Fruit Full, art and science

a brief history of sugar

Sugar has changed the course of history and its story is extraordinary. It beats tea and coffee as a commodity that has changed the world. Its central role in the Triangular Slave Trade and colonial history has an impact on our society to this day.

Of all the plants, one species of sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, contains the most sugars. From the tropics of South East Asia, it was domesticated as long as 8,000 years ago and harvested for its sweet juice. The crystallisation of sugar is a complicated chemical process and this probably began in India about 2,500 years ago. From Asia, sugar cane cultivation spread to the Middle East in Roman times, then around the Mediterranean during the Arab Empires. Sugar cane is a tropical plant: it needs both a lot of warmth and water, which explains why the Nile delta in Egypt became an important centre. From the 10th century Venice dominated the sugar trade, importing it into Europe. Sugar was a very expensive commodity then, reserved for the wealthy.

Sugar production is very labour intensive. In the Middle Ages, wars and the Black Death led to labour shortages and the use of slaves in the plantations around the Mediterranean became common practice. Both the dry, unsuitable Mediterranean climate and local deforestation led to a decline of the industry. The rise of the Ottoman Empire was also disrupting the supply of sugar into Europe. As a result, European powers started to search for new lands to grow sugar.

The Portuguese and Spanish Empires were the first to establish new sugar plantations on islands off the west coast of Africa, then later in the Gulf of Guinea in tropical Africa. Sugar cane was introduced in the West Indies by Christopher Columbus from Spain in 1493. The Portuguese then colonised Brazil and established a thriving sugar industry there using indigenous slave labour and the technological improvements they had learned from their African plantations. With diseases introduced from Europe decimating the Brazilian population, the sugar barons decided to establish a slave trade from Africa, using ships crisscrossing the Atlantic.

Ten to twelve million Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic as part of the Triangular Trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Manufactured goods (arms, textiles, wines) were sent to Africa from Europe, slaves were shipped from Africa to the New World plantations, commodities (mainly raw sugar and coffee) were sent from the colonies to refineries and commercial centres in Europe and North America. The colonies were made to rely on the mother countries for most of their supplies and all the profits from the plantations were exported to Europe.

By the late 16th century, Brazil was dominating the world sugar production. Then British, French and Dutch colonists joined the bonanza. Plantations and raw sugar processing mills took over the West Indies, parts of South America and later the southern colonies of North America. The production of the refined sugars took place in Europe, with the cities of Antwerp, London, Bristol, Bordeaux, as well as New York replacing Venice as centres of the trade.

The 16th and 17th centuries are viewed by economists as a transitional period between feudalism and capitalism, with trades such as the Atlantic sugar trade being instrumental in enabling the Industrial Revolution of 18th century Britain. The transfer of all the profits to the homeland, the total exploitation of the slave labour, the relentless appropriation of the colonial land and its natural resources, the economic subjugation of the colonies, all were important factors in creating the vast wealth which enabled the new capitalist industries to later emerge in Britain.

The early 19th century’s Napoleonic wars brought in a new player in the sugar story: the sugar beet. The plant Beta vulgaris originates from the Mediterranean. It is a very hardy root vegetable naturally rich in sugars, widely grown in Europe at the time because it made great fodder for cattle. Previous attempts in Prussia at the commercial extraction of beet sugar had not been a success. During the Napoleonic wars, a revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and a British blockade of French ports led to a shortage of cane sugar in France. Napoleon’s government financed the study of sugar beet and rapid progress was made in the manufacturing process. Beet became a competitor to sugar cane, gradually becoming the main type of sugar in Europe. Its cultivation greatly contributed to the price of the commodity plummeting over time.

Slavery was abolished during the 19th century. Plantation owners responded to labour shortages by using a more modern form of slavery: indentured labour. Poor people, mainly from India but also China and other countries, were recruited (often tricked) to work for a period of 5 years on plantations across the oceans. Wages were very low and conditions harsh. Worldwide, sugar markets were expanding, with plantations established in new areas. Globally, the price of the commodity fluctuated widely, gradually following a downwards trend as more was produced more cheaply.

Throughout its history, sugar has been a highly political commodity. Its trade played a part in many conflicts between European empires. In America, anger caused by heavy import tariffs on rum, a by-product of the sugar cane industry, was influential in starting the war of independence against Britain. The American Civil War was caused by southern states refusing to abolish slavery in their cotton and sugar plantations.

More sugar history to follow after the artwork...

On this page is a brief history of sugar. It includes the artworks: Sweet Feeds, Sugar Highs and Sugar Ghosts.

