Tag Archives: tea

The Rise of Sugar: How Colonialism, Industrialization, and Price Made Sugar Central to the Western Diet

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.  

Works Cited 


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.

How Sugar’s Functions as a Sweetener and as a Decorative Material has Affected English Society

Sugar has played a significant role in transforming England’s social, economic, political and culinary values throughout history – “Britain is built on sugar.”[1] Since it first came to England in the 12th century (around 1100 AD) it had been used to: treat illnesses and preserve food. The molecular structure of sugar has also been altered to create sugar based decorative materials. However, by the late 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in foodstuffs as a sweetener – this function of sugar is currently its primary use in England. How did this unique crop become so valued as a sweetener? How has it affected past and contemporary English culinary and social expectations? That being said, sugar’s uses as a sweetener and decorative material have had long-lasting direct and indirect impacts on social and culinary English norms.  

Sugar’s function as a decorative material has been a symbol of power and social hierarchy for centuries in England. Sugar’s transformation into a decorative material originates from its blending properties, which had been recognised through its function as medicine. Sidney Mintz argues in his book, Sweetness and Power, that “the connection between elaborate manufacturers of sweet edibles and the validation of social position is clear.”[2] This has been the case from at least the 16th century – when sugar’s importation prices stabilised – right up to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century – when sugar became a relatively inexpensive commodity that was consumed by nobleman and commoners alike. The complexity and expensiveness of moulding sugar into ornaments made this function accessible only for kings and then, over time, to the wealthiest (nobles, knights and churchmen) in society. Furthermore, the designs of these intricate sugar structures were not only confined to grand buildings or valuable objects. They also included family or royal crests and, more importantly, messages or intents of a king or lord. It is important to add that these subtleties were primarily presented in social settings such as banquets and coronations. For these reasons, sugar’s use as a manufactured subtlety was a unique and elaborate form of presenting one’s wealth and status.

Even though these subtleties were a symbol of power for at least 3 centuries, the industrial revolution and the mechanisation of the sugar industry made sugar a relatively inexpensive commodity. Sugar became readily available to the average English worker. According to Mintz, “it [decorative sugar structures] is no longer considered a sign of elevated rank to stuff one’s guests with sugar… sugar is largely confined to Saint Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Birthdays and Weddings.”[3] In the western world at least this is the case. As sugar became increasingly commercial and accessible, it’s function as a demonstration of wealth was soon overcome by the dietary and culinary importance of this commodity.

A similar case could be made for the consumption of tea – it was first consumed by the wealthiest in society as a symbol of wealth, but eventually it was readily available to the average English worker. Mintz argues that “as the English drank more…[tea] became more English in two senses: by the process of ritualization…and by being produced more and more in the colonies.”[4] In the 17th century, the first tea and coffee houses were opening their doors in London. These coffee houses were social spaces where the Englishman would engage in conversations and debates over a warm cup of tea – tea facilitated social exchanges. Sugar in past and contemporary English society complements the consumption of tea. Mintz recognises the economic and dietary importance of tea and, hence, makes an interesting connection between the significance of sugar and tea in English society. Given that tea was arguably the most profitable aromatic commodity by the 18th century due to its ever-growing demand, it became clear that sugar’s primary function during this period in England was as a sweetener of tea. Even though, sugar complemented chocolate and coffee, tea’s warm and lightly refreshing texture was more appealing to the English commoner – it was also cheap and easy to make. Tea was a valuable and readily available commodity and sugar played a central role in transforming tea’s popularity in English society, however, after the 18th century sugar became increasingly incorporated in a broader range of foodstuffs and beverages.

William Hogarth’s 18th century portrayal of a London coffee house. He depicts a social setting where Englishmen would typically meet to engage in conversation over a warm cup of tea or coffee.[5]

