Tag Archives: uses of sugar

The Transforming Use of Sugar

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

An Analysis on the Significant Increase of Sugar Consumption in England

Before the discovery of sugar, many Western societies had meals that were centered around common carbohydrates. Sidney Mintz, one of the founders of the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins University, stated, “The most striking [aspect of the] English diet at that time was its complete ordinariness and meagerness…. Most Europeans produced their own food locally” (74). The majority of families in Britain did not eat rare foods, or even meat, dairy, or fruit. The most common foods in British households stemmed from grains and starches. Members of the nobility and wealthy families were able to obtain and dine with more extravagant foods, since they could afford to purchase them from distant locations. Accordingly, when sugar was discovered and brought to European civilization in the mid-1600s, only this wealthy class of people had access to it. There was a sense of power and high social status that coincided with the ability to consume such a product. After over a hundred years, there was a large shift in the British appetite for sugar. British consumption of sugar accelerated at almost an exponential level from the mid-1800s to the end of the 20th century, which was caused by newly discovered uses of sugar, increased access to sugar by the working and lower classes, and the plantation system that was implemented in the Caribbean, allowing for the mass production of sugar.

Sugar consumption increased at almost an exponential rate after the mid-1800s in England. The two major dips in sugar consumption were due to World War I and World War II.

Source: Johnson, Richard J. et al, Sugar Intake per Capita in the United Kingdom

When sugar reached the families of Western society, several uses were discovered that made sugar a vertaile product. Mintz stated, “In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank” (5). Members of the nobility deemed sugar to be much more than a food with a new, distinct taste. Sugar had medicinal value and was used for a variety of ailments. This medical association was derived from Greek medical practices that were embraced by many British physicians. Discussing the history of sugar, The Guardian published, “[Sugar’s]  consumption rose rapidly among European populations from the 17th century. Like tea, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and rum, it had physiological, consoling effects, particularly in children.” The consumers of sugar had many positive associations with the product and believed that it played a pivotal role in the healing process. This association of sugar and healing continued for centuries. In addition to the medicinal value placed on sugar, there were several other important uses that the British realized. Mintz stated, “Sucrose can be described initially in terms of five principal uses or ‘functions’: as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative” (78). Even though in today’s era sugar as a sweetener seems to be a given, in the 1800s, sugar was even more useful as a spice. Sugar was presented to Europeans along with the other spices that were seen as rare at that time. The modern association of sugar being a main determinant of taste was a construct developed many years after sugar had been ingrained in European cultural and dietary habits. The various uses of sugar that the British explored made it extremely popular. Vincent Mahler stated, “With the turn of the nineteenth century the sugar boom seemed likely to continue indefinitely: colonial sugar was England’s single most important import in every year from 1703 until 1814” (473). The British were infatuated with the idea of sugar, and they began to associate it with all realms of life: religion, nutrition, politics, gender, and sexuality.

The British elite and wealthy were the first individuals in England to be introduced to sugar. They believed that the consumption of sugar was a representation of their high social status. Sugar was served with several foods and beverages, including tea.

Source: Tenre, Henry, Five O’Clock Tea

The largest growth in sugar consumption occurred when the working and lower classes gained access it. Access to sugar was expanded due to the mass production of sugar, which made each serving cheaper, the production of lower quality, less refined sugar, and the increase in wages of the working class. David Richardson stated, “Contemporary writers referred also to the wider use of meat, tea, and sugar in northern working-class diets. Such dietary changes were made possible by relative improvements in real wages after 1750 in industrializing counties” (752). These areas focused on industrialization gave the working class the ability to pay for sugar and utilize many of the aspects of sugar enjoyed by the wealthy. One of those aspects of sugar that was used heavily by the working class once the use of sugar became more widespread was its function as a preservative. Mintz stated, “Sweetened preserves, which could be left standing indefinitely without spoiling and without refrigeration, which were cheap and appealing to children, and which tasted better than more costly butter with store-purchased bread, outstripped or replaced porridge” (130). It saved time for wives in working and lower class families that had jobs outside of the home. This use of sugar as a preservative made the product even more appealing to families who already were drawn to the taste itself. Tea, which was also considered a luxury in Europe when it was first introduced, had trickled down to the realm of the working class and had been used in conjunction with sugar. Richardson stated, “Explanations for the growth of British sugar consumption and its divergence from continental levels have largely focused upon changes in taste and diet, particularly the growth of tea and coffee drinking in Britain” (748). This phenomenon led to the increased use of sugar as well.

The growing domestic demand of sugar in Britain was met because of the foothold the British established in the slave trade and the plantation system in the Caribbean. Slaves worked in unbearable conditions and were essential to mass production.

Source: Clark, William, Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane

With the growing interest and consumption of sugar, production needed to be expanded in order to meet the demand. The British used the slave trade as an avenue to meet their economic goals, and they were viewed as being at the forefront of capitalizing off of the institution of slavery. Mintz stated, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of that system was sugar” (38). The British recognized the opportunity to not only meet the increasing demand of the country, but also profit off of the use of free labor. They established plantations throughout the Caribbean, beginning in Barbados and expanding into Jamaica, transporting millions and millions of slaves to produce sugar in mass quantities. Richardson stated, “Published estimates have suggested that British traders may have carried between 2.5 and 3.7 million slaves from African between 1701 and 1807” (741). The production of the large amounts of sugar that was dependent upon slave labor allowed the British to meet the growing demand for sugar domestically, while also allowing them to export the product past the country’s borders. Mahler stated, “Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean had entered the nineteenth century as perhaps her most valuable foreign economic interest” (474). The British dominance in the Caribbean boosted England’s economy and expanded its reach as an economic and political world power.

