What are four changes in the use, culinary meaning, cultural significance, and geographic sourcing of sugar in Europe between the Middle Ages and the late 1800s?  

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Sugar is something we take for granted today (and something most of us eat too much of), yet it was not always so common or used as it is today. Let's look at how the meaning and use of sugar changed from the Middle Ages into the modern era.

Sugar didn't even reach Europe until the time of the Crusades. In the latter half of the eleventh century, Crusaders brought sugar home with them from the Middle East. They were impressed by this “new spice.” It became a luxury item because it had to be transported for long distances. In London in 1319, sugar cost “two shillings” a pound, which doesn't necessarily sound too expensive to us until we learn that this is about $100 a pound in today's money. Needless to say, most people in Europe did not buy or use sugar.

After the discovery of the “New World,” people realized that sugar would grow well there, and the sugar industry flourished. While sugar still needed to be transported, it could be done more easily now. Sugar refineries opened all over Europe to process the sugar grown in the Caribbean. Costs went down, and more and more people began enjoying sugar as part of their diet.

Some people actually thought that sugar had medicinal qualities as well. They thought that sugar could clean the blood and strengthen the throat, chest, and lungs. People also thought that sugar help eye troubles, diminish the symptoms of a cold, heal wounds, and treat a fever. By the end of the 1700s, the people of Britain were using about five times as much sugar as they did at the beginning of the century.

Culturally, as sugar plantations grew, so did the need for labor, and slavery expanded to meet that demand. Furthermore, the demand for sugar led people to find new sources for it. So in the early 1800s, the sugar industry began extracting sugar from sugar beets. As industrialization spread in the 1800s, sugar refining became more and more mechanized, and sugar companies in the U.S. actually joined together to help stabilize prices for this now-favorite commodity.

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