As more foodstuffs and beverages were introduced into English society, sugar as a sweetener played an increasingly important role in British social and culinary life after the 18th century. These sugar infused goods included, according to Mintz, “pastries, hasty puddings, jam-smeared breads, treacle puddings, biscuits, tarts, buns and candy,” while the British newspaper, The Guardian, points out that England’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.”[6]  After 1850, it was the working classes that made up the bulk of these average per capita annual consumption rates. These poorer classes primarily consumed sucrose-heavy sugar infused foods, which contributed to a larger proportion of their diet during the 19th and 20th centuries. As cheap sugar expanded away from being an additive to tea and moved towards energy rich foods, workers were able to consume sugar – usually during their break times – as a type of “quick energy” good that positively affected their output and productivity.[7] In other words, cheap sugar was a substitute to the proteins. This substitution has had both positive and negative effects on the working classes: on the one hand cheap sugars filled the calorie gap caused by the prices of proteins. On the other, this substitution generally lowered the protein intake of these people, in particular women and children, who weren’t receiving the required nutrients to maintain a healthy diet. Nevertheless, sugar clearly played a major role in transforming the Englishman’s dietary norms after the 18th century.

In conclusion, the introduction of sugar as a sweetener into mainstream English society has had on-going positive and negative effects on the Englishman’s diet. While sugar’s function as a decorative material played a central role in presenting social hierarchies from at least the 16th to the 19th century, the industrialisation and commercialisation of sugar saw a decline of this function of sugar. Even though these sugar-based subtleties are still primarily found in social settings, such as birthdays and Christmas, their symbol of wealth and power phased out almost two centuries ago. Sugar as a sweetener was largely an additive (added-sugar) in popular foodstuffs and beverages such as tea, coffee and chocolate up to the early 18th century – it was expensive and difficult to obtain. After the mid 18th century, similar to tea, sugar became “ritualised” and was increasingly extracted from the colonies.[8] Sugar became a big-business enterprise and a readily available good for all to enjoy and benefit from: sugar was a new source of energy for working men and a cheaper alternative to protein for women and children. However, the negative effects of this sugar rush can be seen in England today with 28.1% of adults and 17% of children being obese, prompting a range of sugar taxes to be introduced as recently as 2018.[9]

[1] The Guardian Newspaper, “Britain is built on sugar: our national sweet tooth defines us,” 12 October, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

[2] Sydney W. Mintz, Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (New York: penguin Books, 1985), 90.

[3] Ibid, 94.

[4] Ibid, 110.

[5] William Hogarth, “An Election Of Entertainment,” Oil on Canvas, 1755, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg

[6] Ibid, 133. And “Britain is Built on Sugar.”

[7] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 147-148.

[8] Ibid, 110.

[9] The Global Diabetes Community, “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019. https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/2018-uk-sugar-tax.html

Works cited:

Global Diabetes Community. “2018 UK sugar tax.” 15 January, 2019. Accessed 8 March 2020. “2018 UK sugar tax,” 15 January, 2019

Guardian. “Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” Guardian News and Media. 12 October 2007. Accessed 8 March 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/13/lifeandhealth.britishidentity.

Hogarth, William. “An Election Of Entertainment.” 1755. Oil on Canvas. London. Sir John Soane’s Museum. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Election_Entertainment.jpg.

Mintz, W. Sydney. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Why Did the Spaniards Choose Cane Sugar over Honey? Was This the Healthiest Choice?

Before the colonial encounter, Mesoamericans commonly consumed cacao as a chocolate beverage in ritualistic, medicinal, and social contexts. Ingredients, such as flowers, spices, and honey, were added to diversify the flavor of the beverage. Specifically, honey is the oldest sweetener known to man in the world, although its exact date of origin is unknown. However, humans did begin to use honey at least 10,000 years ago, as was demonstrated by a cave painting found in the early 1900s in Valencia, Spain.

Honey seeker depicted on 8000 year old cave painting at Arana Caves in Spain

This painting is at least 8,000 years old and shows a honey seeker, and in ancient times people in the Middle East, Roman Empire, and China collected honey to use as a sweetener, currency, and medicine (Nayik et al., 2014). When the Spaniards first encountered the Mesoamerican chocolate drink in the 1500s, it was too bitter for their palates and thus they relied on the principal spices or honey to consume the beverage comfortably (Coe & Coe, 2013). Although the intake of honey as food and medicine provided many nutritional and therapeutic benefits, soon after the Spaniards encountered chocolate, the Mesoamerican chocolate recipe was transformed in that cane sugar replaced honey as the sweetener. The sugar cane plant was a novelty to the Maya and the Aztecs when the Spaniards introduced and began to cultivate it in Mesoamerica after the Conquest (Coe & Coe, 2013). Honey as a sweetener could not satisfy the European sweet tooth, which was accustomed to the cane sugar that was introduced during medieval times in the western part of the Old World (Coe & Coe, 2013). In addition to the enhanced sweetness cane sugar offered, the chocolate recipe transformation occurred due to the increase in the perceived medicinal and nutritional properties and the source reliability that cane sugar also offered. In the modern context, however, this transformation may have not been for the best.

