How did sugar come to Sweden?

5:46 min

Historically, Sweden has had a relatively short relationship with sugar. It wasn't until well into the 19th century that the average Swede started consuming sugar.

At first, it was a rare and luxurious item consumed almost exclusively by noblemen or members of the royal family, but then in the 18th century, the Swedish upper-class got its first taste of sugar, says Leif Henriksson, a docent at the Nordic Museum.

"If it was the nobility who could afford sugar in the 17th century, it was the rich shipowners and the bourgeoisie who started getting access to sugar in the 18th century. Here we see different kind of plates and cups made out of silver and porcelain that were used to serve or consume sugar, and they represent prosperity and richness", says Henriksson.

During this time the valuable product was still being imported from the European sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. It would take Sweden until the 18th century to begin producing sugar domestically by growing sugar beets, and this finally made sugar a lot more accessible here.

But the consumption was still low in Sweden in the late 18th and early 19th century, especially compared to the UK where people consumed almost ten times as much sugar.

Most people here still only had treats for special occasions such as weddings and funerals, and soon the supply outweighed the demand. All of a sudden Sweden had a surplus of sugar. It got so bad, the government had to step in and urge Swedes to eat more, says Henriksson.

"They actually produced propaganda. They made a 1,5 hour long movie about how fantastic sugar is and to tell people that they supported the Swedish economy when they bought sugar", Henriksson says.

The government's efforts worked and by the early 1900's, sugar was a staple food here and Swedes were eating candy, cakes and sweets like never before. This increase in consumption however gave rise to a new problem in Sweden, poor dental hygiene.

The problem spread rapidly, and scientists rushed to study how sugar affected the teeth and how to prevent tooth decay.

One of these studies was particularly successful and is still cited to this day. It was a study by researchers out of Lund University that clearly showed how candy caused both tooth decay and cavities.

The study sparked a heated debate, but not only because of its findings. Once it had been made public, people were outraged to find that the researchers had conducted the experiments on human patients from a nearby mental hospital without their consent.

"Hardly anybody knew about it at first, but people started to realise how unethical the study was in the 1950's. They had special groups who consumed candy that really stuck to their teeth and the pictures from the study are terrible to look at. It became a big scandal, but internationally it's still a study that many people refer to because the results were very good", says Henriksson.

After the so called Vipeholm study, the government launched a new campaign to inform people that too much candy could ruin your teeth, and about the importance of good dental hygiene.

These days though, many people see sugar as more than just a threat to our dental hygiene. One of the museum walls is covered by newspaper clippings with tips on how to avoid sugar and with various studies linking sugar with diseases like obesity and diabetes, and it's this part of the exhibition that gets most people going, according to Henriksson.

"They really start to light up when we get to our time. When we come to the part of the exhibit that deals with the health problems, that's when a lot of people start to think. Of course, the historical parts are interesting too, but that's all in the past, it's when people can start to relate that we get really interesting discussions", Henriksson says.