system helped cacao output to grow, such that peak Izalcos production coincided with cacao’s high-priced introduction to the European market and diet around 1580.4 In this manner, cacao – and thus, chocolate – made its violent European high-society debut, leading anthropologist Kathryn Sampeck to claim that “the wretchedness of the Izalcos example was so extreme…because the Izalcos was a roguish, wayward economic frontier, the kind of frontier that created wildness so that some—and not others—may reap its rewards.”2 While Spanish colonists and nobles accumulated money and power, indigenous farmers endured “physical violence and extreme labor demands with almost no regard for human dignity.”2 Thus, the Spanish use of indigenous forced labor to extract tribute in the form of cacao beans enabled the European elite to derive power from the consumption of this expensive commodity; as chocolate became increasingly popular with the wealthy, it developed into a symbol of social status and financial security. Consequently, the masses began to associate chocolate with a sense of well-being, while failing to recognize that it was a product that was deeply rooted in forced indigenous labor on the other side of the world.

Figure 2.5 Cacao cultivation was widespread throughout Mesoamerica, thriving in shaded, humid regions with rich soil.4 While other high-yield regions such as the gulf region of Tabasco, the Soconusco region near the Pacific coast, and Suchitepequez produced notable cacao quantities, the Izalcos region is historically significant because the Spanish valued its superproducer qualities.4

Chocolate, however, was just a single component in the development of the European sweet tooth. The harsh conditions that laborers in the New World endured can only be fully explored when sugar itself is analyzed as a high-powered commodity, one that asserted its authority over the masses as its functions shifted from spicing up small-scale bonbons to widespread use as a preservative, and later, as a substantial caloric source.3 Like cacao, sugar was one of the crucial crops that fueled the rise of capitalism in Europe – and thus, the boom in slave labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. Increasing demand for the two commodities required that production increase at corresponding levels (Figure 3).3 There was only one problem – 80-90% of the native Central American and Caribbean populations were dying from exposure to European diseases, meaning that colonizers had to bring in laborers by the millions to sustain society’s increasing hunger for sugar.6

Figure 3.7 Sugar consumption in England, 1600-1850. Sugar was regularly consumed by noble and wealthy Europeans in the early 1600s; by the 1800s, the once-exotic substance had become a daily necessity that spanned across social classes, comprising roughly 14% of British caloric intake.3 Such an exponential increase in demand required that production, and thus labor levels, match that growth. Consequently, the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy aided in the shift from indigenous labor to a capitalistic use of slavery in the New World.

In this manner, slaves became yet another commodity, shipped in from Africa because this was the most economical and feasible location from which to source human bodies to match demand (Figure 4).6,8 From 1690-1790, Europe imported roughly 12 million tons of sugar– about the same number of African lives that were lost in its production; in this way, sugar became the “most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer, but the producer.”6 Such a dramatic toll on human life was enabled by a scaling of economies that was perpetuated by the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy, who, in turn, were more than happy to comply if it brought them more money and power. Mass production became the European mindset – after all, money now grew on trees. With this shift to mass production came a capitalistic use of slavery, a labor source that was rooted in countless human rights abuses. Thus, growing demand for sugar and cacao in Europe, spurred by the lower class’ aspirations to obtain a sense of security enjoyed by the elite, enabled the shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery in the New World.

Figure 4.9 Colonists imported upwards of 15 million slaves from Africa in an effort to sustain production efforts for crops such as sugar and cacao.9 Slave conception was discouraged in the sugar industry and death rates were high, meaning that the only way to keep up with production needs was to continue importing slaves.6

On that note, I returned to the present day, toffee melting satisfyingly on my tongue, yet mouth open in disgust. How can it be that something so enchanting is rooted in such brutality? How did some conservative members of society consider chocolate to be sinful when it was first introduced to Europe, not because its production required barbarism and carnage, but because it was enjoyable?6 So, the next time you indulge in a chocolate concoction, pay tribute to its exploitative and cruel past, and remember that your favorite holiday treat may not be coated in dark chocolate chips, but instead in deceit.

“Christmas Crack” Saltine Toffee Recipe

Prep + Cook Time: 20 minutes


  • 1.5 sleeves saltine crackers
  • 1.5 sticks butter
  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups chocolate chips


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Line baking sheet with one layer of saltine crackers. Crush remaining crackers for later use as a topping.
  3. Place the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then carefully pour the mixture evenly over the crackers. Use a baking spatula to smooth the mixture over all crackers.
  4. Bake the crackers in the oven for 5 minutes, until the toffee is bubbling all over. Carefully remove baking sheet from the oven and let cool for 1 minute.
  5. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee crackers. Allow to partially melt, then use a baking spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the entire sheet. Add desired toppings.
  6. Freeze the toffee for 30+ minutes. Once frozen, break into small pieces and enjoy!

