packets of different sweeteners

A Brief History of Our Sweet Addiction

Article and audio introduction by Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences
America’s Sweet Tooth
spoonful of sugar

Sugar changed from luxury item to pantry staple in the 19th century, when it became cheaper and more plentiful. Today, the average American consumes 130 pounds of sugar each year. (Photo credit: Samantha Kennedy)

It sounds a bit morbid, but a corpse’s teeth can say a lot about their life, including what they ate and the state of their overall health. Further, the teeth of someone who lived in the American colonies over 300 years ago may even reveal their financial means. Why? Because a mouth full of decaying or missing teeth may indicate an affinity for sugar, which back in those days, was a luxury item that only affluent people could afford.

Americans love sugar.  We always have.  But back in the early days of our country, when we won our independence from England and George Washington was our first president, sugar was not that easy to come by.  It was expensive and scarce, and the average American consumed only 6 pounds of sugar a year.

That may seem like a lot – just imagine eating an entire bag of sugar with a spoon – but to put it in perspective, the average American today consumes about 130 pounds of sugar a year.  That is the equivalent of about 26 bags of sugar!

Sugar’s American History

Part of the reason for the increased consumption was increased availability.  As the sugar beet industry grew, sugar became more plentiful, which drove prices down, allowing more people to purchase it. In 1876, the United States signed a treaty with Hawaii, which also increased the amount of sugar available to the American public.

The result? As prices dropped, demand increased.  Food companies, including candy makers, began putting sugar in more of their products. By 1897, Americans were consuming over 26 million pounds of milk chocolate a year.  The invention of the Mason jar drove up demand for white sugar, which was used in home canning.

In the early 20th century, Prohibition increased the demand for soft drinks sweetened with sugar, and even after Prohibition ended, soft drinks remained incredibly popular, to the point where today, entire aisles at the supermarket are dedicated to nothing but soft drinks.

Sugar consumption dropped dramatically during World War II, when wartime rationing severely decreased the availability of sugar to consumers.  Battling armies often burned sugar cane fields and cut off supply lines, while most of the available sugar was being used to make antiseptics and explosives used in the war effort.

After the war, sugar sales rose again as sugar consumption surged.  Most of the sugar consumed today is in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is an inexpensive and abundant sweetener used to flavor many foods and beverages.

The Demographics of Sugar Consumption

While sugar began as an expensive luxury item only the rich could enjoy, it has evolved into a cheap and plentiful item everyone can afford. However, it is still linked to a variety of nutrition-related health issues.  While improved oral hygiene has helped curb the occurrence of sugar-induced tooth decay, the high consumption of sugar is now linked with increased risk of diabetes and obesity.

Lower-income households consume more sugar than higher-income households. Sugar-sweetened beverages tend to be less expensive than their less-sweetened counterparts. Shoppers with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables generally consume more sugar, since many of the foods they rely on, from cereal to snack foods, often contain large amounts of sugar.

The history of sugar consumption in America is an interesting one.  As our consumption of it has steadily increased over the decades, current research and awareness initiatives have helped consumers become more aware of the risks of consuming too much. Current data tend to hint at a decrease in overall sugar consumption, but whether that becomes a steady trend is something only time will tell.

Resources

USDA MyPlate: “What Are Added Sugars?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005-2010”
UF/IFAS Blogs – Wakulla County: “High Fructose Corn Syrup: Saint or Sinner?”

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