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Mintz: Economics, Taste and Influence Of Sugar Essay

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Updated: Nov 25th, 2021


In Mintz unbeaten publication, Sweetness and Power, a grand task of advancing economic, social and cultural history of sugar is commenced. The author spawns with mordant with the complexity of the sugar commodity bringing to the forefront, its significance as a daily product and how it moderated economic growth in the encroaching global market. The idea that sugar production has a direct connection to capitalistic economic system sounds far fetched-an oxymoron to the phony thinker, yet in the well elucidated master piece Sweetness and power, Mintz frogspawns the correlation between slavery and capitalistic growth through the sugar commodity. The author employs anthropological techniques to trace the roots of sugar production in the European historical context. He further highlights the growth of its consumption and how it related to social status and eventually the scrapping of status quo as the product garnered popularity amongst all the social classes. This paper examines how the book Sweetness and Power establishes the significant changes in the socio-economic scaffold leading to dramatic alteration in consumption, which incorporated sugar with the daily diet as a daily requisite.

Main body

As early as 1000 A.D the sugar commodity was introduced into the European market. Its demand however, remained stifled until 1800, when sugar was transformed into staple food in the English diet. Before 1800, sugar was only preserved for the wealthy in the society and the noble class who consumed it in colossal quantities, the working class only afforded to purchase it occasionally due to the exorbitant price tag attached to it. In the 18th century as Mintz expresses, it was a “Monopoly of a privileged minority.” (Mintz 45). Beginning 1800, England started advancing towards industrialization; as this trend augmented internal production of sugar picked in homeland and its import too increased. This was due to bolstered economic stability, which led to an increased demand for sugar product. Consumers were drawn from all the social classes so that it was no longer a luxurious product but a basic commodity.

Mintz, clearly explains the presence and usage of sugar product amongst the British populace. When sugar was first introduced to the British market emanating from the East, it was treated as some kind of noble spice that could only be accessed by the nobility and the wealthy class in the society. There were medicinal values attached to sugar so it was both seen as a spice and medicine so that it was consumed in an economical way. In order for sugar to garner popularity, the perceptions people held about it had to be altered, the people had to be changed in the way they identified sugar and the value they attached to the commodity. The capitalists sought to make sugar acceptable and accessible to all so that they could tame the readily available market which desired to consume it but could not afford it. Therefore, the capitalist had to structure a strategy through which they deprived sugar of its status and made it cheaply available for all. Initially sugar was associated with class and status this had to be changed in order to moderate the market forces. The only way to degrade sugar to the lower economical class was by producing it at low price so as to sell it cheaply, the cheap labor had to be harnessed from the slaves and that is how sugar production links to slavery.

In this complex anthropological masterpiece, Mintz elaborately explains how sugar was produced in the Caribbean and Atlantic for the European market to consume. This production in the Eastern was so meager it could not accommodate the demands exerted by the changing market tastes and preference. The sugar was only confined for usage by the upper class because it was not cheaply available to all. The status associated with sugar and utility thereof harnessed, caused the European importers to desire its production. Even if sugar was not cheaply produced in England, its presence in small units created a momentum for creation of sugar cane plantations in order to harness raw materials for the product.

With the increased recognition and acceptance of sugar as a universal commodity, the demand for sugar producers increased. Hence the capitalists pursued the available cheap means of production available consequently, enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean (Mintz.63). With the increased production of sugar, the laboring class increased as people sought jobs in sugar cane plantations. Mintz traces the root of materialism and how it was deliberately formulated; he argues that the “social and economic significance of tea and sugar in 18 the century in the Great Britain played a critical role in chiseling the British colonial strategy.” (Mintz.44). In Caribbean massive sugar plantations were established and the slaves provided cheap labor, as a result the profits harnessed through sugar cane productions were colossal. The availability of the product at cheap labor enabled the Europeans to cover a huge market share producing ideological shift even in the diets consumed as Mintz notes “ By 1800 British consumption of sugar increased by 2500 percent in 150 years.” (Mintz 72-73). The spectacular shift, from a minuscule clientele base to a mammoth sugar consuming market forms a basis through which Mintz explains the history of sugar industry.

Agro industrial plantations emerged where by all the agricultural activities were combined with the sugar processing procedures so that a complex unit for producing sugar was intrinsically merged and managed under one authority. The labor offered in the industries was a combination of both skilled and non-skilled labor, and both the mill and the plantations could not be severed. The kind of labor force comprising of the slaves and the white masters comprised of transposable units so that people could rotate from one production unit to another, the standardization was a strategy of ensuring that the laborers are conversant with all the processes involved in sugar production business. The labor provided was a combination of skilled and unskilled workers, the schedule on which they operated was strict, and coercion was the only mean through which high productivity was enhanced.

The sugar plantations in that era were industrial because production of the consumer product was distinguished from its consumption and the workers employed in the firms were separated from their tools. The workers in the seventeenth century were bound they had no rights, coercion was their only motivation and through them the capitalistic economic system erupted to give way to a different way of living where a minority flourished at the expense of the masses. Both the outside and inside perception of sugar came through a transformation, so that its production and consumption had to be tilted to be at par with the changing wind and time. Moreover, the existence of capitalism led to change in the social economic realm, bringing change in the ideological interpretation of sugar consumption. Sugar spread gradually, becoming a stable food commodity commonly found in most food products. The high productivity of sugar which was aided by slave labor led to high productivity of sugar, which in return caused the product’s prices to plummet hence universal consumption of the product, was embraced causing sugar to become a universal global product.

