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Sugar, and the demand for it, has been a major demographic force in world history. Because of it, millions of people entered the New World from Europe and Africa, particularly to South America and the Caribbean. Sugar also brought dozens of ethnic groups to Mauritius, Fiji, Hawaii and lands throughout the Pacific. Sugar from colonial plantations flowed to cities, while food, machinery, clothing and many other goods flowed back.

The history of sugar consumption was shaped by cultural preferences, and various forms evolved to satisfy particular regional desires. In the first centuries of European sugar consumption, cane sugar was not an undifferentiated commodity like refined white sugar today. Sugar was sold mostly both by the loaf and the pound, and by color. Unrefined brown sugars were imported in chests and hence given the name "casson sugars." In the 1600s, "clayed" and "muscovado" sugars were introduced to England from Barbados. Commercial sugar refineries, supplied by New World production, appeared in England in the 16th century.

Until the late 1700's, sugar was served by European nobility as a way to validate rank and social power. Sugar also had a special status as a medicine in early years. In the works of Arabic writers between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, sugar is an important medicinal ingredient. Islamic texts transmitted the medical lore of sugar to Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians from Persia to Spain. By the thirteenth century, prescriptions of medical tonics containing sugar began to appear in Europe. It was blended with other herbs and spices and used in preservation and decoration. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the twelfth century "Though they are nutritious themselves, sugared spices are nonetheless not eaten with the end in mind of nourishment, but rather ease of digestion; accordingly, they do not break the fast any more than taking any other medicine." Of the "tropical commodities" introduced to Europe, including tea, coffee, chocolate, tobacco and rum, only sugar escaped religious proscription.

By 1850, sugar had been transformed from a luxury to a commodity in English life. This was a partly a result of geography: in the north, fruits and vegetables were less common than in Mediterranean countries, and sugar helped take their place. The English also drank sweet ales and so were already accustomed to a sweet taste. Sugar, particularly as a complement to tea, quickly became one of the first foods in the "work break" of the industrial revolution.

Orange Beef Stir Fry with Orzo
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