Despite honey’s ancient history, cane sugar quickly gained nutritional and medicinal popularity first among the wealthy and then most households in Europe. Cane sugar was first introduced to Europeans around 1100 AD, but it was classified as a spice rather than as a sweetener (Mintz, 1986). Around this time, cane sugar began to replace honey for medicinal purposes. Medical figures declared that cane sugar was more “soothing and solving” than honey (Mintz, 1986). Due to its perceived heightened medicinal properties, cane sugar was reserved for the wealthy while honey was delegated to poorer patients (Mintz, 1986). However, as cane sugar became more commonplace, honey became more expensive (Mintz, 1986). All around, cane sugar replaced honey, and this transformation was not limited to medicine. By the middle of the thirteenth century, cane sugar began to replace honey as a sweetener in wealthy households. Cane sugar came to replace honey in the diets of Europeans because of the perceived nutritional benefits it provided. It became a source of calories for the often undernourished working class. With the rise of coffee and tea, both of which lacked calories, cane sugar provided much-needed calories (Mintz, 1986). Also, cane sugar provided a cheaper alternative to other calorie-rich, but expensive, food items. Lastly, cane sugar was a better preservative than honey, as it contained the more effective sucrose (Mintz, 1986). Therefore, Europeans could save perishable foods, such as meats and fruits, for longer periods of time, which was also cost-effective. The perceived medicinal, nutritional, and financial benefits of sugar over honey led to the shift of honey as a sweetener to cane sugar as a sweetener, which played a part in the Spaniards altering the Mesoamerican chocolate recipe.

Another factor that influenced the shift from honey to cane sugar in Spaniards’ chocolate recipes was the source from which cane sugar is extracted compared to that of honey. Comparable to cane sugar’s source, honey’s source is variable and more biologically expensive.

Video representation of the honey production process

The video above describes the process of producing honey from the nectar of flowers via bees. Considering that a single bee must drink from thousands of flowers to fill its honey stomach, then serially transfer said nectar into the mouth of other bees before fanning their wings to create an air current that evaporates and thickens the nectar, the honey-making process is labor intensive on the part of the bees. Furthermore, for just one pound of honey, more than 10,000 bees will together fly three times around the world and drink from 8 million flowers. In contrast, the source of cane sugar is much more reliable and the biological cost is lower, as it is not an organism that must travel back and forth and rely on the movement of other organisms.

Video representation of the cane sugar manufacturing process

The video above demonstrates the cane sugar manufacturing process, starting from the sugar cane plant. This plant is a tropical grass that can grow up to 20 feet high. When sugar cane is ready for harvest, the tops of the grass are cut, and the base stocks are left behind so they can grow into the next crop. Due to this harvesting style, sugar cane is a renewable resource as it does not have to be replanted to produce a new crop. This is one benefit that cane sugar provides over honey, as bees must reproduce to continue the lines of queen bees and forager bees. After harvest, the sugar cane is transported to a mill and washed and cut into shreds. The shreds are crushed by rollers before they are placed in separators that remove the fibers and send the juice to evaporators. The resultant syrup is boiled to remove water, and then cooled before crystallization. More steps follow, but despite the complex extraction of cane sugar from the sugar cane plant, this source is more reliable than bees who are subject to climate change, infertility, and diseases. This reliability was summed up by Alexander the Great’s Admiral Nearchos around 300 BC, who referred to the sugar cane plant as “‘Indian reeds that make honey without bees’” (Nordic Sugar A/S, 2019) . Even during ancient times and without modern sugar production technology, the juice from the sugar cane plant was pressed out and boiled to produce crystallized sugar (Nordic Sugar A/S, 2019) . Since cane sugar production primarily relies on a renewable resource and man-made technology, it is more constant and not as biologically expensive as honey production, which makes cane sugar more readily available as a sweetener.

