Who's Who

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.

In the first half of the twentieth century, figures of all kinds, from gross national products to birth rates, became the language of statecraft, yet the original meaning of the numbers melted away, leaving behind distinctive patterns on thought and policy. The calorie is one such measure. Its initial purpose was to inventory the food supplies and appetites of whole populations, but it grew instead into a measure of inspanidual self-control. Along the way it altered the logic of international affairs, placing food at the centre of trade controversies, humanitarian crises, and development schemes.

Europeans first measured food in calories in 1883, but Americans devised the instruments that made the calorie a practical, everyday measurement, and it was in the United States that the calorie left its most visible imprint on foreign policy.  It popularized a set of assumptions that allowed Americans to see food as an instrument of power, and to envisage a ‘world food problem’ amenable to political and scientific intervention.

The work of rendering food into hard figures began after breakfast on March 23rd, 1896, when Wilbur O. Atwater (1844-1907) sealed a student into an airtight chamber in the basement of Judd Hall on the Wesleyan University campus where Atwater was Professor of Chemistry. The apparatus was described by the press as resembling a meat locker, a room ‘about as large as an ordinary convict’s cell’ lined with copper and zinc, its interior visible through a triple-paned glass aperture. Its occupant, A. W. Smith, took measured quantities of bread, baked beans, Hamburg steak, milk, and mashed potatoes through an airlock during rest periods which alternated with intervals of weightlifting. Thermometers, hygrometers and electric condensers, pumps, and fans precisely measured the exchange of heat, air and matter into and out of the chamber. Smith was inside a calorimeter, a device previously used to measure the combustive efficiency of explosives and engines.

The national press found a Chekh­ovian parable in the voluntary captivity of Smith, alternately described as ‘the man in the box’ and ‘the prisoner of science’. On the second day, Atwater had to turn away a young New York woman who appeared at the lab asking to be allowed into the chamber, but despite distractions the calorimeter’s first run was an enormous success, generating pages of calculations and a $10,000 Congressional appropriation to continue the work. Atwater invited champion cyclist Nat Butler to establish ‘how far a man ought to ride a bicycle on one egg’. Wesleyan’s football captain volunteered to take his French final inside the device to determine the quantum of heat generated by an hour of cogitation. But it was the statistical results – tables that assigned calorie counts to specific foods and tasks – that made Atwater a household name. Clergymen applauded the discovery that the body created in the spanine image produced energy more efficiently than a locomotive. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned against Atwater after an experiment in which a test subject subsisted for six days on a diet ‘largely composed of alcohol’ confirming that liquor was a food. But most sensational of all was Atwater’s pronouncement that mathematical laws governed the ordinary act of eating.  

The calorimeter had ramifications for the management of factories, prisons and schools, as well as the provisioning of armies. It could reduce the cost of rations, and test their suitability for the tropics and for varying conditions of work. Atwater expected an even greater benefit. For the first time, nutritionists would be able to make precise comparisons between social classes and nations. In the midst of tense negotiations with Japan over spheres of influence in the Far East in November 1908, Secretary of State Elihu Root visited the calorimeter, proclaiming it an ‘invaluable invention’. Journalists anticipated that its greatest impact would be on the ‘Asiatic races’ whose improvement could begin by bringing their diet up to an American standard. Economic and social progress in Asia would have to await nutritional progress, a popular magazine explained, since

... what can we expect either of physical or moral vigor from communities who live on the physical plane of millions in the Orient?

With a numerical gauge, Americans could begin to imagine the influence to be gained by manipulating the diets of distant peoples. The calorie, Atwater declared, would dictate the ‘food supply of the future’.

As Atwater's invention came into use as an international measure of food value, a number of important claims and metaphors gained acceptance along with it, constituting a scientifically-authorized, 'realistic' view of the international food regime. These included a conviction that food was fundamentally uniform and comparable between nations and time periods; that the state had a primary obligation to assure a 'balance' between the supply of food and the dietary needs of the nation; that wheat was uniquely important as an international conveyor of bulk food value; and that the interests of world peace might ultimately require a global food balance rationalized through some form of international regulation. At the time, these ideas did not constitute a policy but only a direction for policy, a notion of which way progress was headed and where the United States could lead.

