American Pie: The Imperialism of the Calorie

Nick Cullather explains how the scientific discovery of the calorie meant food values could be quantified – and the US could make food an instrument of foreign policy.

American chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater (1844-1907)
American chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater (1844-1907)

In Super Size Me, his 2004 documentary on the fast-food industry, Morgan Spurlock asks Americans if they know what a calorie is. A few shake their heads, but most gamely guess that it has something to do with fat. ‘It’s on the side of the cereal box’, one explains. ‘Calories are not good’, another knows for sure. Even a specialist had difficulty recalling that a calorie is a measure of the energy content of food, an amount sufficient to raise the temperature of one litre of water one degree.

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