FOR PEOPLE living today in societies like Britain or the United States," Sidney Mintz writes, "sugar is so familiar, so common, and so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. People now in their forties or older may recall the sugar rationing of World War II, of course, and those who have spent time in poorer countries may have noticed that some peoples seem to experience even greater pleasure than we when consuming sugar. So plentiful and important is this substance in our lives today that it has become notorious: campaigns are waged against it, eminent nutritionists attack and defend it, and battles for and against its consumption are waged in the daily press and in Congress. Whether the discussions concern baby food, school lunches, breakfast cereals, nutrition or obesity, sugar figures in the argument. If we choose not to eat sugar, it takes both vigilance and effort, for modern societies are overflowing with it."

Yet much though we may take sugar for granted as a pervasive presence and influence in our lives, in the history of Western society it is a relatively new phenomenon. It was only 31/2 centuries ago that sugar became available in England, and then only as a luxury for the aristocracy; about two centuries ago it "had become a necessity -- albeit a rare and costly one -- in the diet of every English person," and not until the turn of the 20th century was it supplying a significant percentage of that person's daily calories. The rapid growth in consumption of sugar outside the sugar-producing regions is one of the genuinely startling developments in modern history, and "world sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing still."

How this came to pass and what effects it has had on our lives and customs are the subjects of Mintz's inquiry, one that is more or less equally rewarding and frustrating -- rewarding because it contains useful information and provocative insights, frustrating because too much of it is couched in a dense, latinate prose that only an academic could love. One example will suffice: "Paradigmatic relations characterize the components within a meal, and syntagmatic relations characterize those among meals; or, to cite (Mary) Douglas again, 'On the two axes of syntagm and paradigm, chain and choice, sequence and set, call it what you will, (Halliday) has shown how food elements can be ranged until they are all accounted for either in grammatical terms or down to the last lexical item." Right.

The worst excesses of scholarly jargon -- much of which, like that sentence, is simply impenetrable -- tend to occur in those sections of the book in which Mintz speculates about sugar's political, cultural and social ramifications. When summarizing the history of sugar, on the other hand, Mintz is clear, succinct and entirely interesting. His longest chapter, an account of how the uses of sugar have evolved (primarily in England) is an eye-opener, for the layman at least, because in it he shows that sugar's functions have been considerably more diverse and complex than we may now imagine them to be.

WHEN SUGAR first was used in England it was not as a sweetener but as a spice and a decoration; as the former it was "prized among the wealthy and powerful" and used as a seasoning for dishes that did not have predominantly sweet tastes, while as the latter it was used in the construction of elaborate centerpieces and displays with which the rich adorned their tables. It was also used as a medicine, curative powers being ascribed to it for "fever, dry coughs, pectoral ailments, chapped lips and stomach diseases," and just about anything else anyone could think of; "as a powder it is good for the eyes," a 16th-century European writer suggested, "as a smoke it is good for the common cold, as flour sprinkled on wounds it heals them."

It was only later that sugar came to assume the uses to which we are now accustomed, those of sweetener and preservative. It was originally used as sweetener "in connection with three other exotic imports -- tea, coffee and chocolate" -- bitter stimulants that, with the addition of sugar, became hugely popular refreshments; the next move was into baking and other forms of cooking, with the result that sugar became a basic foodstuff and the English diet was transformed to its roots. Similarly deep changes were affected by the discovery of sugar's preservative powers, perhaps the greatest of them being the development of mass-produced convenience foods that "freed the wage-earning wife from one or even two meal preparations per day, meanwhile providing large numbers of calories to all her family."

All of this took place during a period of sweeping change in Western life; sugar was both a part of the process and an agent of it, Mintz believes, and his argument is most persuasive. The British Empire was expanding and cohering; the demand for sugar made Caribbean holdings all the more attractive, intensified the search for cheap labor that quickly produced the slave trade, and greatly altered systems of production and consumption. The gradual change in sugar's status from an elite privilege to a mass staple both reflected and contributed to the "growing freedom of ordinary folks, their opportunity to participate in the elevation of their own standards of living."

Mintz is an anthropologist, and at times he seems a trifle too quick to draw the sweeping anthropological conclusion. Even while denying the existence of "a conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts, or to ruin their teeth," he cannot resist the suggestion that "sucrose was one of the people's opiates," easing their transition into the new world of the industrial age; at this and other times, he seems eager to read larger meanings into the natural workings of the marketplace than may actually be there. But at its most direct and lucid, Sweetness and Power provides convincing evidence that the things we think about least affect us the most -- that by comparison with what we eat, what we grow, what we wear, the actions of presidents and princes are merely evanescent.