Sugar is used in beverages, culinary practices, and in a postindustrial world continuously innovating towards efficiency. It is even converted into biofuel for energy consumption. Sugar, a generalized term for sucrose, is a chemical compound that consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Commonly consumed around the world today in beverages like Coca-Cola, it is interesting to note the relationship between the availability and consumption of sugar in society and the level of sophistication and modernity in that society. Evidence suggests there is a positive relationship between society’s ability to manipulate the classic sugar into various products for consumption and the quality of lifestyle in that society. The greater the sophistication in sugar consumption by society, the better the quality of life in that society. If a country only produces and consumes classic, raw, unrefined and unbleached sugar, the society is likely to be underdeveloped with a low standard of living economically and socially. This analysis looks at the history of sugar production, consumption, its influence on history and the resulting contemporary, post-industrializing world.
The most sugar abundant plant, sugarcane, has naturally grown since ancient times. However, its greatest expansion took place in the early 18th century as mass production technology and techniques began to emerge. Its influence on global history would be dramatic in the centuries to come, taking the forms of colonization, slavery, human migration, and wars. The same devastations would, in fact, shape the very structure of modernized society. This structure is discussed in one of Max Weber’s essays in sociology discussing class, status, and party. He explains the following:
The structure of every legal order directly influences the distribution of power, economic or otherwise, within its respective community... In general, we understand by ‘power’ the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action. (Weber et al.)
Prior to WWII and the era of human rights, the world was ruled by force and the gun of European explorers. The innovation of sugar production through the widespread use of slavery in the Caribbean is a clear example of such. In nature, groups living together generally possessed similar characteristics; skin tone, eating habits, rituals, etc. But, with the European extensive development in boats, cultures begin to blend as the Europeans take Africans to the Americas. Then, based on their distinctions, classes were formed.
In order to understand how the industrialization of sugar formed the social structures of our society today, one must understand how “bland” the world was beforehand. Before the postindustrial world modern societies are accustomed to today, people expended much more effort in providing the essential “foods” for their family. The relative ease in providing the essentials for one’s family determined one's social status. As mass-production capabilities increased, more people could easily acquire the essentials while the wealthier moved onward to higher consumption habits. Eventually, everyone living in these industrializing, modernizing nations is granted at least a minimal standard of living. But as scarcity is replaced by widespread availability, physical differences such as skin tone and cultural practices required the existence of social categories. Hierarchy is mostly determined by economic standing. These, together, provide grounds for differences in consumption habits as far as “foods” are concerned. As time moves forward, these differences form what is described as a “group-grid” pattern in anthropologist Mary Douglas’s book Natural Symbols. Douglas suggests in her works that food is more about shaping group boundaries as opposed to the core purpose of nutrition. This “group”, evident in different racial and ethnic categories, and “grid”, numerically “how much money you make”, together form the structure of our modernized 2013 America today.
In the case of America’s, rapid growth in production after WWII has resulted in long considered luxuries in earlier times widely available to people of all classes in the society. The rapid industrialization and expansion in the 20th century minimized the economic problem of scarcity and made modern products available to all groups and classes. This includes thousands upon thousands of modifications to natural sugar in products like Nutella, strawberry cream cheese, etc. But, in a homogeneous country like Egypt, the opposite has taken place. As opposed to moving around from continent to continent, these people have stayed mostly along the Nile as they have for thousands of years. As a result, the innovation has taken place, specifically in their production quality and standards, has been almost non-existent. In fact, it is once factories and industrialization have fully come into play do the modernized countries begin outsourcing their production means to other countries, like Egypt, Bangladesh, and India because they are cheaper. As a result, the average Egyptian consumer is not provided with, nor can they afford modernized, specific products like snickers or any of the other candy bar brands there are. The Egyptian and other societies are accustomed to consuming standard, raw, unpurified sugar with their bland homemade tea. Where the Europeans brought Africans to the Americas with objectives of production, trade, and prosperity, societies like the Egyptian and Indian societies quickly fell behind. And where the problem of scarcity slowly faded away along with the racism and discrimination, less advanced societies like Egypt and India have had heated confrontations over the slightest ethnic differences. It can be concluded from this evidence that the industrialization of sugar, and in general, has been the determining factor in a society’s leap from a pre-modern to modern society. The resulting consumption habits, of the society as a whole as well as the different social categories in those countries, shape the national identity of the country as anthropologist Sidney Mist. America is traditionally described as a fast food nation of burger, fries and hundreds of thousands of sweet products whereas Egypt and India are described as rice and chicken with specific types of flavoring. And it can be concluded, through the industrialization and widespread distribution of sugar, a society springs into modernity.
In conclusion, one can strongly hold that sugar consumption among different societies, as well as between different groups of those societies, plays a critical role in determining which societies have become what we know as “modern” or not. As of today, almost all countries have some level of widespread sugar availability. However, really developed countries have advanced variations of the product while lesser-developed countries simply have its widespread availability. Most countries are on some level of modernity now in 2013, and it can be expected to continue forward as the years go on.
Weber, Max, et al. "VII. Class, Status, Party." From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 180-95.