The British and Sugar

I am neck deep in research material, reviewing several different books and articles surrounding the history of candy and sugar. During these forays into the past, one thing has become clear: While many European countries have a love affair with sugar, none can match the sheer passion that the Brits seemed to have had during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

If there’s one thing that becomes apparent to anyone when they look at any sort of history, food or otherwise, it’s that nothing occurs in a vacuum. In other words, the popularity of sugar in England didn’t just happen, nor did it demonstrate any sort of predilection for sweets that the Brits may or may not have had. History is a little more complicated than that.

The clue here is to note when the popularity of sugar took off – the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What else was happening at this time? There are two events of note: Britain was getting involved in colonialism and trade was increasing as the Brits took to the sea in greater numbers.

From the colonial aspect, the United Kingdom made several forays into the Caribbean and established several colonies in locations which just happened to have the near-perfect climate for growing sugar cane. Many sugar plantations were started in these locations, and it wasn’t long that the supply of sugar on the home island grew as a result. Basic Econ 101 theory states that the more supply one has, the cheaper the product will become. This is exactly what happened in Britain, and sugar, once a staple for the royal and upper class, soon became readily available to the growing middle class.

From the trade aspect, several other products made their way to the ports of Great Britain. Coffee, tea, and chocolate all were brought to the shores for the first time during this era. Each of these items carried a created a fad when they were introduced. This happened to coffee and tea more-so than chocolate, but even chocolate became a bit of a novelty for the wealthy.

Now, from those three items, what defining characteristic do they all share? They are all naturally bitter to one degree or another.

And what product was becoming more ubiquitous to the masses which, by chance, could not only help mitigate the bitterness of coffee, tea, and chocolate, but actually improve each one’s taste a bit?

That’s right. Sugar.

Were these the only two variables? Of course not. Keep in mind that other areas of Europe (notably the Dutch, Portuguese, and the Spanish) had these same variables in their past to varying degrees, and yet sugar consumption in Britain is markedly higher. This answer, at best, gives a bit of a simplistic explanation for their sugar demands. But it is a great place to start.

*Note: Several of you are likely thinking to yourself “Yeah, but who cares?!?” The answer is that America’s sweet tooth was directly, almost exclusively, influenced by the British for over one hundred years, and helped establish our own issues with sugar.