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Sweetness and Power

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When talking about industries which involve slave trade, most people would think of coffee, tobacco or cotton, but no one associates sugar with slavery. Really, nowadays, sugar is present in literary every product we consume, it has become so popular and at the same time so common that few would think about its history and analyze the connection between sugar trade and the development of slavery. Nevertheless, apart from changing people’s eating habits, sugar played an important role in social, industrial and economic life of the whole countries.

In his book, Mintz chooses sugar to be the subject matter of his observation He explores how and when it entered the life of England and other countries. Interestingly, at the very beginning it was used as a spice which only the wealthiest people could afford. What I have never known before is that sugar served as an ingredient for sculptures which the rich made to entertain their guests, and that the product was an indication of power. The essential thing about “Sweetness and Power” is that it makes the reader analyze the events which seem to be minor and accidental. The author seeks to understand why people needed sugar so badly and why exactly sugar penetrated into diets of people changing them completely. He tries to find a bond between eating habits of a nation and its lifestyle. The book suggests detailed information on every aspect of the product: its origin, history, production, usage and the effects it may have on human body and life in general.

Food, Sociality and Sugar

The first chapter of the book, “Food, Sociality and Sugar” deals with the correspondence of food people consume to their culture, mentality, status, etc. The author suggests that our eating habits demonstrate our relation to the society, thus studying ingestion, one can say a lot about people. Sucrose became known around 1000 A. D. and at first was a rare spice, but by 1650 it was introduced to Englishmen who liked it at once. In few decades, it transformed from a rarity into necessity and became an integral part of each Englishman’s diet. As Mintz points out, despite the fact that people are capable of consuming any food which is not poisonous, they are always looking for spices to make the taste more special. It is interesting, though, that among many other sweet products, it was particularly sugar that everyone liked so much, and the author is trying to understand whether this was a random process or not. He makes an assumption that this may be, because, in spite of the well-known fact that tastes differ, everyone has a positive attitude towards “sweetness”, and after eighteenth century British love to sweets started to grow.


In “Production”, the second chapter of the book, Mintz says that there is no clear evidence as to where sugar originates from. Scientists claim, though, that it was originally produced from sugar cane and it had undergone many changes before sugar became what we know it today. Although the process of sugar making has not altered much from the ancient times, there were some differences and they were predetermined by weather conditions. Being first cultivated in Arabic countries, sugar cane is a tropical or sub-tropical plant, so its cultivation in Europe was an extremely laborious process. These were Portuguese and Spaniards developing industries on the Atlantic islands that transformed the way Europeans consumed sugar. The author finds a striking resemblance between sugar trade and political differentiation between European states. As the demand for sugar grew, traders started to use slave power to produce more of it. For some time, demand for sugar was satisfied through the expansion of colonies and production, rather than with the help of new technologies and techniques. Sometime later, Britain set its colonies in the New World and its sugar trade expanded. Soon, England drew Portugal from the trade and monopolized the market. With the rapid development of goods exchange between Africa, New World and England, slaves turned into so-called “false commodity”, for they both consumed and were consumed as labor. Mintz says that he seventeenth century was a pre-industrial period, because, although plantations were merely agricultural, they were the predecessors of the radical changes their homeland was about to experience. A century later, when the enslaved people were freed, sugar industry still needed labor; this caused a migration of workers.

The consumption of sugar

According to Mitz, it was used in five areas which were sometimes difficult to separate: sugar served as medicament, spice, decoration, sweetener and preservative. At first, sugar was one of the exotic spices, but it soon became an important ingredient of English diet. However, it was still very expensive and only rich and powerful houses of the country could afford it. Another unusual application of sugar was to make it a component of so-called “subtleties” – edible sculptures on feasts. Within some time, however, when poor people were able to afford sugar, too, it lost its symbolism. Now, it was producing sugar that meant power. As to its medical use, sugar divided doctors into two opposing sides – prosugar and antisugar. Nevertheless, starting from eighteenth century, it did not matter whether sugar was a medicine, since people were already using it in food in large quantities. Another factor which kept sugar among the most required products was the success of tea which was usually sweetened. As English diet started to change, there appeared a new kind of food, a very common today, but unknown at that time – dessert. Although it may seem obvious to us how sugar can be used in all abovementioned spheres, it took some time for people to start using, for example, as a sweetener and not only as a spice; this even caused economic changes in England.