Official enthusiasm for Atwater’s experiments indicated the degree to which the need for an index of food consumption had already been recognized. Before the invention of a yardstick, it had been difficult to speak of food in competitive, evolutionary terms. The ‘science’ of nutrition was dominated by vegetarians and iconoclasts, such as the British Horace Fletcher (1849-1919) and the American John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), who applied moral and aesthetic criteria. But a separate field of inquiry emerged in tandem with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of labour (1911). Atwater led efforts by manufacturers and government agencies to set scientific ‘standards of living’ that would contain wages while maintaining a healthy workforce. Between 1885 and 1910, nutritionists con­ducted over 500 investigations of eating habits in slums, boarding schools, reservations, railroad camps, and plantations, but they were dis­satisfied with their findings. The surveys documented an almost unclassifiable spanersity of food customs, yielding data that only complicated the reformist argument for norms. Atwater, in collaboration with Ludwig Rubner in Berlin and Armand Gautier in Paris, began investigating a system for rendering food and labour into thermal units.

The need for a standard gauge had been evident at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Among the least visited but most impressive exhibits was the Agricultural Building, a glass-domed arcade housing nineteen acres of French cheeses, Indian curries, Javanese ­coffees, Greek oils, and German chocolate. As one juror commented:

In walking through the corridors of this Agricultural Building, the earth and its nations seem drawn up for martial review ... The history of the older nations, the customs of the new, the social status of all, are revealed.

But the terms of comparison were unclear. Although care was taken to impose a taxonomic order, the effect on the viewer was of a culinary babel, as the animal, vegetable and gastronomic novelties of five continents jostled in mystifying profusion. At Chicago, ‘the line of triangulation into the future’, Henry Adams observed, was measured in units of ‘power, tonnage and speed’, but in the Agricultural Building visitors could see only the cornucopia of the present.

Americans increasingly digested their information in numerical form. After 1905, gamblers judged horses by the portents in the Racing Form and baseball fans sized up hitters by the tables in The Sporting News. Newspapers published an avalanche of statistics evaluating business acumen by quarterly earnings, literature by copies sold, and drama by the number of weeks on Broadway. Many observers considered such quantitative reasoning a national trait. 'If the English are a nation of shopkeepers, Americans are a nation of expert accountants', critic and playwright Eugene R. White observed. 'We go about reforming and purifying the world with a committee report at elbow and a statistical compilation in each hand'. The calorimeter translated the vernacular customs of food into this numerical language of empire. Nutritionists became custodians of an 'American diet' in competition with other national diets. Caloric schedules ranked grain, meat and dairy goods as important national resources, while fruits, leafy vegetables and fish registered such slight nutritional value they could scarcely be classified as food. Tea, coffee and spices, on which whole imperial systems had once flourished, had no value at all.

The calorie represented food as uniform, composed of interchangeable parts, and comparable across time and between nations and races. In 1911, C. F. Langworthy, who succeeded Atwater as head of nutrition investigations at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), compiled surveys undertaken by missionaries and ethnographers into a ranked list of the peoples of ‘each country and each epoch’ on a scale of daily consumption, with the ‘native laborer’ of the Congo at the bottom (2,812 calories) and the American athlete at the top (4,510 calories). Challenging theories of racial difference, Langworthy stressed that the human diet was far less spanerse than had formerly been thought. Broken down into constituent chemicals, the potatoes and cheese that fed the Irish labourer were identical, except in quantity, to the rice and ghee that nourished an Indian coolie. The central component in every diet was nitrogen, the element that lent a high ‘energy value’ to meat, milk, and wheat.

Nutritionists identified ‘balance’ as the primary characteristic of a progressive diet and advocated a system of caloric ‘bookkeeping’ to increase national efficiency. As a measure of optimization, the calorie represented an advance over the kinds of statistics in use. Officials already em­ployed tax, birth, mor­tality and crime figures to discover ­natural laws in human behaviour that would serve as foundations for policy, but the calorie revealed a wide discrepancy between ‘natural’ behaviour and the ideal balance that might be achieved through social regulation. As Atwater and Lang­worthy never tired of observing, people of all classes and educations ate the wrong things in the wrong amounts. The calorie authorized government to tell people what was best for them. 

