The only thing I came up with is slavery.

This would be due to the wage differences between slave and free man. If plantations were manned by indentured labor, then wages would have been higher. Also, the free trade movement.

What other things made it a necessity?

  • Welcome to the site. This question has a kernel of truth but you seem to be answering it yourself (although without any references). Also, did sugar really become a necessity in the 18th century? I was under the impression that it was in the 19th century -- see wikipedia page and ref. Oct 7, 2013 at 9:22
  • Didn't it start to spread downwards to other classes (other than the noble) in 18th century? THanks Oct 7, 2013 at 9:25
  • 1
    What do you think the meaning of sugar shifted to when others were able to get their hands on it (even the poor)? Was thinking it shifted to complement tea, coffee.. other imports. What do you think? Oct 7, 2013 at 9:28
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    Question is way too localised. In a large part of Europe cane sugar is not and never has been a large part of the sugar on the market. Most is refined out of sugar beats, and always has been.
    – jwenting
    Oct 7, 2013 at 9:53
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    Is there any evidence that sugar was a ncessity? Have you done any research on this, or is this merely a hypotheis that you've developed in your own mind?
    – MCW
    Oct 7, 2013 at 11:46

4 Answers 4


Simple. The timeframe of key sources* of sugar:

Sugar cane:

  • Ancient world: South/South East Asia.
  • 700 CE - 1500 CE: Appropriate locales within the Abbasid Caliphate (includes southern Spain and Sicily); plus earlier locations.
  • 1500 CE - Present: Americas; plus earlier locations.

Sugar beet:

  • 1801 - Late 19th century: Every suitable temperate locale within the Napoleonic Empire.
  • Late 19th century - Present: Any other temperate locale in the world (USA, Russia, etc).

HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup a/k/a your next heart attack):

  • Mid-20th Century - Present: Everywhere with a corn surplus, especially the USA.

Essentially the key boost in the availability of sugar - from a European perspective - was:

  1. Colonial access to suitable territory to grow sugar cane in;
  2. Subjugating labourers able to survive in tropical conditions;
  3. Creating a sugar cultivar that grew in Europe; and
  4. The Industrial Revolution increasing extraction yields and transport speed into international markets.

This explains why sugar became much more available.

As for why it became more "necessary" from a contemporary standpoint - at the risk of moving away from History and into Endocrinology - the reasons are also simple**:

  1. Sugar is highly addictive.
  2. Bad science regarding the role of cholesterol in heart disease resulted in swapping out fat with sugar unless you wanted everything to taste like cardboard.

* Ignoring more quirky lethal sweeteners like Ancient Rome's Defrutum.
** As you can tell, I was a participant of PaleoHacks Q&A before it shifted from a Stack Exchange spin-off to a commercialised crowd-sourcing siphon a la Facebook.

  • 2
    About that quote: in the USA today it is actually rather difficult to get yourself food that doesn't contain corn syrup. I got a bag of salted peanuts from a vending machine, and it had HFCS on the ingredients list.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 8, 2013 at 15:54

Sugar went from luxury to "necessity", to people actually eating much more of it than is even remotely healthy, because it went from expensive, to affordable, to really, really cheap.

This development is paralleled by a lot of other foodstuffs, and is a part of the general agricultural/industrial revolution and globalization that has happened the last centuries.


While this answer is based off theoretical work that applies strictly to wage labour, the insights presented are also relevant for "petty commodity production," or, the situation where a large peasantry is producing simultaneously for market as personal consumption. Or where Thompson's "plebeians" are in receipt of wages, but not structured as wage labourer (ie: where the wage relationship isn't centrally determinate in their class experience).

Marx strongly asserts that workers consume their entire wage bundle immediately; that the wage bundle is socially determined (by class war, of course) and may fall below subsistence or rise toweringly above it; and that the commodities that make up the wage bundle only have a tenuous link with their embodiment of value (same as the previous, but value centred rather than use centred). This holds true even for savings, which Marx and Engels address in relation to deferred unemployment consumption, or self-pensioning. (The distinction can also be seen later in Volumes II and III in terms of the difference between Departments IIa (consumption by workers, necessities) and IIb (consumption by capitalists, luxuries). Although this division is arbitrary, it is arbitrary on the basis of the difference between wage and profit; the wage being entirely consumed, profit being split between recapitalisation and consumption).

If we proceed from this, to a conception that the peasant consumers of mass sugar were in an imperialist relationship with a prefiguring "factory" and unpaid proletariat in the Americas, this all becomes clear: sugar became cheap on the rent of zero waged slave labour. This is demonstrated in the Autonomist tradition, see Federici (cite follows) at 225, "The tribute which the Spaniards exacted was much higher than that the Aztecs and Incas had ever demanded of those they conquered; but it was still not sufficient to satisfy their needs. By the 1550s, they were finding it difficult to obtain enough labor for the both the obrajes (manufacturing workshops where goods were produced for the international mar­ket) and the exploitation of the newly discovered silver and mercury mines, like the leg­endary one at Potosi." Manufacture of goods on a speculative basis for sale as a commodity was occurring. Thus the "virtuous" cycle of capital reinvestment of the value form could proceed apace in the Americas, with the "degradation" of free labour to wage labour occurring in the middle passage.

Cheap sugar was built on the backs of slaves; but, the reason why recapitalisation happened in sugar was that production was developing on a capitalist basis in the colonies. For more evidence see the position of the Sugar lobby in Britain as a separate lobby from the corn and manufacturers lobby.

Necessity then is the combination of supply (embodying value), and intensification of production as capitalisation (requiring greater realisation to realise the cost of capital, such as slaves), with a willingness to raise the volume and variety of utilities consumed in the metropole while avoiding raising the value composition of the consumed bundle. A similar process occurs later with cotton, or iron work, or iphones.

  • As much as I love a good Marxist tract, you can't supply sugar if you have no territory that grows it. Reducing the overheads/increasing the profit margins came later and also doesn't explain the availability of sugar in post-slavery society. Oct 8, 2013 at 1:37
  • All I'll agree to regarding sugar and Marxism is that sugar was highly profitable and the profit was not distributed evenly; in a manner that could be explained by Marxist theory if that floats your boat. Oct 8, 2013 at 1:47
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    This answer deals with the massification of European's consumption of American sugar. It does not deal with pre- versus post- Columbian contact access to sugar. As such this answer aims to answer the difference between "Luxury" and "Necessity" in European sugar consumption after Columbian contact. Oct 8, 2013 at 3:18
  • Hmm. Yes "Necessity" is an unusual word in an otherwise unclear question. But the questioner could have been asking about why farmers were locked into producing this cash crop. So I'll remove my downvote (once stack exchange allows "post edit" vote changes) :-) Oct 8, 2013 at 3:30

"Slavery" was part of the issue. But the real issue was the development of new production in the 18th century in the West Indies. During the course of the 18th century, total world production of sugar grew by a factor of at least five, as a result.

Sugar is a product with elastic supply. That means, if you increase the supply five times, the price will drop to less than one fifth of what it was formerly. This "more than four-fifths" price drop changed it from being a luxury to being a necessity that working men could afford.

  • @DenisdeBernardy: Changed the reference to "elasticity of supply." (In) elasticity of demand doesn't really apply here. Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 8, 2019 at 4:53

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