Although cane sugar was perceived as providing more medicinal benefits and nutritional benefits to the diets of Europeans than honey, research today discounts this belief. According to a study published in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, since honey is denser than cane sugar, one tablespoon of honey carries more than one tablespoon of cane sugar (Anonymous, 2011). Also, honey offers some nutrients that cane sugars does not, such as antioxidants (Anonymous, 2011). Therefore, this research overrides the notion that cane sugar is medically and nutritionally superior to honey. In hindsight, replacing honey as a sweetener with cane sugar does not appear to have been the healthiest choice, as honey does provide more calories and nutrients. However, cane sugar was and still is a better preservative and its taste more enjoyable, comparable to honey.

Overall, the honey to cane sugar transformation in chocolate recipes ultimately served to sweeten the beverage at the expense of healthier consumption. Although sugar cane is a more reliable source for sweetener than flowers and bees, nowadays humans are relying on an insubstantial added sweetener. Even though honey is also an added sweetener, it is nutritiously and medically superior to cane sugar. However, cane sugar was integral to the rise in popularity of chocolate, as its sweetness and taste could not be matched by honey in the palates of Europeans.

Multimedia Sources

Hanson, Joe [It’s Okay To Be Smart]. (2016, March 28). How Do Bees Make Honey [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZlEjDLJCmg

[Imperial Sugar]. (2015, June 9). How Cane Sugar Is Made [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/EP_fgp7zYKk

Nayik, G., Shah, T., Muzaffar, K., Wani, S., Gull, A., Majid, I., & Bhat, F. (2014). Honey: Its history and religious significance: A review. Universal Journal of Pharmacy, 03(1), 5-8.


Anonymous. (2011). Honey or Sugar? Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 40(1), 224.

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

Mintz, S. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Nordic Sugar A/S. (2019). A Sweet Story. Retrieved March 8, 2019, from https://www.nordicsugar.com/know-your-sugar/natural-sweetness/a-sweet-story/

The Tea Habit and The Dramatic Increase in British Sugar Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries

British sugar consumption dramatically escalated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records show that British per-capita annual consumption grew from 4 lbs. in the early 1700’s to 18 lbs. in the early 1800’s representing a 400 percent increase in just one century (Mintz). While the figures are astonishing, the increase in sugar consumption can be attributed to several things including the decrease in price, the democratization of use, and most notably, the ritualization of drinking tea.  Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And with tea, came sugar.

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But let’s go back to sugar’s not so humble beginnings.  Initially, sugar was considered a luxury item afforded only by the noble and wealthy. In Britain, sugar served 5 different purposes – as a medicine, a spice, a decorative material, a preservative and as a sweetener.  And it commonly served more than one such purpose at a time (Mintz).  Cookbooks of the late 16th and early 17th century even treated sugar as a sort of drug to help balance the “humors” — energies that were believed to affect health and mood (Godoy). Like other spices, sugar was used to enhance the flavor of foods.  When combined with various ingredients, sugar was molded into fantastic shapes and structures to decorate noble dinner tables as a symbol of the host’s wealth and standing. Sugar’s preservative qualities extended the life of perishable fruits and meats and prevented spoilage.  But it was with the introduction of chocolate, coffee and tea that sugar’s use as a sweetener became relevant.  Interestingly, the British enjoyed a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages such as ale and wine so it is understandable that they would chose to sweeten these otherwise bitter beverages with sugar.

Sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for the status chasing elite (Goody).  Tea, an exotic import first made fashionable by a Portuguese princess, quickly gained popularity with the rise of coffee houses in London. As the price of tea and sugar dropped, they gained wider appeal across all socioeconomic lines and daily consumption per person increased. Over a relatively short period of time, the habit of drinking tea with sugar became ritualized.  In the chocolate and coffee houses of London, gentlemen and wealthy merchants took their tea sweetened with sugar. Women of privilege enjoyed tea accompanied by pastries, breads and jam at home with their friends often using their finest china and tea pots.