The modern industrial set up draws close from the way the sugar producing companies were organized. Mintz explains, “The production firms were well organized in the pre capitalist era and even before the inception of industrial era” (Mintz 146). However, they created a model through which the modern industry could organize its structures and operational procedures. The employees in these firms were more organized and were laid out in such a systematic order to ensure that the full potential of the available resources was harnessed. A definite capitalist system was closely imposed on the plantations because they required a vast capital expenditure. As a result of this organization in the operation of the sugar-producing firms, Investment setups were developed in order to forge a way for production and distribution of the product. Hence, cutting down on costs of production in order to bolster profits.

The author explains how sugar necessitated the development of tea and the hyped up sale on the commodity so that people prefer tea over liquor, tea was created in order to create a way for sugar to be consumed, and people opted to take sweetened tea over bitter tea hence the sugar market continually grew. Tea was forced down the consumers by both the tea and sugar producers, tea producers created a leeway through which sugar could be easily and frequently consumed; the two products complemented each other creating a customer base out of their combined effort. The industrialized who feared that liquor affected the productivity of their employees also participated in popularizing tea as staple food because they believed that it helped the workers to amass more energy and offer excellent output at work. In the first place, tea was seen as a first class drink for the upper society, so the poor aped it in order “to achieve the status that went with the drink.”(Mintz 234). This of course was a marketing gimmick to make tea more desirable to the poor so that they could choose it over liquor.

Other supplementary products that are consumed hand in hand with sugar like coffee, chocolate and cocoa created a leeway through which the sugar product penetrated the depths of all the social classes in Europe. Other social factors included the sugar losing its iconic value in the society, so that its consumption was not confined to the privileged upper class, sugar was no longer consumed in relation to class or power and this made it both accessible and cheap. The loss of the symbolic status held by the sugar in the society helped to intensify its usage so that the lower –class could access and use it. As other commodities filtered, the English common diet, sugar was no longer deemed as a spice but was now regarded as a sweetener that was necessary in a lot of food readily prepared for human consumption. Moreover, sugar was no longer reputed as a medicinal product but was treated as a food additive necessary for sweetening food and also a source of energy in human bodies.

The statistical data availed by Mintz allude to the value embedded to sugar consumption with its heightened availability in the society. Analysis at both the import and export figures alludes to the fact that a lot of sugar in Europe was only retained for domestic consumption. It is through sugar that the normal low class citizen was able to access calories in bounty and amass energy necessary for labor. With increased awareness and reduced prices on sugar, the status of the commodity dwindled and it was no longer viewed as luxury but as a basic necessity and the whole capitalistic system came to play. The ceremonial attribution associated with sugar was erased to pave way for extra meaning so that sugar was associated with special occasions and holidays.

The shift in ideologies surrounding sugar usage and consumption changed creating latitude through which lucrative profits were reaped. Power amongst the initial consumer ebbed away as the sugar commodity lost its symbolic status to the lower class. Nonetheless, the noble and the wealthy still recaptured the power back by owning and managing the sugar cane plantations that supplied raw materials to the sugar producers. “So a shift from consumption to production again curved a niche for the upper class, bestowing a political and economical obligation upon them.”(Mintz 156) Sugar production was given adept detail and energy so that the supply was extended to the international world; thereby through the consumption of sugar, it was easily demonstrated on the power intrinsically found in mass consumption.


In order to accommodate the changing eating patterns people had to work extra hard so as to earn good money and purchase what was congruous to social taste and preferences. This thirst and desire to consume superlatively preferred products in the society was perceived by the producers and it was thus fanned, encouraged and then exploited through the capitalistic economic system. This spirit for supreme good life paved a way for change to occur in both political and economical spheres and transformed the agrarian life in diverse ways. The freed slaves formed the rural population in the England where the tropical colonies were conquered and harnessed to support this led aid in this new wave of life transformation. As Mintz explains, “The heightened consumption of goods like sucrose was the direct consequence of deep alterations in the lives of working people, which made new forms of foods and eating conceivable. (Mintz 180)

Sugar held the secret key to liberty and power, it was the commodity that accorded power to the powerless, and its ability to remain relevant, in demand and vital for daily consumption elevated it to supreme status. Sugar was no longer a luxury but a necessity a sort of lifeline through which people lived so the market could not do away with it and no one could ignore its contribution to the economic stability. The globe gradually become ensnared by the desire for sweet foods, it took a center stage in every day activity so that everything including cakes, desert, tea, alcohol have this substance. This is how it began moving the world’s economy.

The chapter elicited by the author on power as it relates to sugar production shows a clear perception on how viewing sugar as a basic necessity helped Britain to modernize the other global society. Other cultures and food preparation styles were changed as sugar was introduced in the diet; changing taste and bolstering preferences amongst various consumers. Sugar was a means through which perceptions were changed as people embraced new ways and modern styles in their food preparation.

The role of sugar in the modern society is captured by the writer in the final chapter titled “The Eating and Being”, which elaborately points the role played by sugar in the society. Explaining the way sugar has become entrenched in the systems of the society influencing the eating and purchasing habits of the buyers. The writer also broadens the scope of his study to carry a comparative study of the American production and consumption pattern of the sugar product. There is a terse review of the cultures, which obstinately refuted the wave of sugar consumption in France, and the western culture, giving a peak into how the culture gradually got ensnared into this irresistible product that dominates the global market owing to its indispensable value and use. Ultimately, sugar becomes a tool through which the producers are able to exert their dominion and values to others, through which cultures are altered and economies built in the global arena.

Works Cited

S, Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Group, New York: NY.1985.

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