For an overview of this art and science project, go to: Fruit Full home page

To find out more why we like sugar so much, go to: Sugar Spell

A longer text about sugar is available to download as a pdf: A Brief History of Sugar


As part of the project, two focus groups were set up to explore nutrition topics related to sugar. One group, based at the University of Reading, included older participants. Another group, at the University of Oxford, had younger participants.

Here a young focus group participant talks about the foods she eats and why:

play the above interview in a new tab

Professor Julie Lovegrove is Head of the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition at the University of Reading, UK. Here she talks to a focus group about why she became a scientist and about the role of sugar and carbohydrates in our diet:

play the above interview in a new tab

The artworks Sugar Ghost and Sugar Meal include images of human adipose (fat) cells as seen under the microscope.

By the turn of the 20th century, the world population had doubled. In response to this growing market, a new economic phenomenon took place, first in the USA: the industrialisation of food production. This revolution was due to several factors, including the mechanisation of agriculture, the use of artificial fertilisers, the invention of new preserving and processing methods and a new transport infrastructure. Most of the old American sugar refineries disappeared. They were replaced by a few large and increasingly powerful corporations, with vast amounts of capital to invest and crucially an increased ability to lobby and influence governments. Not only was more food being produced but it became cheaper to buy. This trend for cheaper foods and global business monopolies has continued to this day. All the major brands of foods and drinks that we buy, and quite a few of the smaller brands too, are owned by a handful of global corporations.

The rise of global capitalism did not stop governments from controlling the availability and price of sugar: a regular supply of the commodity was too important to be left purely to market forces. When the First World War broke out, Britain was dependent on German beet sugar for most of its supply. Immediately, sugar stopped coming to Britain and within days, the government had established a Royal Commission for Sugar Supplies (later to become the "Sugar Board") to try and remedy the problem. Sugar rationing followed, with much anger and complaints from the local population, and British farmers were subsidised to grow sugar beet. The same issues resurfaced during the Second World War. The industry was then dominated by the company Tate & Lyle and after the war, the new Labour government considered nationalising the company, so important did it think that sugar was in the British diet. Tate & Lyle vigorously fought off the nationalisation with its campaign "Tate Not State" and won!

In Britain, as well as many other parts of the world, the sugar industry has been shored up by governments for most of the last century through state protection, guaranteed prices and subsidies. This is in contrast to earlier times, when governments received substantial revenues from import duties on sugar: In the 19th century, the US Government made two thirds of its income from import duties, with sugar duties representing 20 percent of this amount. In modern times however, sugar has become so important in everyone’s diet that governments have felt compelled to subsidise the market. Lobbying by powerful sugar producers has no doubt played an important part in influencing government minds.

Prior to the 19th century, people the world over ate mostly local foods. Only the very wealthy could afford exotic foods such as spices and sugar. During the last two centuries, a social revolution has slowly taken place, bringing in a different type of class structure and new ways of controlling social mobility. Sugar was a key tool in this revolution, which some historians describe as the age of sugar replacing the age of honey. Who knows, but it’s possible that our 21st century will bring in a new age, as yet undefined...

In Britain, tea was the reason for the popularisation of sugar. Trades in the colonies of Asia and America were bringing tea, coffee and chocolate to the home country, as well as sugar. All three beverages have a bitter taste, so sugar was soon added. The price of sweet tea became cheaper than the traditional home-made beer, thanks to a combination of reduced duties on sugar imports and a local tax on the malt used to make beer. Poor people were now relying on sweet tea to moisten their bread, their main diet. On the one hand, the privilege of eating foods which were considered a luxury was being enjoyed by everyone: sugar was the great social leveller. On the other hand, businesses were creating a demand for the product and making vast fortunes, with the support of the government: sugar was a source of wealth and power. Commodities originating from across the world were replacing local foods. Gradually, sugar lost its luxury status and became an everyday item. Everyone had the freedom to enjoy its sweetness. By 1850, Britain’s poorer classes were actually eating more sugar than the wealthier classes.

More sugar history to follow after the artwork...