Sugar served as a very powerful and influential tool in Britain, especially after the beginning of the 19th century. Even though the wealthy families of England were the first to be introduced to sugar, it quickly garnered traction throughout the country and was popularized as a food that many individuals in Western society wanted access to. With its versatile functionality as a medicine, spice, sweetener, preservative, and decorative material and its associations with religion, politics, and wealth, sugar became one of England’s most popular commodities. As demand increased and the working and lower classes had access to the product, Britain established a strong foothold in the slave trade and the plantation system in order to meet their domestic demands and profit off of the increased international consumption of sugar.

Works Cited:

“Britain Is Built on Sugar: Our National Sweet Tooth Defines Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Oct. 2007.

Clark, William. Slaves Cutting the Sugar Cane. Antigua, 1823.

Johnson, Richard J, et al. “Potential Role of Sugar (Fructose) in the Epidemic of Hypertension, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 86, no. 4, 1 Oct. 2007, pp. 899–906.

Mahler, Vincent A. “Britain, the European Community, and the Developing Commonwealth: Dependence, Interdependence, and the Political Economy of Sugar.” International Organization, vol. 35, no. 3, 1981, pp. 467–492.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.

Richardson, David. “The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748-1776.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1987, pp. 739–769.

Tenre, Henry. Five O’Clock Tea. Paris, 1906.

More Sugar! – The Causes of the Rise in British Sugar Consumption

During the 17thcentury all the way through the early 20thcentury, sugar had an incredible rise in production and consumption. This rise in consumption was especially prevalent in Britain. When sugar first arrived in Britain during the middle ages, it was primarily used by the upper class as a sparingly used spice. However, by the 18thand 19thcentury, sugar became a heavily used by all social classes. At the beginning of the 18thcentury the average British person was consuming 4 pounds of sugar per year. However, by the early 20thcentury that number had skyrocketed to about 90 pounds of sugar per person per year (Mintz). This exponential rise in British sugar consumption can be explained by a number of different factors. In this post I will outline the potential economic, practical, and scientific causes for this unforeseen rise in British sugar consumption. 

Graph showing the massive increase in British sugar consumption. 
Image Source 


First and Foremost, the rise in British sugar consumption was definitely caused in-part by the increased production and availability of sugar that the Triangular Trade provided. The Triangular Trade was a trans-Atlantic trade system that included the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean to work on plantations. In total, about “four million slaves were brought to the Caribbean, and almost all ended up on the sugar plantations” (Sugar and Slavery). This Triangular trade took place during the 17thand 18thcentury and was a huge part of the increase in sugar production in the Caribbean. This increase in production through slavery, created an enormous increase in sugar availability and consumption in Britain. Eventually, Britain began to question the ethics of sugar consumption because “slavery in England… had been deemed illegal since 1772” (Sugar and Slavery). However, even after the end of the Triangular Trade, consumption of sugar per capita continued to rise. Slavery, an increase sugar production, and the increase of sugar availability were all major factors as to why sugar consumption skyrocketed in England.

Image depicting the Triangular Trade and its vastness.  
Image Source

Another reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was the extreme versatility sugar had. Once the British began to trade for massive amounts of sugar, they realized it can have several purposes. Among other things, sugar could be used in medicine, jams, syrups, tea, coffee, fruit drinks, and in deserts (Mintz). Sugar also had decorative purposes as it could be formed into sculptures. However, the uses of sugar as a preservative and sweetener was definitely a major factor of the rise in sugar consumption. With sugar, the British could now preserve their fruits as jams which resulted in a major change in the British culture forever. Jam spread on bread evolved into a staple meal for the British in the 19thcentury. This was mainly because it was a quick and easy meal that provided a sufficient number of calories, especially as women and children entered the industrial workforce. This easy meal for women and children allowed the British economy to thrive “without increasing proportionately the quantities of meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products” (Mintz). This change in diet was heavily reflected in data because “by 1900, it [sugar] was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz). In the end, the cheap cost of sugar as well as its versatility definitely played a major role in the rise in British sugar consumption. 

The last potential reason for the rise in British sugar consumption was science. This was actually a reason for the rise in sugar consumption globally too. When you eat sugar there is a natural reaction by the body to release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to the “reward circuit associated with addictive behaviors” (Schaefer and Yasin). Essentially anything that causes the body to release dopamine can become very addictive because the only way to fulfill the dopamine high again is to do the same thing that caused the original high. Thus, when one eats sugar, the only way to feel that exact “high” again is to eat sugar again. Furthermore, since the body acclimates to things that cause dopamine releases, it requires higher amounts of sugar in higher frequency to achieve the original sugar “high” sensation (Schaefer and Yasin). This has been proven scientifically and some even believe that “sugar could be as addictive as some street drugs and have similar effects on the brain” (Schaefer and Yasin).  This addictive effect on the brain definitely had a big impact on why the British kept demanding and consuming more and more sugar as time passed. 

Diagram depicting the cycle of addiction that sugar can cause.
Image Source

In the end, it is safe to say that there is nothing that was the sole cause for the rise in British sugar consumption. It was undoubtedly a combination of all the things I have talked about in this post. The increasing affordability of sugar made it economically smart, the versatility of sugar made it practically smart, and the addictive properties of sugar made it scientifically irresistible. Together these factors combined to cause “the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market” (Martin).  

Scholarly Sources Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 20 Feb. 2019.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.
  • Schaefer, Anna, and Kareem Yasin. “Is Sugar the Next ‘Street Drug’?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 11 June 2015, http://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/experts-is-sugar-addictive-drug#1. Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
  • “Sugar and Slavery.” Sugar in the Atlantic World | Case 6 Sugar and Slavery, clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/sugarexhibit/sugar06.php.

Media Sources Cited