Sugar and Consumption

Sugar and Consumption in the 1700s

    Sugar is the broad term used to describe shorter-chain carbohydrates used in food.  Sugar has a sweetening effect.  There are many types of sugar: Sucrose is simple table sugar, fructose is sugar from fruits, and lactose is milk sugar.  More complex, longer-chain sugars also exist.  Sugar can be found in most plants, but can only be harvested from sugarcane and sugar beets due to its higher concentration in those plants.  

    The exact origin of sugar is not known, but it is believed that sugar was first discovered by the Polynesians over 5000 years ago.  They discovered that a sweet liquid could be extracted from the stalks of a tall grass.  This sugar liquid was brought to the coastal cities of India and did not migrate further for many years.  The next historical mention of sugar was in 510 BC when Darius, a Persian emperor, attempted to conquer the people of India.  He found that unlike the Persians, who used honey to sweeten their food, the Indians used liquid from a plant.  Roughly 700 AD, Arabs invaded Persia and brought the sugar cane plant back with them.  Trade between Arabs and others spread sugarcane to most of the Mediterannean.  In the 11th century, the crusades brought sugar, known as “sweet salt”, to the western Europeans.  In 1493, Christopher Colombus introduced sugarcane to the people of the Dominican Republic.  The plant flourished in the heavy precipitation and heat. This would shape the New World, as many flocked to the continent to grow this “white gold.”  European countries brought slaves to the West Indies to work on sugarcane plantations.  The slave trade was driven almost entirely by the European’s greed for sugar.  
    In 1655, Britain conquered Jamaica, taking control over from Spain; hereafter, Great Britain would become a larger player in the sugar market.  Sugar production skyrocketed in Britain.  Within 100 years, British factories were producing 30,000 tons of sugar per year.   Taxes on sugar were steep; for a very long time, only the nobility could afford sugar. Sugar reportedly cost 100 pounds per kilogram, the equivalent of  In 1781, the government collected 326,000 pounds sterling in taxes on sugar.  By 1815, the government had collected 3 million pounds sterling in taxes.  
    In 1754, it was discovered that beets contained a large amount of sucrose that can be harvested for sugar.  Beets are not as efficient to grow and harvest as sugar cane, but beets can grow in a wider range of climates.  Despite this, it wasn’t until the Napoleonic wars when the British navy blockaded French ports that beets were grown on a large scale to produce sugar.
    Sugar can be produced from Sugarcane.  Sugarcane is a perennial grass that grows best in tropical and sub-tropical regions.  Sugarcane is harvested, milled, and then the juice is extracted with water or by diffusion.  This juice is highly concentrated sugar water.  The sugar water is filtered and heated to kill bacteria and enzymes.  The remaining solution is heated to evaporate the water and crystalline sugar will precipitate out.
    Sugar can also be produced from sugar beet.  Sugar beet is a tuberous root that contains a large amount of sucrose.  The sugar beet is harvested and sliced, and the sugar is extracted by diffusion.  Again, the juice is filtered, heated, and heated a second time to crystallize out the sugar.

    Sugar is primarily used for cooking, but has many other uses.  Simple granulated sugar is used to sweeten foods and drinks.  The granulated sugar can be milled into a fine powder, called powdered sugar, and used to garnish confectioner’s treats and in baking.  Brown sugar is formed by soaking granulated sugar in molasses.  This sugar is used for all types of cooking.  Sugar cubes are formed by steaming granulated sugar and pressing it into cubes.  Sugar cubes are used for sweetening drinks.  In the Americas, sugar was fermented to produce rum, a substance much more valuable but much less available in England.

“About Sugar.” Sugar Nutrition UK. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.
“How Sugar Is Made – the History.” SKIL. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.
“The Cambridge World History of Food – Sugar.” The Cambridge World History of Food – Sugar. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.
Whipps, Heather. “How Sugar Changed the World.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 02 June 2008. Web. 17 July 2014.


4 thoughts on “Sugar and Consumption

  1. You provided a great informative overview of Sugar and Consumption. I am curious to know the value of sugar comparative today’s dollar amount. The natural sugars obtained in fruits and honey had for centuries provided the natural taste of sweetness. Those sugars could be easily found in the natural plants, trees and regular agricultural harvesting of food throughout time. The new sugarcane development and plantation of changed the entire make up of dietary habits for centuries to come, especially in Americans. Now, there is an overabundance in the usage of sugar. Will sugar every run it’s course.

  2. I attempted to find the real money value (or some approximation) of sugar from different time periods in history, but the only numbers I could find go back to 1912. Sugar is 18.22 cents per pound now, and in 1912 sugar was about 7-8 cents per pound. These numbers roughly correlate with inflation and increasingly efficient manufacturing processes (sugar costs about the same now as it did 100 years ago). This being said, I don’t believe it is appropriate to directly compare the price of sugar now vs. in the 1700’s for a number of reasons. Yes, sugar was so expensive that only the nobility could afford it, but this isn’t the whole picture. Goods weren’t readily available the same way they are today. You couldn’t just pop over to the market and get whatever you wanted. Sugar wasn’t readily available in public markets and bazaars, it was reserved for the rich and the nobility. At first, the trading expeditions were funded by the nobility, so they would have first right of refusal to buy the cargo brought back. It wasn’t until the large plantations in Brazil and the West Indies that increased the supply of sugar to the point that it wasn’t economical to sell only to the nobility. This abundance of sugar forced the suppliers to sell at a lower price and to lower class citizens.

  3. It’s interesting how there are so many varieties of sugar. I would love to try the different ones while cooking to see what the difference is between them all. It also interests me how expensive sugar used to be, based upon the economic times, and how now it is relatively cheap. Granted, a lot of our sugar is now artificial since people do not want to consume the calories of real sugar. Real sugar is easier for our bodies to process in small quantities so it is much healthier to eat real sugar. I wonder if beet sugar or sugar cane sugar is healthier. Did any of your research mention the answer to that? Sugar has such a long background, especially thinking about how many different types of things it is in nowadays.

  4. Your post gives a really good overview of sugar’s scientific, historical, and functional roles. While you provide a timeline of sugar throughout the world, I am left for the most part to wonder about its role in eighteenth-century England, beyond the fact that it was apparently heavily taxed. I must admit that I could not find much on my own brief search of Google on the subject, but I found a Wikipedia entry concerning the Sugar Act (1764), one of many Parliamentary Acts that helped spur the American War of Independence. As far as this class’s focus on consumption goes, you definitely mention a great deal of ways sugar can be consumed, and I wonder how that might combine with its expensive, upper-class nature in eighteenth-century England to provide some insight into our readings this term. Though I do not have the time at the moment to delve deeply into the specifics of the matter, I am sure there examples of sugar consumption in those works, and they likely shed some light on the characters.

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