“We can imagine them then that while seventeenth century men were

at coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives

gathered at one another’s hoes to do exactly the same thing – justin a more

refined atmosphere” (Tea.co.uk)

The first sugar habit learned by the English poor was part of the tea habit, and the tea habit spread downward from the rulers and outward from cities at a rapid rate (Mintz).  For the working class, tea with sugar often served as a break from their backbreaking jobs.  In homes of the poor, men who were the primary bread winners dined on meat while their wives and children subsisted on tea with sugar, bread and preserves.  Regardless of wealth or social status, the amount of sugar consumed at each meal continued to rise.  Tea sweetened with a strong dose of sugar was an affordable luxury: It gave workers a hit of caffeine to get through a long slog of a day, it provided plentiful calories, and it offered the comfort of warmth during a meal that otherwise often consisted only of bread (Godoy).

It is important to acknowledge that the dramatic increase in domestic demand for sugar was intertwined with the rise of the slave trade. Britain relied heavily on her sugar colonies to sustain her rabid consumer base, and forced labor allowed more sugar to be produced at a fraction of the price (Sheridan). They conquered the most colonies and went the farthest and fastest in creating the plantation system to satisfy growing demand for sugar (Mintz).  In the British West Indies, the number of enslaved Africans grew to 263,000 by the mid 1700’s (Martin). They were required to work 18 hour days and received only minimal food, clothing and shelter from the plantation owners. As a result, their life expectancy was only 7-8 years (Martin).

Sugar consumption levels continued to rise during and after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1900’s, annual per capita consumption approximated 80 lbs. climbing to an astonishing 120 lbs. in the 2000’s (Martin).   As processed food manufacturers gained a better understanding of taste preferences, they increasingly added sugar to everyday consumables like ketchup, cereals and dairy products. Currently, soft drinks are the biggest single source of added sugar for young people, with boys aged 11-18 getting 42% of their intake this way; and for adults aged 19-64, the main sources are also confectionery and jams, soft drinks and cereals (Jeavans). Clearly, the British love for sweet beverages survived and flourished throughout the centuries.

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In conclusion, the significant increase in British sugar consumption in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct result of the increasing affordability of the commodity, the democratization of use, and the ritualization of tea time. Today, the British remain some of the greatest consumers of sugar in the world and are taking great steps to encourage people to limit their daily added sugar intake to ward off obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.


Works Cited

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” Lecture

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

Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775.  University of West Indies  Press, 1974.  Web.

Jeavens, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014.  22 Feb. 2018.  http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays – How Tea + Sugar Reshaped the British Empire” The Salt. NPR. 7 April 2015.  22 Feb 2018. https://www.npr.org.sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

“Tea – A Brief History of the Nations Favorite Beverage” UK Tea and Infusions Association 2018.  22 Feb 2018. http://www.tea.co.uk

Ward, J.R. “Oxford History of the British Empire.  The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815” Oxford University Press.  New York. 1998 https://books.google.de/books?



Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English

“The story can be summed up in a few sentences. In 1000 A.D., few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon afterward 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 a 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, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books. Page 5)

Cultural anthropologist Sidney Mintz, prominent for linking English’s insatiable sweet tooth with the transformation of Britain from a hierarchical society to a democratic industrial society, succinctly summarizes the multi-century narrative of sugar in less than one hundred words. The introduction of sugar in the mid-17th century and the subsequent craving for sweetness catalyzed radical cultural and commercial changes within British society which evolved over the course of two hundred years an ultimately shaped British culture into its modern day social order.

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Catherine of Braganza Enjoying Tea

Although prior to the mid 17th century, sugar, limited by supply and expense, was primarily used as a spice, a medicinal supplement, and for both decorative and preservative purposes, sugar’s use as a sweetener ultimately prevailed.  In 1662, Queen Catherine, King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, introduced  drinking tea, a habit of the Portuguese nobility, to the British courts. An easily adulterated and ingestible beverage, the upper echelons of society quickly adopted the daily ritual of tea and soon began to add the newly available sweetener to the otherwise bitter beverage. (Mintz, 110) Tea quickly become symbolic of the wealthier and sugar embodied a social status of wealth and power.

