In our current day and age, we take sugar’s centrality to food as a given. Sugar permeates all aspects of the Western diet, from desserts, to drinks, to salad dressings, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a time where this wasn’t the case. However, not too long ago, global sugar consumption was minuscule compared with what it is today. Sugar experienced a massive upswing in consumption from the 1700s to the 1900s that propelled it from the halls of kings, queens and the elite, to a luxury on the table of the masses, and finally to an everyday staple. This post will focus on sugar’s rise in England specifically, as many of the developments in sugar’s story originated in or are particularly exemplified by England.
Some questions we are faced with given the current ubiquity of sugar are: what factors propelled sugar to take on such a crucial role in the Western kitchen and diet? Was the rise of sugar inevitable? The most important drivers of sugar’s rise were the proliferation of colonialism and the resulting importation of bitter caffeinated beverages, the effect of industrialization on workers and their home lives, and the steady decline in the price of sugar. The rise of sugar in England was inevitable; however, the speed with which it came to the center of the Western diet was not inevitable and was a result of the confluence of many individual factors at the right time.
Sugar’s rise occurred concurrently with the advent of colonialism, and this is no coincidence. Colonialism brought with it the triangle slave trade, a major portion of which was the trade of the bitter caffeinated beverages — chocolate, coffee, and tea. The raw materials for these beverages came from the tropics to Europe, where they were processed. They were then consumed with sugar that came from the same trade. In England, the most popular of these beverages was tea, largely because it could “be more successfully adulterated than either coffee or chocolate, apparently because it can be tolerated, even when very diluted, more readily than those other beverages” (Mintz 112). Tea soared in popularity among the poor, because they were able to dip their bread in it more cheaply than with milk.
Another key development that spurred sugar’s progress was the rise of industrialization in European economies. As workers moved to jobs in factories, their income began to rise. This coincided with a large decline in the price of sugar which “fell by 30 percent between 1840 and 1850, and by a further 25 percent in the next two decades, [thus] consumption increases [of sugar] reflect a decline in the price of sugar relative to other commodities, and not necessarily an improved life standard” (Mintz 144). Mintz is referring to the free-trade movement of the mid-19th century that caused a drop in sugar prices relative to the price of other imports. According to a book from the time examining the trade and price of various commodities with England, “the sugar revenue has augmented within the last few years, in consequence of lessened duty and increased importation” (Martin 69). With their increased purchasing power, English laborers had more choices available for what they could eat, yet spent their money on increasingly available and cheap sugar, thus reducing the nutritional value they received from their diets.
Sugar, and to a certain extent tea, played a major role in the altered lifestyle of the masses. Tea was essentially a “bitter stimulant…capable of carrying large quantities of palatable sweet calories ” (Mintz 114) that when consumed gave these workers more energy to go about their jobs, filled them up with calories, and suppressed their appetites.
Furthermore, during this time many women joined the workforce. As they were mainly responsible for preparing meals at home, they had less time to spend cooking, so the home diet skewed towards easily prepared foods such as white bread, tea, and jam — foods high in sugar. Sugar was touted as providing quick and cheap energy, which made it easy for families to switch to this type of diet, even with the more detrimental long term effects it may have had on them. The figure below illustrates sugar’s effect on blood sugar, causing an energy spike which, as soon as it subsides, leads to cravings for more sugar.
There was also a distinct difference in the amounts of sugar consumption within the family unit. Fathers were considered to be the breadwinners and hard laborers, so any protein in the kitchen was often reserved for them, leaving the mother and kids with foods high in sucrose. Women “were never offered anything like equality with men within the family economy”, which meant that dietary nutrition was often worse for women and children than for men (Barker & Chalus 14).
These factors driving sugar’s rise influenced the development known as the ‘ritualization and extensification’ of sugar in England, meaning sugar grew to become a staple and point of ritual. Tea became a point of culture for the English. The illustration below shows tea trading routes and countries sized according to their tea consumption in the early 20th century. Although China, which had more tea consumption at the time, is cut off from the map, the image still gives an indication of the perceived importance of tea to the English, and therefore the massive demand for sugar that existed.
Sugar came into the whole public’s knowledge in England between 1750 and 1850, and upon its price drop around 1850 became an object of mass consumption. All told, these developments resulted in the caloric contribution of sugar to jump from just 2% of the diet at the beginning of the 19th century, to 14% of the diet only a century later. The increased availability of sugar meant that it was now consumed most by the masses rather than the rich, thus changing its status from that of a luxury to one of a daily commodity and kitchen necessity.
With so many driving factors responsible for sugar’s quick rise to the center of the Western diet, it may be tempting to call it a coincidence that these factors came together and made sugar so successful. However, any of these trends — whether colonialism or industrialization or price collapse — taken individually without all the others would have still hastened the rise of sugar. There likely would not have been as quick an adoption of sugar in England without the combination of all factors, but the fact that sugar as a chemical compound provides energy and calories make it nearly inevitable that sugar would have gained a similar status in the Western diet, but just at a slower pace.
Canter, Sheryl. “Real Sugar Prices and Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Brickey, Beth Manos. “The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster.” Tasty Yummies, Web. 2020.
Goodman, Jack. “Atlas Obscura.” Atlas Obscura, Web. 1 Aug. 2016.
Barker, Hannah, and Elaine Chalus. Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities. Routledge, 2014, Google Scholar.
Martin, Robert Montgomery. The Past and Present State of the Tea Trade of England, and of the Continents of Europe and America: And a Comparison Between the Consumption, Price Of, and Revenue Derived From, Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Wine, Tobacco, Spirits, &c. Parbury, Allen, & Company, 1832, Google Scholar.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1986.