The biology of fruitcake is based on bacteria, or more correctly, the lack of bacteria. The candied fruits used in fruitcake are not just dried, they are preserved. For many centuries, fruits were precious commodities, especially in the winter. The vitamin C and other nutrients were needed for good health, but spoilage kept most people from having them during the colder weather.
Meats were preserved with salt, called curing, since the days of the ancients. Fruits, on the other hand, don’t taste so good when salt cured. It turned out sugar that could preserve fruits just as salt cured meats. Either liquid syrup or crystalline sugar would do the job, but sugar was very costly. Honey could do the job, but not as well, and it wasn’t much more available. Therefore, preserved fruits were a luxury for some period of time.
With the advent of sugar beet production in the Americas in the late 1500’s and the resulting availability of sugar in Europe, there was a candied fruit glut in Europe. It became more common to use them in baking. Italian pannatone, and fruitcakes were common uses.
So how do salt and sugar preserve foods? It all has to do with water. Bacteria need water to survive; if you remove the water, you stop (or at least slow) bacterial growth. An osmotic gradient is set up when cells are placed in high salt (hypertonic) or high sugar environment. If the salt or sugar content is higher outside the cell, it means that the water concentration is higher inside the cell.
Water will flow from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, just as the salts and sugars will. This is diffusion, but in the case of water it is called osmosis (Plants That Don’t Sleep Well). The solvent (water) and solutes (those things dissolved in the solvent) try to balance their concentrations, so water flows out of the cell and salts or sugars flow in. The result is pandemonium, chemical reactions are not possible under these conditions, and the organism either dies or goes into stasis.
Dehydration by salt and sugar work in several ways. One, removing water through osmotic pressure will turn the bacteria, fungi, and parasites already on the food to dried up corpses by pulling out their water. Second, the lack of water in the preserved food stops bacteria and other microbes that might land on them from propagating; no water, no cell division.