In studying sugarcane and sugar, we've looked at its biology, origins, spread to the West, its previous association with forced labor, and how it was processed in the olden days. (Go here for the project index.)
Now we'll look at how people in England developed a taste for sugar. Much of this information comes from the book Sweetness and Power (resources list here) by Sidney Mintz.
Naturally the British taste for sugar not only drove the taste of the citizens of its colonies for sugar, but also determined how its sugar-growing colonies were used.
In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew about cane sugar. By 1650 only wealthy British enjoyed it . By 1800 it was costly necessity. And by 1900 it was supplying nearly one-fifth the calories in the English diet.
Mintz writes that after 1850 price of sugar dropped sharply making it available to everyone. “A rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, sugar had been transformed into a virtual necessity by 1850.” In the 1800s there was a fivefold increase in sugar consumption by the British people.
There have been no reports historically on any group with a nonsugar tradition rejecting the introduction of sugar, sweetened condensed milk, sweetened beverages, etc.
Nearly all mammals like sweetness. Breast milk is sweet and this could have something to do with it.
Sugar in England is closely tied in with three other food introductions: tea, coffee, and chocolate.
- All of them are bitter and are transformed by sugar.
- However none of them were consumed with sugar in their primary cultural settings.
- The Chinese didn't put sugar in their tea, but Indians did. This probably explains why the sugar-with-tea tradition was introduced to British sailors.
- The first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652. Chocolate was served in coffeehouses also. Typically at this time chocolate was served as a beverage, not a solid.
- Alcohol purifies water and beer tended to be safer than water to drink. But boiling water for tea also purified the water. Temperance drinkers naturally preferred tea and perhaps helped it and sugar become more popular.
- Mint writes: "Sugar as a sweetener came to the fore in connection with three other exotic imports- tea, coffee, and chocolate – of which one, tea, became and has since remained the most important nonalcoholic beverage in the United Kingdom. All are tropical products, all were new to England in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, all contain stimulants and can be properly classified as drugs (together with tobacco and rum, though clearly different both in effects and addictiveness). All began as competitors for British preference, so that the presence of each probably affected to some extent the fate of the others."
Though the English took to sugar and spread that love for it around the world, at the same time the French (a competing superpower) consumption never neared English levels. One theory is that the French already drank tons of wine and never bothered to switch to tea, which could have called for sugar with which to sweeten it.