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Political Dictionary of the History of Health


The relationship to sugar in our society is sustainably anchored on a difference between genders. Workers at a refinery in northern France, private collection.

   The relationship to sugar in our society is sustainably anchored on a difference between genders. 


   In common language, sugar refers to sucrose, a substance extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane. The earliest uses of sugarcane — the “sweet reed” — are documented between the 15th and 10th centuries BC. However, it was not until 1747 that the presence of sugar in certain beet varieties was proved by the German chemist Andreas Margraff


   In France, the Napoleonic Wars, and in particular the blockade of Great Britain, presuppose to find another source of supply than sugar cane in the distant British colonies. Tests are carried out on various plants, including grapes and carrots, to extract the precious sucrose. In 1811, the Emperor decorated with the Legion of Honour and elevated to the rank of Baron, Benjamin Delessert (1773 – 1847) who, assisted by the engineer Jean-Baptiste Queruel (1779-1845) and the worker Bonnentin, managed to industrially extract sugar from beets, to clarify it and finally to turn it into sugarloaf. In the 1860s, after crosses and selections, real industrial beets were born. During the 20th century, sugar became an easy-to-produce, abundant and inexpensive commodity, becoming a “vital food”. Sugar was rationed in the same way as butter and meat during the two world wars. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was considered the food for strength by excellence, a force necessary for Reconstruction.


   Since the 1970s, the profound change in lifestyles has led to reflections on the impact of food on the body and health. During this period, the tertiarization of labour, the development of means of transport, the new way of consuming brought by supermarkets and the arrival of prepared dishes on the consumer market disrupt the daily life and induce at the same time a lower calorie expenditure and an increase in dietary calories. It is now possible to eat at its “saturation“. 


   In fact, societal problems, such as obesity or diabetes, have become more prevalent. Similarly, the expectations on women’s bodies are hardening and imposing strict nutritional behaviours. While fat retains its modern image of food that clogs and enlarges the body, the paradigm around sugar evolves, moving it from an essential and fortifying product for life, to one with more doubtful effects on the body. Voices are starting to rise to denounce overconsumption, which is becoming very easy to achieve in the face of the abundance of food range.


   During the 1970s, along with the entry of women into the labour market, there is a massive spread of prepared dishes with sucrose as the main excipient, both for its conservative properties, gustatory qualities and for his price. Thus, in this period, the idea that society has of the effects of sugar on the body begins to split. It damages the interior of man’s body, altering its strength by harming his physical health by being a significant factor of “civilization diseases“, such as atherosclerosis and hypertension. On the woman’s body, the effects of sugar are quite different. Its action is centered on the appearance of the female body, on what is given to be seen by the latter. He becomes a danger to beauty, from which he erases the lines traced by the fashion of the feminine slender. It is thus the capital of seduction of women that is altered, long before their health. This concern allows manufacturers to compete with the sugar product with synthetic sweeteners, making it possible to consume sugar without feeling the deleterious effects attributed to sugar. 


   In the 1980s, the attitude towards sugar consumption tended to become more and more demanding towards women. For the latter, sugar acquires the same status as fat, a product that stands in the way of the ideal of slimming. Thus, overconsumption of sugar is no longer the only issue, and simple consumption appears to be problematic. It is on this dichotomous ferment between genders that the relationship to sugar of our society is permanently anchored, even if it tends to fade nowadays. 


Read more in the dictionary : Obesity

Read the paper in French : Sucre

Amandine Dandel - Le Mans Université

Références :

Marie-Hélène de Clausonne, Les secrets du sucre, Fleurus, 1987.

Claude Fischler, « Les images changeantes du sucre : saccharophilie et saccharophobie », Journal d’agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquée, 1988, p. 241-260.


To quote this paper : Amandine Dandel, "Sugar" in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2022.

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