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Blame Napoleon for Our Addiction to Sugar

Prior to 1850, sugar was a hot commodity that only society's most wealthy could afford

Photo: Laurie Andler

Sugar is so interlaced in our snacks, meals and drinks that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But prior to 1850, this sweet substance was a hot commodity that only society’s most wealthy could afford. Then, mid-nineteenth century, Napoleon changed all of that, flooding the European market with affordable sugar and perhaps inadvertently sparking an epidemic of obesity and diabetes a century and a half down the road.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln writes:

During the mid-1700’s, the German chemist Andreas Margraff discovered that both white and the red beetroot contained sucrose, which was indistinguishable from that produced from cane. He predicted then that domestic use and manufacture of sugar was possible in temperate climates, but these ideas would not be realized for another 50 years until new ways of extraction could be developed.

During this time, sugar came from plantations in the South Pacific. But the discovery of the sugar beet opened new routes for harvesting the sought-after ingredient.

The BBC explains:

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.

The European Food Information Council elaborates:

By 1806, cane sugar had virtually disappeared from the shelves of European shops. In 1811, French scientists presented Napoleon with two loaves of sugar made from sugar beet. Napoleon was so impressed he decreed that 32,000 hectares of beet should be planted and provided assistance to get the factories established.

Within a few years there were more than 40 sugar beet factories, mostly in Northern France but also in Germany, Austria, Russia, and Denmark

Napoleon encouraged new research with sugar beets, the University of Nebraska writes, and by 1815, over 79,000 acres were put into production with more than 300 small factories being built in France.

Soon, sugar beet sugar flooded the British market, and by 1850 sugar was at last affordable for all.

The BBC continues:

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.

It didn’t take long for sugar to become a household staple, and today, about 35 percent of the 130 metric tons of sugar comes from sugar beets. The BBC concludes:

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.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Sugar on Snow 
A Field Guide to Sugars 

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