Calories were better suited to guiding policy than personal eating habits, physicians repeatedly pointed out. In 1917, the American Medical Association warned against the ‘unwise domination’ of the calorie in the popular mind, but its use persisted through advertisements, which instructed consumers that ‘calories measure food energy the same as dollars measure money’. The federal government eagerly seized the ­calorie to fill an urgent need for information on food consumption. After the outbreak of war in Europe, food panics occurred in major US cities, which revealed the inadequacy of both the market mechanism and official knowledge. Federal officials realized they didn’t know how much food to allocate to each family or to each city, how much there was, or how to get it most efficiently. The lack of numbers other than price figures, which fluctuated wildly, added to the confusion. Combined with censuses, caloric tables could be used to estimate rations for cities, armies or even whole nations.

Under pressure of war, the marshalling of food consumption became a critical responsibility of the state. Correspondents searched for indicators of how each side was faring in the offerings of restaurants and meat markets and the caloric content of soldiers’ rations. The New York Times suggested that Germany, with its ports sealed, represented a vast calorimeter within which national energy and food production would have to balance. When a group of American engineers organized a massive food drive for occupied Belgium, they turned to the new ‘science of dietetics’ to manage the logistics of famine relief. As US supplies became critical on both sides of the Western Front, Europeans learned to calculate food by American numbers.

In the United States, mobilization began in 1917 with the creation of a national food authority under Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer and the chief organizer of the Belgium relief. From his headquarters in the Willard Hotel, Hoover launched a drive to conserve sugar, fats and grain for export to the front. Administrators took immediate steps to expand the cultivation of wheat, ‘by far’ the most essential commodity because of its portability and abundance. Dry and dense, wheat ‘offered the largest supply of calories available’. In the midst of war, Hoover told his staff,

... the wheat loaf has ascended in the imagination of men, women and children as the emblem of national survival and national tranquillity.

Conserving 20 million bushels for Europe would require the taming of American eating habits. The calorie was indispensable for setting rations, identifying substitutes, and defining patriotic self-control. One guidebook instructed:

You should know and also use the word calorie as frequently, or more frequently, than you use the words foot, yard, quart, [or] gallon ... Instead of saying one slice of bread, or a piece of pie, you will say 100 calories of bread, 350 calories of pie.

Consuming surplus calories amounted to ‘overeating’ which sapped personal and national efficiency. Manhattan restaurants helpfully listed calorie counts next to each item along with the recommended quantities for each ‘walk of life’. The conscription of inspanidual appetites disturbed conventional distinctions between public duty and personal conduct. Churchman Ly­man Abbot disparaged calorie counting as ‘spiritual hypo­chondria’, while the Los Angeles Times mourned the days when ‘the highest science known to eating was to be able to balance green peas on a knife’.

Hoover stressed an intimate connection between the ‘test’ of bodily discipline and the trials that would face the nation during the wartime emergency and after. Personal dietary sacrifice indicated the American people’s arrival at a ‘stage of development’ at which it was prepared to ‘protect its own institutions and those of Europe’. Russia had never attained that stage, he argued, ‘and the result has been a massacre’. He urged Americans to seek ‘victory over ourselves; victory over the enemy of freedom.’ He defined food as both a core vulnerability in the international order and an instrument of US influence. Food Administration experts created a ledger of global food resources and caloric requirements and shortly before the armistice, Hoover informed President Woodrow Wilson that the United States would have to undertake relief efforts in forty-five nations ‘if we are to preserve these countries from Bolshevism and rank anarchy’.

Hoover was an early proponent of a novel strategic concept that linked security to social welfare. He warned of the domino effect that could be touched off by scarcity. ‘Famine breeds anarchy,’ he explained.

Anarchy is infectious, the infections of such a cess-pool will jeopardize France and Britain, [and] will yet spread to the United States.

To forestall future wars, he believed, the United States would have to provide, in example and theory, an alternative route to progress.