Working Women Enjoying Tea

Like most trends associated with the elite, aspirational lower-classes began to imitate tea-drinking. For the wealthy, tea became emblematic of social events and sugar a novel treat, a sumptuous additive served in their tea and desserts, For the middle and lower classes, however, sweetened tea presented itself as the first “work break.”   Taken mid-afternoon, tea and sugar served as a relief from labor. Soon, “the tea,” became an event accompanied by a light lunch, to sate the lower classes’ hunger after working a full morning. The lower classes’ adoption and adaptation of the upper-class tradition of tea, not only caused an adjustment of their entire meal pattern, but also introduced sugar into their greater diet.  (Mintz, 142) This introduction of sugar to the British occurred at a most opportune time. When sugar first began to gain recognition, English people of all social strata, regularly susceptible to famine, struggled to maintain a satisfying diet. Centered predominately around a single starch and supplemented by various other foods, the English people’s diet relied almost exclusively on the availability of wheat, and did not contain robust nutritional value. For the lower classes, particularly, sugar offered an easy method of meeting daily caloric needs. (Mintz, 133)

British Buying Sugary Treats

As the lower classes began to develop a preference for sugar through sweetened tea, a marked increase in sugar production in the mid-seventeenth century resulted in a 70% reduction in the prices of sugar. Consequently, cheap sugar became readily available to even the poorest within Britain. Perhaps the most crucial supplement to the working class diet, cheap sugar redefined the lower-class diet. Sweet pastries, porridges, and treacle—a type of spreadable molasses—became dietary staples for the poor and provided a large allocation of their daily carbohydrates, and thus calories.

“The English people came to view sugar as essential; supplying them with it became as much a political as an economic obligation.” (Mintz, 157)

As a consequence of Britain’s cross-class taste for sugar, the market for the product burgeoned, critically driving changes in Britain’s social structure. Demand for sugar consistently pushed the limits of supply.  Economic and political forces “supported the seizure of colonies where cane could be grown and raw sugar manufactured, as well as the slave trade that supplied the needed labor.” (Mintz, 167) Thus, investment opportunities in slave trade, shipping, plantations, credit against which plantations and stocks of slaves and sugar could be collateral, and retailing and refining proliferated. (Mintz, 168) By the mid-17th century, the sugar trade was a critical factor in cementing the power and the wealth of the British empire.  Further, because  the nascent sugar industry in England did not exclusively reward the rich—it provided opportunity to anyone ready to bear the risk, the craving for sugar quite literally fostered democracy, as it transformed England from a status based medieval society to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186).

“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”  (The Guardian)

British Port Receiving Sugar

“…there is no doubt that the quantities imported and retained during that two century period when sucrose changed from rarity to daily ingestible rose steadily; that the increase was comparatively larger than the population increase; and that by the mid-nineteenth century the British were eating more sugar than ever before, and were as sugar-hungry as ever.” (Mintz, 161)

Sugar, a now ubiquitous additive, changed the fortunes of many in Britain over a two hundred plus year span.  Culturally, at its nascent usage beginning in the 17th century its association with tea begot a new category of meal for the working class; it supplemented a precariously unstable dietary situation; and ultimately, it provided a not inconsequential catalyst to the development of the British economy via the colonial growth and trading required to sate the country’s desire for sugar.  The craving for sugar also fostered an emerging democracy in Britain, and helped lift British society from a social structure grounded in medieval hierarchies to a capitalist and industrial society. (Mintz, 186) Predicated on a deep gluttony for sugar and the capitalistic requirements to provide product, British social norms also changed as the country moved away from a cultural, feudalistic, structure which prevented opportunities for economic mobility to one driven by capitalism, and ultimately meritocracy and democracy. Sugar, in British history, represents more than an innovation in nourishment. The proliferation of sugar as a core food item characterizes the development of the British economy via colonial growth and trading, and the growing power and changing societal norms of the British empire.

Continue reading Sugar: How it Begot a New Order of Diet, Colonialism and Economic Mobility for the English

Sugar becomes the Opiate of the Masses


Sugar was introduced into the British Empire as a luxury of the rich, over time and across many uses, it found its way into the homes of the average man and also became a staple in the everyday diet. How and why this change occurred is of great importance into understanding the shift in the consumption of sugar. Sugar was introduced as a spice and medicine into the British household, but came to included three other uses: as a decoration, sweetener and preservative. As sugar moved down the list of its uses, it also had social and economic impacts. The progression of sugar usage effected consumption in the British society and caused the shift from sugar as a luxurious good to an opiate of the masses.

