James (1990) writes of the Baka of the Cameroons who, once a honey comb is located in the topmost branches of the rainforest canopy, spend time and effort in order to obtain it. ‘They will quite literally go to enormous heights and put their lives at risk to obtain the honey’ (James 1990:632). She also draws our attention to a television advertisement in our own society which portrays a man undertaking a series of dangerous and acrobatic feats to deliver a box of chocolates to the woman he admires. What have these accounts in common? They are, argues James, just two examples of the extent to which sweet foods are valued. In each culture the source of sweetness may vary, as will the kinds of food, but the preference for sweet tastes remains a constant. There are many discussions about the biological basis and physiological functions of this preference for sweetness. However, for sociologists it raises questions about the social organization of the production, distribution and consumption of such highly valued foods and about the part which sweet foods play in society.
Any superficial account of the increase in the accessibility and consumption of such foods as sweets, confectionery and chocolate gives an impression that here is yet another success story involving human ingenuity in processing natural raw materials and, in relatively recent human history, the application of sophisticated technology to produce and distribute quantities of sweet foods on a scale unknown in previous historical periods. However, it is also relevant to recognize that, whichever aspect of the story of sweetness is considered, there are also contradictions and conflicts and a more complex account to be given. There are many examples, amongst the most revealing about social processes and relationships, of the consumer’s ambivalence about a food which is, at the same time, both desirable and ‘bad’, and of the human as well as the economic price to be paid for the increase in the production of such sweet foods as sugar.
Cultural analyses of food preference emphasize the fact that, of all the potentially edible foods available, human beings select relatively few and that these