References, Including Figure Sources

1. CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods. Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/morethanadrink.php.

2. Sampeck, K. Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala. (2019).

3. Mintz, S. W. Sweetness and Power. (1985).

4. Sampeck, K. & Thayn, J. Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. (2017).

5. Kaplan, J., Umaña, F. & Hurst. Cacao residues in vessels from Chocolá, an early Maya polity in the southern Guatemalan piedmont, determined by semi-quantitative testing and high-performance liquid chromatography. Jounrnal Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 13, 526–534 (2017).

6. Hobhouse, H. Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind. (Harper & Row, 1986).

7. Hersh, J. & Voth, H.-J. Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1402322 (2009).

8. Kahn, A. & Bouie, J. The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html (2015).

9. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Pilot Guides https://www.pilotguides.com/study-guides/transatlantic-slave-trade/.

The Molinillo: a Hybrid of Many Cultures, Not Just a “Mexican” Tool

Chocolate has a rich history in Mesoamerica, dating back to the Olmecs in 1500 BCE. However, it was not until after the Spanish invasion in the 16thcentury that chocolate traveled outside of Central America. Chocolate’s interaction with many different cultures and societies resulted in a hybridization process that spanned multiple generations, transforming it from the bitter drink consumed by the Maya and Aztecs to the sweet, sugary chocolate that dominates the world market today. Going through a similar hybridization process was the molinillo, a wooden tool used to produce froth during the chocolate-making process. A Spanish invention, the molinillo quickly became adopted in both Mesoamerica and Europe. However, today the molinillo is depicted in mass media as a distinctly Mesoamerican or Mexican tool, its Spanish and European past minimized and sometimes even neglected all together. This phenomenon can be explained by the difference in meaning attributed to the molinillo in Mesoamerican and European cultures. However, the contemporary characterization of the molinillo as solely Mexican undercuts its historical impact and significance; consequently, it is important to acknowledge the tool as a hybrid of many different cultures, not just one.

Although the molinillo was important in the chocolate making process, an entirely different method was used for hundreds of years before its introduction. The earliest known depiction of the original froth making process is the Princeton vase of the Maya, dating back to the late Classic period.

Woman creating froth by pouring chocolate from one cup to another
Princeton vase (AD 670-750)

As shown, the Maya poured chocolate from one cup to another, the height helping to froth the liquid. This was the “exclusive method” of pre-conquest Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the Codex Tudela, which depicts a similar image only eight centuries later and on an Aztec artifact rather than Mayan (Coe and Coe, 85).

It was not until the late 16thcentury that the introduction of the molinillo greatly altered this process. The molinillo, thought to be derived from the Spanish word “molino”, or little mill[1], is a wooden, grooved beater invented by the Spaniards. 

A typical molinillo

The Spaniards found that twirling a molinillo through an opening of a covered cup was a better way to produce foam. It was quickly adopted in Mesoamerica, and by the time Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, a Florentine businessman who traveled to Guatemala to observe the chocolate process, printed his official report in 1701, the molinillo was being widely used (Coe and Coe, 139). By 1780, the molinillo supplanted the former foam-making process completely, as evidenced by Francesco Saverio Claviergero’s published report on native Mexican life that describes the use of the molinillo but “totally omits the pouring from one vessel to another to produce a good head on the drink” (Coe and Coe, 85).  Clearly, the molinillo quickly became an essential part of Mesoamerican life.

At the same time the molinillo was being adopted in Central America, it was also gaining popularity in Spain and other European countries. The importance of the molinillo can be seen in a recipe published by the Spaniard Antonio Comenero de Ledesma in 1644, which stated that chocolate is best prepared with a molinillo (Coe and Coe, 133). However, the use of the molinillo was not isolated to Spain. Other European countries adapted the tool to fit their own unique ways of preparing and serving chocolate. For example, the French prepared chocolate in ornate, silver chocolatiers and the molinillo was altered to match these vessels and fit their lids. The molinillo was so widely used it was even depicted in the art of the time, as shown below (Coe and Coe, 222).

