Sidney W. Mintz – Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Sidney W. Mintz – Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History

Mintz tells the story of sugar from an anthrolopogist’s perspective, with a focus on working-class Britain. A weakness is that he views economics through a Marxian lens (though not ideologically Marxist), with an emphasis on concepts such as ownership of the factors of production, power relations, and class structure that seem odd to contemporary readers. This instantly dates this book in the reader’s mind to the mid-20th century, when this approach was fashionable. A quick bit of research shows that Mintz was born in 1922, so his scholarly training and career began precisely at the peak of this movement. This book came out in 1986, towards the end of Marxian analysis’ credible period. As an older scholar by then, Mintz still retained much of his earlier training. That said, Mintz does recognize that slavery was not a capitalistic mode of production, and that economists such as Adam Smith opposed both slavery and imperialism.

Other oddities include his use of the term “balancing the accounts of capitalism,” the meaning of which is unknown to this trained economist. Mintz also does his credibility no favors when he describes sucrose-heavy modern diets among lower-class people as a form of intentional, culturally-approved population control, which operates by depriving children of protein and other nutrients. Mintz then cites the Reagan administration’s school lunch policies as an additional form of population control.

Mintz’s analysis is much better on non-economic parts of sugar’s history. His emphasis is not on the science of sugar, or its culinary or nutritional properties, but he is strong on its cultural impacts. The meat of the book on Britain’s working classes from roughly 1600-1900, presumably his specialty in his scholarly research. Mintz goes into how sugar is farmed and processed, how it related to other crops, where it sat in people’s diets and how the growing sugar trade changed diet and nutrition worldwide for people of all classes, though again with an emphasis on Britain. He also goes into sugar’s pre-Atlantic history, which is mentioned in Europe as far back as the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. Henry VIII was an avowed fan, and his court was a major user of the then-expensive spice.

He doesn’t go extensively into sugar’s non-British history, but does mention the Arabic enlightenment physician Avicenna’s (d. 1037) views on sugar. Also of interest are historical views on sugar’s medicinal value in various forms that no longer pass muster, such as powder for the eyes and smoke for the lungs, as well as its usefulness for disguising both medicines and poisons. Some doctors viewed sugar as a cure-all in the early 1700s, though its role in diabetes was also discovered around the same time. Its effects on weight and teeth were also well-known; Elizabeth I apparently had quite a sweet tooth, which had turned black by her old age. There was also a harmful superstition that eating large quantities of fresh fruit was harmful to one’s health. But I do share the time’s positive view of honey, which in my opinion is underrated as a sweetener.

Another historical quirk is how intimately the British paired sugar, imported from thousands of miles to the West, with tea, imported from thousands of miles to the East. Mintz argues that this is partially because tea displaced beer as the working class’ favored drink. In a time of poor sanitation, beer’s germ-killing alcohol made it safer than water. It also made up a non-negligible portion of daily calorie intake for many poorer people. Tea did away with those calories and other nutrients from wheat, which had adverse health consequences. This may explain why the English so commonly replace those calories by putting sugar and milk in their tea, whereas many other cultures do not.

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