From a luxury to a necessity

Sugar, an everyday commodity in nowadays life, reached its social status through a long revolutionary journey. From 12th century when sugar was first introduced to Britain to 19th century (Mintz, 77) where the consumption of sugar has dramatically changed quantitatively and qualitatively for three main reasons: industrialization, slavery and introduction of other food and knowledge.

Sugar was not available for the majority of the general public until 19th century. It was considered to be a luxury for its high price and limitation of plantation. Before industrialization, agriculture was heavily dependent on human labor. To obtain pure sugar from cane, labor intensive agriculture resulted in a high price that was only affordable by the wealthy and royal family. Sugar was consumed to serve 5 purposes; medicine, spice, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative. Its change in functions can be considered as qualitatively. Its function as medicine was established by physicians throughout Egypt and North Africa in 12th century. Sugar used as a spice were spread in 13th century and reached its peak in 16th century. Historical recipes have proofed the use of sugar in cooking. Around 16th century, sugar started to be used as sweetener which differs from being used as spice in terms of quantity. It was often added in drinks or beverages and as well as pastries or bread. “Sugar’s use as a spice and a medicine declined as its use as a decoration, a sweetener, and a preservative increased” (Mintz, 121). It was used as decorative materials on dessert by the royal families in 19th century, and people learned to use sugar to preserve fruits in 19th century. (Mintz, 1958)

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Industrialization and slavery enabled transforming sugar to be used as a spice and a medicine to a sweetener, a decorative material and a preservative. Industrialization begun around 17th century, where massive labor-intensive agriculture was integrated by technology. With the introducing of slavery, commodities like sugar, tobacco and coffee were able to be massively produced. It also enabled shipping technology. For instance, Barbados one of the major place of sugar production was dependent on its trading with the UK was benefited from industrialization and cheap labor of slavery. “The simplest measure of the relationship between sugar and industrialization is the profitability of the Atlantic triangle” (Austen, Smith, 96). Economic efficiency and availability in quantity transformed the function of sugar from a spice to a sweetener. In addition to industrialization, sugar was enabled as a sweetener by the consumption of tea, coffee and chocolate. Due to the bitterness of these three beverages, people learnt to add sugar in them to balance and enhance the flavor. As modernization of eating habits and diet occurred in 17th century, people started to preserve food in syrup. That was when sugar were started to use as preservative. (David, Engerman, 2000)

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In conclusion, sugar was consumed as five different principal functions. Different functions were overlapped and intersected instead of occurring one after another. However, functions were enabled by industrialization and slavery in a chronological order. The introduction of other commodities also altered the consumption of sugar in both qualitative and quantitative way. Nowadays, sugar is widely available throughout the world and it is still vital to our life.


Austen, Ralph A., and Woodruff D. Smith. Social Science History. Vol. 14. N.p.: Social Science History Association, n.d. 95-115. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. < >.

Eltis, David, and Stanley L. Engerman. “The importance of slavery and the slave trade to industrializing Britain.” The journal of economic history 60.1 (2000): 123-44. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

W, Clark. Ten Views of Antigua. 1823. London. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <,_plate_II_-_BL.jpg&gt;.

Clark, William. The Boiling House. 1823. Art.


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