Sweetness and Power

The last time you took a bite of chocolate, did you ever think about what it took to bring that delicious treat to your mouth? I'm not just talking about how your mother, friend, personal chef, or favorite cookie company made it.  Have you ever wondered about the social constructions that were formed to produce it? Have you ever realized the true power that sugar and all of it's by-products has on you?


Over the summer, I read an ethnography about the History and Consumption of Sugar by Sidney Mintz called Sweetness and Power. Mintz discusses the introduction of sugar into the modern world, and its effects on society.

He begins his ethnography by traveling to the Caribbean where sugar cane was grown and processed into what we put in our tea or coffee. He argued that it was in the Caribbean that he first discovered a "modern society." The intensive process it takes to produce sugar requires labor at all times of the day for different tasks. Therefore the work force in the society went from farming to maintain subsistence to shift work for waged salaries and varying skills and abilities. At this point in time, shift work had not hit the European and Western worlds yet.

After his time in the Caribbean, Mintz travels back to England to see the different uses of sugar and it's effects on society. Through his research, he found that sugar began as a product for the elite masses.  They would use sugar primarily as a sweetener and for decorative purposes. Since it was exclusive to the elite, sugar was extremely expensive. Everyone, even in the lower classes that couldn't afford it, wanted it.

Mintz found that many products go through trends of demand. The way sugar was brought into society, it should have been something that would have been phased out eventually. Yet, as we all know, sugar has not lost its demand in society, but why?

Mintz argues that there is a higher power behind sugar that has influenced all of society world-wide. He states that this higher power has controlled our need for sugar through subtle actions we do not even think twice about. First, to increase demand for sugar, it was exclusive to the elite. Then to create a need for sugar, society implemented the same type of shift work found in the Caribbean, into European societies.

This caused families to have less time for cooking and have a greater need to buy things that would be or make a quick meal. This caused the use of sugar to change from a sweetener of the elite to a preservative for the lower classes. When adding sugar to any meal, it speeds up the process and is able to be preserved for later. Instead of baking bread every morning and having to eat it all by nightfall, individuals can add sugar making pastries to be enjoyed throughout the week. Eventually this power dropped the price of sugar, but with this need, the demand was not only high, but increased over time.

This higher power controlling the masses also introduced other incentives into society to enforce the demand for sugar in all its uses. This higher power disguised the need for sugar has a cultural value. "The British drinking tea with sugar demonstrates national pride."

Ultimately, Mintz argues that the demand and use of sugar has lead to a "de-socialization" of eating rituals. He finds that because of sugar being used as a preservative, people now eat individually instead of as a family, to eat fast in order to move on to their next tasks within the day. The concept of shift work has created a new idea of "leisure time" or time when you are not working and can do everything you need to do before working again. Therefore, individuals eat tv-dinners to condense as many pleasurable activities into one to save time and effort.

If you are curious about this higher power controlling your sugar intake, please read the book in its entirety. It is a quick and fascinating read that will make you question everything you eat and what social implications you create with taking one bite of chocolate.

Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.




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