A woman reaching for a molinillo sitting atop a silver chocolatier.
“La Crainte” by Noël Le Mire (1724-1830)

Yet in contemporary media, there is little mention of the molinillo’s Spanish influences or its widespread use in Europe. Instead, it is identified as a Mexican artifact. For example, the first link that shows up after a simple Google search is a Wikipedia article that states that a molinillo is a “Mesoamerican tool”, and the only country mentioned in the article is Mexico. Although Wikipedia is not an academic source by any means, in today’s Internet age it is where most people get their information due to its convenience. Even an article that pops up from the Smithsonian magazine, the reputable written resource of the Smithsonian museum, describes the significance of the molinillo with no mention of its use in Europe. It even emphasizes that Spain contributed greatly to the chocolate process, but only in its introduction of sugar, not in its invention of the very artifact the article is about. This begs the question, why has contemporary culture diminished the importance of the Spanish and European past of the molinillo and augmented its Mexican one? Using the framework with which Sydney Mitz evaluates the spread of sugar in Great Britain in his book “Sweetness and Power” can elucidate the answer. According to Mintz, when studying food and the objects used to prepare food, it is essential to examine the meaning ascribed to them because meaning can differ substantially over time and across cultures.

For Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate had a ritual significance. In Maya civilization, Gods were connected to cacao trees, often born of them. For the Aztecs, cacao trees were considered the center of the universe, or an axis mundil, that connected the “supernatural spheres and human spheres” (Carrasco, 92).  As such, chocolate came to have strong religious connotations, and foam was seen as an essential and sacred part of the ritual drink, or as Meredith Dreiss comments, “chocolate is for the body, but foam is for the soul” (Dreiss). Because of this, the molinillo became an essential and incredibly meaningful part of life, as the same religious and cultural emphasis that was put on foam became associated with the tool that made the foam. Yet for the Spaniards and other European countries, this ritual aspect was lacking. When chocolate traveled across the ocean, it lost some of its former meaning while simultaneously gaining new meaning. This is because the meanings associated with symbols are “historically acquired- they arise, grow, change, and die- and they are culture-specific… they have no universal meaning; they ‘mean’ because they occur in specific cultural and historical contexts” (Mintz, 153).  Once chocolate became situated in new cultures, it grew to have different contextual meaning, and none of the new meanings that Spaniards and Europeans associated with chocolate was as heavily focused on foam as it was in Mesoamerica. Consequently, to the Europeans the molinillo was simply a tool to make chocolate rather than a symbol. 

In this context, it can be argued that the cultural meaning that Mesoamerica ascribed to the molinillo is what contributes to its identification today as a distinctly Mexican tool. This is because although a Spanish invention and widely used, the molinillo did not have a significant cultural meaning like it did in Mesoamerica, and therefore it’s European past is easily disassociated. However, when analyzing the significance of the molinillo, it is important to recognize its entire historical past, rather than just its Mexican one, as its hybridization is an essential part of its identity, just as hybridization is an essential part of chocolate’s identity. 

Multimedia Sources





Works Cited

Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 1990.

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

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

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

[1]There are alternative theories, such as Dr. León-Portilla’s belief that molinillo is a Spanish derivation of the Nahuatl world molinia, meaning to “shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe, 120 )

From Producers and Consumers to Producing Consumers: Nestlé and the Weaponization of Brazilian Women

In a dense Rio favela or small Amazonian village at current day, you might meet someone much like Celene da Silva, who at 29 manages her own small business. This is no small feat for a woman from one of the most impoverished areas in the world. Armed with only a pushcart, da Silva travels door to door, selling infant milk products, candy bars, puddings, and cereals to her many clients.[i]

In the small town of Vevey, Germany (now Switzerland) at the turn of the 20th century, you might have stumbled upon Henri Nestlé, also a small business owner. Using his pharmaceutical background, Nestlé invented a milk alternative known as infant formula by combining cow’s milk, flour, and sugar.[ii] What, then, links a modern-day Brazilian entrepreneur to small-town German pharmacist? What if I told you they worked for the same company?

Da Silva, along with thousands of other Brazilian women, has been recruited and trained as a door-to-door vendor for Nestlé–the world’s largest food conglomerate with some of the most aggressive marketing practices in history. Vendors are dispatched throughout Brazilian cities and countrysides, offering “nutrient-rich” processed foods from a selection of over 800 products.[iii] Even in hard to reach areas, where geography or social stigma prevent women from vending, Nestlé has found a strategy. Pictured below is a Nestlé-sponsored boat, which travels remote Amazonian tributaries as a floating supermarket offering products to “isolated” consumers.[iv] Clients are often only interested in a handful of these products, however, with foods like Kit Kat bars, Nescau 2.0 (a sugary chocolate powder), chocolate pudding, and cookies being ordered the most.[v]