Sugar had long been known as a food preserver. During the second half of the 19th century, new methods were invented and fruit preserves, jellies and jams became widely available. As a result of the opening up of the markets, the price of sugar plummeted and the now affordable preserves and other new products were quickly adopted by everyone. As it happens, poorer people did not eat many fresh fruits at the time, because in excessive amounts they can cause diarrhoea. Jam manufacturers had to work quite hard at the beginning to persuade people to eat preserves, despite the fact that cheap jam was actually mostly sugar with very little fruits. Nevertheless, bread and jam became the main diet of poor children from 1870 onwards. And this tradition has perdured: white bread and jam is still a common meal today for children in poorer families, together with eating sweet biscuits, because all are filling and cheap.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most meals had been eaten at home, prepared from scratch using local ingredients. The kitchen was women’s domain. When women started working outside the home in textile mills, men weren’t going to take up cooking, were they? Spending less time preparing food became a priority for the home makers and the new jams and preserves fitted in perfectly: The concept of convenience food was born. Bread and jam bought from a shop was a quick meal, it tasted good too and had plenty of calories. These "modern" foods represented progress: a new social order was emerging where for the first time individuals could aspire to and even acquire some of the privileges reserved for the better classes, even if these privileges amounted only to some jars of cheap jam. Everyone could move up in the world by becoming a consumer, even if this ended up costing them more, both in terms of their health and their purse.

Sugar is loved. Producers love its profits. Food manufacturers love its products. Consumers love its taste. Retailers love its selling value. Advertisers love its power. Governments love its tax revenues. Most of us just love it, to get through the day. Even the slaves in the plantations used to love its rum.

Here are a few facts and figures:

    - UK’s annual consumption of refined sugar, per person, per year: in 1810: 18 pounds, in 1850: 30 pounds, in 1880: 68 pounds, in 1914: 91 pounds, in 1950: 110 pounds.
    - At the start of the 19th century in England, refined sugar represented an estimated 2 percent of a person’s caloric intake. A century later, this figure was 14 percent. Nowadays it can be more.
    - In 1650, pure sugar was a rarity. In 1750, it was a luxury only the wealthy could afford. By 1850, it had become a necessity for everybody and by 1950, it was the enemy.

So why do we like sugar so much? To find out, go to this page: Sugar Spell.

This brief history of sugar was written by Françoise Sergy with references to these books:

Sweetness and Power, the Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney W. Mintz, 1985.
Sugar, the World Corrupted from Slavery to Obesity, by James Walvin, 2017.
Sugar, a Global History, by Andrew F. Smith, 2015.

With thanks for advice on nutrition from:
Professor Julie Lovegrove, University of Reading, UK.
Professor Leanne Hodson, University of Oxford, UK.

A longer version is available to download as a pdf: A Brief History of Sugar.

Fruit Full, the exhibition, is the identical twin of this project’s website, with one major, fundamental difference: You can enjoy it in a real, physical space, surrounded by objects which are bigger than yourself and speak directly to you. Each one is unique and there to welcome you in person.

You can meet the fruits, the stars of the show, in the flesh, with their personalities filling up the space and following you around.

You can sit down and learn about the history of sugar and the work of nutrition scientists from books lovingly hand made by the artist. There, if you wish, you can also discover the work of fruit farmers through the seasons.

You can spend time eavesdropping on a focus group chatting about what people ate as children, all these years ago, whilst you walk around the installations, pondering over their meaning, wanting to touch them but knowing you shouldn’t.

And hopefully, by the end, you will understand why it is that most of us like sugar so much. But most of all, you will know that seeing art in the flesh, in a real space, will always win over dipping fleetingly into a webpage...

Fruit Full was due to be exhibited in several venues during 2020 and 2021, including in museums, art galleries and hospitals. Most shows were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. If you are a venue and are interested in the project, please contact us at

The two images below show the exhibition at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, Suffolk, UK.

Museum of East Anglian Life

Museum of East Anglian Life

Museum of East Anglian Life

Museum of East Anglian Life

Françoise Sergy lives in London. She also spends a lot of time in Cambridge, UK, where her partner lives, and in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, the country she is originally from. She is both an artist and a gardener. For many years she worked as a dance and performance artist, developing her own practice through the prism of feminist aesthetics. Photography has always played an important role in her work.

At the age of 40 she fell in love with plants and trained as a gardener. Plants are now her main focus. Working part-time as an artist means that her projects take a long time to come to fruition but she doesn’t mind. She enjoys the scientific grounding horticulture has given her, using it as another tool in her creative process. Her aim is to work with scientists to reveal how important plants are in our everyday life, even if we are not aware of this, and to celebrate them.

Fruit Full was conceived, researched and produced by artist Françoise Sergy, in partnership with scientists and fruit growers.

The exhibition is looking for venues: For more information, please contact the project at:

All the images on this page are available as prints: £40 / €50 for an A4 print, £50 / €65 for an A3 print (plus postage costs). To order, please contact the artist at

Françoise Sergy has her own website with information about her past and current artwork:

Links to the project’s partners and thanks to everyone involved are on the Links Page