Sugar: The First and Last Food Rationed on the World War II Home Front

Color cartoon of Life Savers rolls wearing hats and helmets of the US armed forces.
Life Savers candy goes to war. This 1943 advertisement explains to consumers that the armed services have priority for these candies.

Life Magazine, February 22, 1943, p. 96.

Sugar: The First and the Last Food Rationed

In December 1941, the US was cut off entirely from its Philippine sugar supply when Japan invaded the islands. In the Atlantic, sugar imports from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands were impacted by German U-boat attacks and a loss of cargo capacity to the military. Imports from Hawai’i faced similar challenges from the Japanese. Poor weather in Puerto Rico, a general lack of fertilizer and shortage of agricultural labor (because of the war) also limited how much sugar was available.[1]

Black and white photo of men, women, and children of many ages and ethnicities in a long line.
Waiting in line at the sugar rationing board, Detroit, Michigan. Photo by Arthur S. Siegal, Office of War Information, Spring 1942.

Collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NAID: 535570).

To make sure that the military, manufacturers, and civilians had enough sugar, it was the first food to be rationed. In late April 1942, sugar sales were halted so the government could implement the ration system (and prevent hoarding). Families registered at their local school. Each person – including children – received their own ration book, and were allotted 26 pounds per year (about 8 oz (half a pound) per week – half of the per capita use in 1941).[2] When they picked up their ration book on May 5, they had to disclose how much sugar they had on hand. An equivalent number of stamps were then removed.[3]

Each stamp was initially worth one pound of sugar, and had to be “spent” in a given two-week period. In June of 1942, the OPA made each sugar stamp worth two pounds, and gave consumers a month to use each one. Institutions and industries also faced sugar rationing. Institutions such as restaurants, hotels, and hospitals had their average 1941 sugar use cut in half. Industries were cut to 70 percent of their 1941 use.[4] Rumors abounded that sugar rationing was unnecessary, and that there was plenty to go around. More than one person suggested that the cutbacks were to promote the health of Americans.[5]

A dark-haired woman with a wide-eyed expression holds three large glass jars of vegetables in her arms. Three more jars can be seen at the lower area of the picture. The woman wears a ruffled apron.
“Of Course I Can! I’m patriotic as can be – and ration points won’t worry me!” War Food Administration, 1944.

Collection of University of North Texas Libraries, Government Documents Department (ark:/67531/metadc549).


When there was excess sugar available (due to increased shipping amounts and improved inland transportation), both consumers and industry received more.[6] But when there were shortages, amounts were cut. Early in 1945, when the US began providing food for the citizens of Allied countries, the sugar shortage became acute. On February 1, 1945 the consumer sugar ration was cut to 20 pounds (about 6.3 oz per person per week). On May 1, 1945 the sugar ration was cut again, to 15 pounds (about 4.5 oz per person per week). Additional amounts of sugar were available for those canning their own foods. Initially 25 pounds per person per year, in May 1945 this was decreased to 15 pounds. The amount of sugar for canning available to a family living together was also limited. It was capped at the total available to 8 individuals – meaning that families with 9 or more people received less per person.[7]

When World War II ended, the global sugar supply was extremely low. This was due to disruptions from the war, as well as poor crop yields in 1944. To help give the market time to recover, the US government kept sugar under ration until June 1947.[8]


Other sources of sweetener were not rationed during World War II. Instead of sugar, people used corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup, and prepared foods. In March 1942, immediately after sugar was rationed, American Cookery magazine published a guide for substitution. Each cup of granulated sugar in a recipe could be replace with:

  • 1 cup of molasses. Add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda when baking; cakes heavier but stay moist longer; or
  • 1-1/4 cups of maple syrup (reduce liquid in the recipe by half). Add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda when baking; good on cereals, in puddings, and sauces; or
  • 1 cup of honey (reduce liquid by 1/4). Add 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda when baking (optional); thickness of honey must be considered in any use as a substitute; or
  • 1 cup of corn syrup (reduce liquid by 1/3). Add 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda when baking (optional); good in custards, muffins, drop cookies, cakes, frostings, and preserving fruits.
A table summarizing substitutions for granulated sugar.
Sugar substitution table using unrationed or less rationed sweeteners, 1942.

American Cookery (1942) “When Recipe Calls for 1 Cup Granulated Sugar You May Substitute.” American Cookery April 1942, p. 334.

The magazine also gave measurements for providing a comparable sweetness to one cup of sugar: 1-1/2 cups of molasses or maple syrup; 3/4 cup of honey; or 2 cups of corn syrup.[9]

Because sugar in prepared foods (like gelatin, sodas, and sweetened condensed milk) didn’t count towards an individual’s sugar ration, people used non-sugar ration points to increase the amounts of sugar they were actually using.[10]

People also used fruits to sweeten baked goods, like applesauce in cake or raisins in frosting:

Applesauce Cake [11]

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup shortening
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup corn syrup
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup thick applesauce (unsweetened)
1 cup raisins
1 cup coarsely chopped nuts

1. Sift flour three times with baking soda, salt, and spices. 2. Cream shortening. Add sugar and cream thoroughly. Add corn syrup gradually, beating after each addition. Add egg and beat until light and fluffy. 3. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with applesauce. Add raisins and nuts. Bake in 9x9 inch loaf pan lined with greased wax paper. Bake in a moderate oven (350F) for 50 to 60 minutes.

Raisin Frosting [12]

1-1/4 cups of raisins, ground
1/3 cup of water
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon of ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon of salt

Cook all ingredients together, stirring constantly until thick. Spread over a single layer cake.

This article was written by Megan E. Springate, Assistant Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland, for the NPS Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. It was funded by the National Council on Public History’s cooperative agreement with the National Park Service.

Notes and Bibliography

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Last updated: November 16, 2023