What complicates matters is Brazil’s tortured history with chocolate–once one of the top producers of cacao, the country has faced severe drought in recent years.[vi] Look at the country’s historic disconnect between production and consumption, namely due to slavery, and Nestlé’s door-to-door program appears particularly menacing. The anthropologist Sidney Mintz most accurately encapsulates this divide in his 1985 seminal work Sweetness and Power, writing of 20th century “It is not ironical to point out that the white migrants would soon be eating more sugar, produced by the nonwhite migrants at lower wages, and producing finished goods at higher wages to be consumed by the nonwhite migrants.”[vii] Many of these “finished goods” are now sold by Nestlé, who while relying on the labor of cacao farmers in countries like Brazil then dilutes products with sugar and milk to sell them at a profit. While Nestle’s door-to-door vendor program has disrupted the feminization of poverty, its attempt to turn sites of production into sites of consumption has come with devastating health effects.

Nestlé’s strict hiring quotas have allowed it to conceal its aggressive marketing efforts under the guise of gender equity. By employing over 7,000 saleswomen and 200 microdistributors,[viii] all women with little to no previous job experience, Nestlé has established a strong relationship with the Brazilian government and managed relatively little international oversight. In fact, in 2014 alone food companies donated a total of $158 million to Brazil’s National Congress.[ix] For women on the ground like Celene da Silva, the program has also brought much-needed economic empowerment. As the New York Times details, “With an expanding roster of customers, Mrs. da Silva has set her sights on a new goal, one she says will increase business even more…’I want to buy a bigger refrigerator.’”[x] Da Silva’s strong relationship with the women in her neighborhood, coupled with Nestlé’s one-month layaway plan timed to match the government-funded food stipend program, has stabilized her income.[xi] Despite the fact that she herself is 200 overweight with high blood pressure, da Silva, like many vendors, believes in her employer’s commitment to health. The question then becomes, however, the limit to employing women whose life spans will be shortened by their own products.

Nestlé’s marketing practices rely on notions of their products as healthy in order to attract the support of governments and consumers alike. Along with lobbying and employing women as door-to-door vendors, the company aligns its brand with nutrition and exercise to garner attention. As consumers in the U.S. have given up sugary chocolate products in favor of healthier foods, Nestlé has moved to introduce these same products to even the most remote parts of the Amazon by adding commonly deficient vitamins and minerals. The chocolate powder Nescau 2.0, for example, claims to be “packed with calcium and niacin.”[xii] As Professor Susan George writes in “The Limits to Public Relations,” Nestle is one of the only companies to so publically document these efforts. She says, “Very rarely do multinational corporations provide details of their activities in underdeveloped countries. Nestle is an exception.”[xiii] This distinct tactic is what has strengthened the trust between vendors and their company. As da Silva explains, “Everyone here knows that Nestlé products are good for you.”

Brazil serves as a case study in the transformation of a country from cacao producer to chocolate product consumer. The public health effects of Nestlé’s aggressive marketing campaigns are only beginning to be studied, as are alternatives. As one Nestlé consultant points out, “If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?”[xiv] Processed foods have undoubtedly provided a solution to the issue of overpopulation, but have failed to nutritionally benefit consumers. The story of Nestlé and Brazil has often been one of deceit, in which sugar-laden chocolate products are billed as nutritional through women’s empowerment programs in an effort to target communities with poor records on gender equity and public health. The question then becomes how to balance demand with accessibility, affordability, and nutrition–without exploiting vulnerable populations.






[i] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.

[ii] Owles, Eric. “How Nestlé Expanded Beyond the Kitchen.” The New York Times, June 27, 2017, sec. DealBook. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/business/dealbook/nestle-chocolate-milk-coffee-history.html.

[iii] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.

[iv] Garfield, Leanna. “Nestlé Sponsored a River Barge to Create a ‘floating Supermarket’ That Sold Candy and Chocolate Pudding to the Backwoods of Brazil.” Business Insider. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.businessinsider.com/nestl-expands-brazil-river-barge-2017-9.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “Chocolate Has New Latin King as Ecuador Overtakes Brazil.” Bloomberg.Com, January 21, 2014. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-01-20/cocoa-has-new-latin-america-king-as-ecuador-beats-brazil.

[vii] Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. Penguin, 1986.

[viii] “Door-to-Door Sales of Fortified Products.” https://www.nestle.com. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.nestle.com/csv/case-studies/allcasestudies/door-to-doorsalesoffortifiedproducts,brazil.