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In the next chapter, “Power”, Mintz argues that no change in eating habit is accidental, and that the foods had the meanings, which “were also related to the will and intent of nation’s rulers, and to the economic, social and political destiny of the nation itself” (151). The seventeenth century England was divided into classes, and consequently, the food consumed by each of them was different. Such division demonstrates how power was concentrated in the society. Selling products such as rum, tobacco and sugar to middle class and colonials was an economic obligation and meant solidity of power. With the establishment of “free market”, the consumption of sugar rose encouraging import into the United Kingdom. Sugar and tea were the products which best satisfied the needs of Englishmen – they were hot and highly caloric. In terms of industrialization, people were learning to eat from home and accommodate there eating habit to the working schedule, and sugar was a perfect substance to do so. Sugar trade and working on plantations, in particular, offered new opportunities not only to the rich, but also to other people. The appearance of Capitalism enhanced the changes in the society and economy, due to which ideological understanding of sugar consumption modified. As the result, sugar became one of the central goods in the global market. Since economy is of scale nature, the prices on sugar went down; the society adopted new interpretation of food consumption, thus, sugar played a vital role in the process of food globalization.

Eating and being

The next chapter of the book is called “Eating and Being”. A growing demand for sugar was satisfied to the technological and chemical advancement in its production. Being a perfect source of calories and, of course, energy, sugar became wildly popular not only in Britain, but elsewhere in the world. The author is seeking to understand what makes people change their traditional eating habits to something new. He states that the character of sugar consumption illustrates processes on a wider scale: “…the differential allocation of sucrose to different uses is a coefficient of other features of development” (189). For example, contrasting household and industry uses of sucrose, one may talk about the level of development of a country. Mintz also tries to analyze the changes that happened to the process of food intake and the reasons for them. He says that people slowly started to eat outside their houses (which caused the appearance of fast-food restaurants), they rarely dine together with other family members nowadays, and the structure of meals is now not fixed (you can drink Coca-Cola whenever you want and with anything you want). Food industry is now trying to correspond to the society’s need for time – everything has to be time-saving, even food. Manufacturers add sweeteners – caloric and non-caloric – into every product they make. According to Mintz, it makes food more “palatable”. The author argues that due to this fact, people’s taste of food is undeveloped. He also suggests that the consumers might think they have a freedom of choice, but in fact, they eat what food manufacturers suggest them.


So, sugar became an indispensable product in a diet of every man. This could be predetermined by our need for calories or inborn love to food that tastes sweet. Anyways, sugar served as a basis for large industries, its production favored slavery, migration and industrialization. As the result, the lifestyle of people changed, they tried to accommodate their nutrition to the new way of life, thus consuming more and more sugar. Similarly, there are many other products in our world which seem to be indispensible and it feels that they appear just when we need them. However, it may be so that they are consumed because someone makes profit of them and they can serve as a means of power, just like sugar did. Really, every day we start consuming new things like computer technologies, expensive cars, wear brand clothes, eat new food, but hardly anyone thinks whether we really need them.

To sum up, Mintz did a good job writing his book – the analysis is deep and suggests full information on sugar. If I were to suggest new areas of the study, I would concentrate on a psychological effect a change in eating habit has on masses. For example, why it is so easy to impose some product on masses making them believe they need it. It would be useful to analyze other products people consume which have similar effect on modern world. It would also particularly be interesting to forecast what our world would be provided sugar had not been introduced into the diet of Englishmen. To answer these questions one would need to conduct polls, see how a particular product travels from one country to another, analyze to what extend advertisement is useful and what aspects of a product are being advertised and predict what global market would be if popular products were not consumed.

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