The Relevance and Impact of Sidney Mintz’s – Sweetness and Power

Written 14 February 2019 for HISTORY 103

For over 5000 years, sugar has been harvested, produced and used to fulfill human needs and wants. However, there has been a limited amount of studies on sugar by social scientists with interests in rural and agricultural policies even though sugar has been a widely used commodity for centuries. Sidney Mintz’s book, Sweetness and Power, is one of the few documents which analyzes sugar through social science mentioned by the Sociologia Ruralis in Productivism, Post‐Productivism and European Agricultural Reform: The Case of Sugar. The book Sweetness and Power is centralized around the theme that the introduction and development of the processes and consumption of sugar impacted more than just an individual’s diet. Sugar impacted the political, social, and economic development of various continents, countries, cities, and villages in various different ways.

Sugar has impacted more than just the European diet. The agricultural policies and institutions have evolved greatly over the last few decades seen in the shift from productivism to post-productivism according to Productivism, Post‐Productivism and European Agricultural Reform: The Case of Sugar. Productivism being a state supported system where the output and productivity was focused around intensive, industrial agricultural expansion. Where-as post-productivism is described as the struggle within new modern intensive farming between environmental and agricultural interest by The Case of Sugar.

Cane sugar has been the predominate sugar used within societies across the globe because sugar beets were not an economically feasible source of sucrose until the mid-nineteenth century. This is supported by Mintz when he states, “Sugar beets were not economically important as a source of sugar until the middle of the nineteenth century, but sugar cane has been the prime source of sucrose for more than a millennium – perhaps for much longer.” In The Case of Sugar, the authors focus more on the use of sugar beets in Europe during the nineteenth century for sucrose and the impact on the political and economic environment rather than sugar cane. One of the main reasons sugar beets were preferred in Europe instead of sugar cane was because sugar cane is grown and harvested more efficiently in tropical environments while sugar beets can be grown in both tropical and subtropical regions.

Before the World Wars, Brittan operated under a laissez faire approach towards the market. Without government involvement in the industry, the fate of the agricultural industry was determined by the status of the market. However, state support was introduced because of German advancement, increased prices, and unstable weather. In the 1930’s, the United Kingdom began to see an increase in state intervention through reorganization and restructuring programs which focused on trying to stabilize the market. The Case of Sugar writes that “the British Sugar Corporation (BSC) and an independent Sugar Commission under the Sugar Industry (reorganization) Act of 1936 [were] reforms which strengthened the states co-ordination of the development of the domestic beat industry.” Mintz states that “To a surprising degree, the way sugar figured in national policies indicated – perhaps even exercised some influence over – political futures” which supports the theory that sugar did and does impact the political environment (Mintz p.31).

The sugar industry within Europe has been highly described though massive levels of state involvement. This is supported by both the academic journal of Sociologia Ruralis The Case of Sugar and Sydney Mintz’s book Sweetness and Power when The Case of Sugar states, “the European sugar industry has long been characterized by high levels of state intervention and regulation” and Mintz says, “the developments ‘beyond the Americas’ represented the maturation of world trade in sucrose.” Most importantly Mintz states, “Britain, acknowledging the transformation of sugar into a daily necessity, gradually replaced protectionism offered the West Indian planters a ‘free market’ thereby assuring practically unlimited quantities of sucrose – except in times of war – to her own people (Mintz p.161).” These statements highlight the importance of world trade and development internationally on a agricultural, political and economical level shape the changes of the United Kingdom.

For so many people today, sugar in societies like Britain and the United states is so familiar that people do not even think about the impact the substance has on their lives. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without sugar. However, Understanding the relationship between sugar and the economy is difficult unless sugar is studies on an anthropological standpoint. Mintz says, “Human being do create social structures, and do endow events with meaning; but these structures and meanings have historical origins that shape, limit, and help to explain creativity (Mintz” Instead of viewing sugar as solely a food product, social scientist view sugar as a way of life. Sugar can be studied as an individual culture. The commodity has various forms and various ways of harvest. Sucrose influences a person’s behavior, actions and psyche.

Sugar is a commodity throughout the world in this day and age. Commodity specific studies have been examined and used to draw conclusions about the progression of the European sugar industry. Sydney Mintz’s book, Sweetness and Power, is still being referenced in academic journals to support the claim that sugar has changed more than the dietary habits of the human species around the world. His writings are still relevant today in that he is able to articulate the impact of sugar on the political, economic, agricultural and social development globally. Mintz summarizes some of his thoughts in his final statement, “In understanding the relationship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves (Mintz pg. 214).”


Mintz, Sidney Winfried. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Ward, N. , Jackson, P. , Russell, P. and Wilkinson, K. (2008), Productivism, Post‐Productivism and European Agricultural Reform: The Case of Sugar. Sociologia Ruralis, 48: 118-132. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9523.2008.00455.x

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