[ix] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] George, Susan. “Nestle Alimentana SA: the limits to public relations.” Economic and Political Weekly (1978): 1591-1602.

[xiv] Jacobs, Andrew. “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food.” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Health. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.

Sugar Consumption in British Society: A Sweet and Sordid Rise to Capitalism

An intense and complex bond has made the supply and demand of sugar through the 17th-21st centuries grow to what was once unimaginable proportions. From the wealth of empires built upon commodities grown in ‘Colonial Crown Jewel’ territories, to the growth of industrialized cities, the infiltration of sugar and it’s industry has been there to support and serve as catalyst for the vast changes that have given way to our modern capitalistic societies.

Although sugar cane and its derivatives had been introduced to Europe around 1100 CE, it Sugarwasn’t until the 18th and 19th Century that massive changes in British consumptive patterns of sugar could be linked to the momentous alterations in British politics, economy and society. Sidney W. Mintz explains in Sweetness and Power, “what turns out to be most interesting about the British picture is how little it differed from eating habits and nutrition elsewhere in the world” (Mintz, p. 13). That Britain, like 85% of the world’s population in 1650, would have been struggling to meet their caloric needs mainly through starchy grains, sets the stage for demand – demand for cheap calories to meet growing population needs (Mintz, pp. 13-14). However physiological caloric needs were only one part of the equation that led to sugar’s popularization. Here Mintz explains:

“The history of sucrose in the United Kingdom reveals two basic changes, the first marking the popularization of sweetened tea and treacle, from about 1750 onward; and the second, the opening up of mass consumption, from about 1850 onward. During the period 1750-1850 every English person, no matter how isolated or how poor, and without regard to age or sex, learned about sugar. Most learned to like it enough to want it more than they could afford. After 1850, as the price of sugar dropped sharply, that preference became realized in consumption. A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed to a virtual necessity by 1850.” (Mintz, pp. 147-148)


Sugar Cane Cutter 1830.

What underlies these changes in sugar’s consumption in Britain and other colonials powers during 1650-1850 that Mintz recounts, was the rise of slave labor to power the production of sugar and other luxury crops like coffee, cocoa and tobacco. The proliferation of wealth on the backs of slave labor by European nations and The Southern United States alike produced a demand for commodity crops which proved fundamental to the development of capitalism.

“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much political as an economic obligation. At the same time, the owners of immense fortunes created by the labour of millions of slaves stolen from Africa, on millions 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 – had become even more solidly attached to the centers of power in the English society at large. What sugar meant from this vantage point, was that all such colonial production, trade and metropolitan consumption came to mean: the growing strength and solidity of the empire and of the classes that dictated its policies.” (Mintz, p. 157)

To properly describe the inclusion of sugar into the diets of the common English man it is therefore imperative to look at the political and corporate powers that were instrumental in changing their diets based on psychology tactics marketed to consumers by corporate entities and their ties into opportunistic economic and legislative power plays. Mintz comments,

“tobacco, sugar and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently. This idea has little to do with nutrition or primates or sweet tooths, and less than it appears to have with symbols. But it is closely connected to England’s fundamental transformation from a hierarchical, status-based, medieval society to a social-democratic, capitalist, and industrial society…. But the ever rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit – struggles that eventuated in a world-market solution for drug foods, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful and indolent.” (Mintz, pp 185-186)

As a consequence, “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.” (Britain is built on Sugar, 2007) These statistics bridge the incredible economic and social shift that occurred within a few centuries, wher51rsi4-TAGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_eby sugar’s demand grew due to it’s perceived value as a luxury, industrialization further pushing for need of cheap calories and most disturbing, the slave trade’s colonial heritage that ushered in modern Capitalism.

As Eric Williams opens with in Capitalism & Slavery, “Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours, which has been forced by events to re-evaluate our conceptions of history and economic and political development.” (Williams, vii) Within his book Williams illuminates further the “contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism,” (Williams, viii) and just how much this history has been swept under the proverbial rug so that the benefits of industrialization and capitalism become synonymous with progress and betterment for all in the tomes of history.


Capitalism & Slavery Book Cover. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51rsi4-TAGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Britain is built on sugar: Our national sweet tooth defines us. (2007, October 12). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power. New York: Viking, 1985.

Sugar Cane Cutter 1830. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://myweb.rollins.edu/jsiry/SUAGARCANECUTTER1830.jpg

Sugar Skulls. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from http://www.foodactive.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/sugar_skull_18s-890x395_c.jpg (Originally photographed 2013, December 23)

Williams, E. E. (1994). Capitalism & slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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

Fields of sugar cane

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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