In the early decades of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Britain established Caribbean plantations for the sole purpose of growing sugar cane. Britain’s first attempt at doing this occurred upon the establishment of Jamestown in 1607 which was the first English colony in the New World (Mintz 36). Sugar cane was brought in 1619 as were the first African slaves to reach the English colony (Mintz 36). Unfortunately, the sugar cane would not grow. The British Empire was hard pressed to see this mission successful as there was a high demand for sugar at home.

Slaves working in a sugar cane plantation in British-West Indies
A Sugar Cane Plantation in the West Indies

The settlement of Barbados in 1627 proved to be the turning point in British attempts as production with the successful production of “clayed sugars” and “muscovado”. (Mintz 37). “The first British sugar islands was Barbados followed by St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. Grenada and Trinidad were added to the bunch in the late 19th century” (clements.umich.edu). Sugar supply for Britain now came directly from her settlements in the West Indies and added drastically to the consumption of sugar at home as it was now more accessible. “As supply for sugar increased, England’s demands for sugar kept pace. So much so that productions on the islands were barely able to keep up” (Mintz 39). Britain was importing huge amounts of sugar and the condiment in question came to define the “English Character” (Mintz 39).

Sugar Mill, Standard Mill in the West Indies
Sugar Mill


The sugar trade was successful because it was a highly priced commodity regardless of the volatility of the sugar market, the demands for it rose as consumption did (clements.umich.edu).  Sugar production increased as a direct correlation of its consumption. As availability of sugar rose in Britain, so did the many uses of sugar. The British households found new ways to incorporate sugar into their social lives.

British sugar consumption chart
British Sugar Consumption Chart

Mintz mentions five uses of sugar: 1) as medicine, 2) spice-condiment, 3) decorative material, 4) as a sweetener, 5) as a preservative. The use of sugar in these many forms although coming into usage progressively, also happened interchangeably. Sugar was first introduced into the British household as a Spice and Medicine, in this form, it remained a luxurious good only available to the rich. “The first written mention of sugar was in the pipe scrolls, the official records of royal income and expenditures in 1154-89(Mintz 82).  The quantities of sugar at this time were relatively small and since this was an account of the expenditures of the rich, meant that only this class of people could afford to consume sugar. “By the thirteenth century, sugar was still being sold by the loaf and by the pound and although still quite pricey and only accessible to the rich, it was now available even in the remotest areas” (Mintz 82). The shift from a luxury to a commodity available to all would happen in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and with the introduction of other uses of sugar.


In the seventeenth century, the use of sugar as a spice declined and this time period, “saw the prices, supplies and customary uses of sugar change rapidly” (Mintz 86). Sugar featured as a decorative item after this time and was not only available to the noble and rich but now made its way downward to the middle class. As sugar progressed in the list of uses, so did the decline in its exclusiveness and the more prolific it became, the more it was consumed by all. Sugar consumption also had economic ramification as well, “the decline in sugar importance went hand in hand with its increase in economic and dietary importance” (Mintz 95). As sugar became more plentiful, it now became available to the poor.

Sugar became available to the poor in the form of a sweetener and preservative; this accessibility would be responsible for the upward swing of the consumption of sugar. The rise of chocolate, tea and coffee into the British household massively contributed to the large amount of sugar consumption. The use of sugar as a sweetener in tea propelled the “Sugar Equalization Act” which removed the import tariff and lowered the price of sugar of which the direct result was the proliferation of sugar everywhere (clements.umich.edu). The poor used sugar not only as a sweetener but also to supplement their diets as well.

As sugar become more widely used in many forms, it made its way into the household of all citizens regardless of class, this was directly responsible in the shift of sugar consumption in the British society. Sugar in the form of a sweetener and preservative became an everyday commodity, which meant that consumption would greatly rise as it permeated every single dish that was eaten by the British citizens. This standard has come to hold true across the world as sugar features in every single dietary item we consume. However, there is a marked difference in the reception of this commodity, at some point highly revered, sugar is now a social pariah, an evil that has been thrust upon society and should be eradicated.



Scholarly Sources:

Clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. Document. 21 March 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. 274. Print.

Multimedia Sources:

brave.info, land of the. Sugar Act. n.d. image. 21 March 2016.

clements.umich.edu. Sugar In The Atlantic World. 1923. image. 21 March 2016.

czarnikow.com. The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption. 1 May 2014. image. 21 March 2016.