How we became addicted to sugar

A woman licks her sugar-covered lips

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We are swamped by sugar. It has crept into all areas of our daily diet, from the sweet treats we award ourselves to family essentials such as pre-packaged loaves of bread.

We know that too much sugar is bad for us, but we are hooked - and sugar is now so ubiquitous it is hard to believe there was a time when it was not readily available.

First discovered growing as a wild grass in the South Pacific around 8,000 BC, travellers and traders helped spread sugar across the globe.

For centuries it was regarded as a status symbol, too expensive to be consumed in great quantities.

A drawing of black slaves harvesting sugar cane, watched over by a white man holding a whip Slaves from West Africa were forced to work on sugar plantations

Britain's love affair with the sweet stuff began in the 1600s. Settlers on the British colony of Barbados discovered sugar cane thrived in the island's stony soil where crops of cotton and tobacco had failed.

Providing three harvests a year, farming sugar cane became a lucrative business. The discovery prompted a 'sugar rush' with settlers descending on Barbados - keen to cash in on the wealth it created.

Mass production of sugar saw Britain grow rich, helping to build the Empire.

It was physical work. Indentured Scots and Irishmen did much of the hard graft but they were soon replaced by a cheaper option - slaves from West Africa.

It was a dark period in British history, says David Richardson, Professor of Economic History at the University of Hull.

"I don't think you can underestimate the importance of sugar to the development of transatlantic slavery".

"Six million enslaved Africans were deposited in the West Indies, and yet when you look at the numbers liberated they're far fewer than six million. And the reason is... sugar kills slaves in the process of cultivating it and refining it," he adds.

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The slaves were at the mercy of the plantation owners and overseers who had little regard for their welfare. Even pregnant women were made to work in the fields, and slaves were not given adequate nutrition.

"These are guys who are there to make money and get out. The objective of the system is to produce the sugar, not to provide an easy way of life for the slaves - as long as you have access to more slaves," adds Prof Richardson.

Affordable for all

Start Quote

For the poor in the 19th century a lot of their calorific intake came from sugar - they could have been taking in calories from elsewhere that came with nutrients”

End Quote Dr Annie Gray Food historian

Britain had the monopoly on the sugar cane trade for over a century. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s the British blockaded France's trade routes with the Caribbean, leaving the country with low supplies of sugar.

Keen to find a solution, Napoleon invested heavily in the production of sugar beet, a relatively new discovery. With 40 sugar beet factories operating across the country, France once again had its sugar fix.

It was not long before sugar beet flooded the British market. The price dropped and by 1850 sugar was finally affordable for all.

The public could not get enough of this cheap and tasty pick-me-up. From sweetened tea in the workplace, to meals on the family table, to the new working class tradition of high tea - sugar soon became indispensable.

Far from being an unhealthy choice, this new foodstuff played an important role in family eating habits, says food historian Dr Annie Gray.

"It's a question of, are your children going to eat that dry bread? No. If you spread it with a bit of jam can you get them to eat it? Yes."

It did not take long for sugar to become a household favourite.

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow. The building was built by trader  William Cunninghame, whose fortune was built on the back of slavery. Image licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons licence.

Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art building was built using profits from slavery

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"If you look at the diet of the working class at the beginning of the 19th century, you're pretty much looking at bread, potatoes, cheese, butter if you're lucky, maybe a bit of bacon fat," says Dr Gray.

"By the end you're looking at bread, butter or margarine, jam and cake."

So addicted were we to this new taste, that at the beginning of the 19th century we consumed 12 pounds of sugar per head. By the end of the century that amount had rocketed to 47 pounds per head.


But this new-found pleasure came at a price.

"For the poor in the 19th century a lot of their calorific intake came from sugar, and the problem with that is they could have been taking in calories from elsewhere that came with nutrients", says Dr Gray. "Malnutrition among the poorer classes at the end of the 19th century was awful."

Malnutrition is not the only health problem for which sugar has some responsibility. It is known to cause tooth decay, while obesity and high blood pressure are closely linked to the over-consumption of calories. In turn they can lead to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes in the UK

  • 2.9 million people have diabetes
  • The number has doubled since 1996
  • It's estimated that five million people will have diabetes by 2025
  • Most will have Type 2 diabetes, partly due to an increase in obesity


Sugar is now so ingrained in our diet it may seem too impossible a habit to break.

But Professor Naveed Sattar of the University of Glasgow's School of Medicine thinks there is some hope in our battle with the sweet stuff.

"People can take some of the sugar out of their diet and get to a point where they're eating less sugar in their food or drinks but still enjoy their diet to the same extent, if not more, by reprogramming their palate."

Challenging centuries of in-built programming favouring sugar might take a lot of willpower, but Professor Sattar is confident it can be achieved.

"Sometimes to re-programme your palate can take a couple of months… but [people] can achieve that change."

Actor Brian Cox explores the impact of sugar on our diet in Addicted to Pleasure on BBC Scotland on Monday 26 November at 21:00.

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