Typical sugar consumption now vs 100 years ago

Image: Jenny Sturm (Shutterstock)

Image: Jenny Sturm (Shutterstock)

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It is no secret that people today ingest far too much sugar. According to the NHS, adults should not be consuming more than 30g of added sugars per day, and should ensure that less than 5 per cent of daily intake consists of these ‘free’ sugars. However, in reality, this is far from the case. At present, many populations see sugar accounting for over 20 per cent of calorie intake, a shocking four times more than the recommended limit.

But how did we get here? Sugar consumption hasn’t always been so high. It’s time to go back to basics: asking, how much sugar did people eat 100 years ago?

IFL Science reports that sugarcane is now the world’s third most valuable crop after cereals and rice, occupying 26,942,686 hectares of land across the globe. However, it wasn’t always so widespread. Several hundred years ago, sugar formed a very small part of the human diet, which was much more closely premised on pulses, fruits and vegetables that would be foraged plus local animals hunted.

As IFL Science explains, DNA evidence from plant remains suggests that sugarcane first evolved in Southeast Asia, and remained an immensely elusive substance throughout the Middle Ages. Then, after the Portuguese discovered that the Brazilian climate was suitable for sugar growing, it was introduced to the Caribbean in around 1647, whereupon the Western European sugar industry took off.

Initially during its mass production, sugar was believed to be beneficial to health, and was only available to the elite classes who could afford it. Sugar and Sweetener Guide explains, “By 1700 average consumption of sugar in the developed world was approximately 4 pounds per annum and this accounted for less than 1 per cent of calorie intake. By 1800 this had risen to approximately 18 pounds and by 1900 it was 60 pounds.” However, it wasn’t long after its popularisation that experts began to question the value of sugar for human health.

As Food Renegade discusses, a book called Graded Lessons written by physician Dr. William Krohn at the end of the nineteenth century indicates these doubts: He knew that “excessive amounts of sugar cause the liver to be overworked and a bilious attack results”, they report. He also recognised the important distinctions between natural and refined sugars:

“Sugar, syrup, and candy are sometimes made from corn by a peculiar process, by means of which the starch of the corn is changed into glucose, and a kind of sugar not so sweet or healthful as sugar made from sugar-cane or sugar beets. This sugar is quite apt to ferment, or sour, and decay within the bowels, thus causing disease.”

The history of sugar consumption

Sugar rations / Image: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer (Wikimedia Commons)

Sugar rations / Image: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer (Wikimedia Commons)

Just over 100 years ago, the UK was the centre of the sugar empire, and operating around 100 small-scale refineries. In the 1920s, the beet industry grew, with 20 beet factories built during the decade, of which the country now has only one, in London. Comite Sucre suggests that, according to Czarnikow consumption records, the Victorian era was when sugar consumption ballooned, with a rise in sugar consumption per capita reaching 35kg per person.

World War I and II saw a drastic decline in sugar usage due to extreme rationing, after which there was a short peak as people celebrated being able to eat sugar once again. Although it’s been claimed “while obesity per head of population increases sugar consumption per head is actually falling”, countless sources suggest otherwise.

Natural Society conducted research into the average consumption of sugar from 1700 to the present day, and found that:

·         In 1700, the average person consumed approximately 4.9 grams of sugar each day (1.81 kg per year).

·         In 1800, the average person consumed approximately 22.4 grams of sugar each day (10.2 kg per year).

·         In 1900, the average person consumed approximately 112 grams of sugar each day (40.8 kg per year).

·         In 2009, 50 per cent of Americans consumed approximately 227 grams of sugar each day - equating to 81.6 kg per year.

Sugar consumption on average by approximate year

Sugar consumption on average by approximate year

These figures, which are echoed across many studies, certainly indicate that sugar consumption has grown enormously in the past few hundred years. Now, the average person consumes 70 grams of fructose each day, which is a shocking 300 per cent above the daily recommended amount.

In fact, according to this infographic by Mind Body Green, the average American consumes 1610kg pounds of sugar in a lifetime. That’s nearly 2 tonnes! These figures are similar for people in the UK. 

In an article for Collective Evolution, nutritionist Lisa Kilgour says that the modern-day urge for sugar is a “craving you can’t always trust. A sugar craving is usually due to an imbalance in your gut bacteria or a sign of a blood sugar crash. Rebalance your gut bacteria and you’ll find your sugar cravings will go down dramatically.” Along with addressing the cause of sugar cravings, it is essential for consumers and producers alike to recognise the dangers of sugar, from obesity to diabetes, and provide healthier and more sustainable alternatives in shops and restaurants everywhere. Certainly, this incontrovertible explosion in sugar consumption cannot be ignored.