Many in Washington shared Hoover’s desire to shift political and military vexations onto the more favourable ground of social and economic policy. In the aftermath of war, policymakers grasped for stable benchmarks on which to anchor a new conceptual order. This impulse lay behind a modest proposal by Chase Osborn, former governor of Michigan, to use the calorie as a global currency. ‘The quest of the calorie instead of the quest of wealth in gold,’ he explained, ‘would be the seeking of a permanent and not a changeable good.’ Conservatives who rejected the abstractions of Versailles welcomed international engagement on the solid ground of statistics. Republican administrations encouraged the statistical missions of the League Health Office and Labor Organization, which included national dietary surveys based on the Atwater method. By 1925, the British magazine Spectator could observe:

the great American work of dietetics … has won all along the line, despite vigorous resistance in this country. …[T]he idea of balance is becoming ever more insistent.

A number of European observers in the interwar years regarded an enthusiasm for measurement and scientific regulation as both characteristically American and as a grim portent of modernity’s future course. To Dutch historian Johan Huizinga the American penchant for numerical classifications represented a ‘Taylorism of the mind’, a sacrifice of intellectual freedom to the dictates of efficiency. Used this way, science reached for sheltered and familiar terrain rather than the unknown. In 1930, French novelist Georges Duhamel recognized that he had arrived at the ‘world of the future’ when his American host urged him to order oatmeal rather than potatoes because ‘it will give you two hundred more calories’. To Duhamel, the incident illustrated a distinctively American application of science as a palliative, as an evasion of civilization’s duty to confront uncertainty and disorder. ‘The word “calorie” contains nothing to frighten me’, he noted,

I have lived in laboratories, but I think that laboratories and private life are two separate things ... Your faith in science doesn’t bring you tranquillity: it merely gives your uneasiness a different twist.

But as Americans promoted ‘scientific’ measures of opinion, consumer behaviour, efficiency, and standards of living abroad, they regarded the neutrality and clarity of their statistics as a gift to mankind. ‘Our latest symbol is not the big stick’, the New York Times diplomatic correspondent wrote in 1929, ‘but the irrefutable and passionless yardstick.’

One gauge of the calorie's capacity to affect international norms can be tracked through its influence on the refinement of 'national' cuisines. Interwar reformers aimed to conform local dishes to a progressive, international standard, typically by adding wheat. The cuisine now seen as Greek, for example, appeared first in the cookbooks of Nikolaos Tselementes in the 1920s. A chef in Parisian restaurants, Tselementes modernized moussaka and pastitsio by eliminating Anatolian and Slavic yoghurt, oils, and spices and introducing a floury bechamel identical to a high-calorie 'white sauce' that American nutritionists urged as a meat substitute. Mexico's revolutionary government assimilated Indians by promoting the wheat tamale over the corn tortilla. Calorimeter studies at Japan's Imperial State Institute for Nutrition studies in 1921 led to a thorough revision of eating habits. To place the Emperor's troops on a nutritional par with their prospective adversaries, military chefs adopted 'Western' recipes and 'ingredients of poor quality' such as beef, pork, noodles and fried batter (tempura).

In the British empire, nutritional science supplied a seemingly neutral, calculative language in which to reassert imperial claims. Robert Boyd-Orr found that the ‘meat, milk, and blood’ diet of Kenya’s Masai produced a stronger physique than the largely vegetarian cuisine of the Kikuyu, and urged investments in agriculture to revitalize the imperial economy. Indian nationalists recognized that the new crisis of ‘malnutrition’ furnished a justification for Britain’s continuing stewardship. Gandhi chose diet as his point of attack against the authority of imperial science. Since nutritionists disarticulated food from labour and the soil, he consciously mingled his dietary advice with un-abstract discussions of cookery, manure and the texture and taste of foods. Each vegetable and fruit possessed ‘physical and spiritual values’ which could be measured only in the unique laboratory of each human body. In crafting a link between diet and nationalism, Gandhi used food to symbolize the value of the particular, the local, and the inspanidual under assault from the homogenizing logic of modern science.

It was this universalizing logic that guided Anglo-American efforts to construct a world food order. Under the duress of the Depression, a global scheme for disposing of European and American surpluses in the statistically-malnourished colonial areas took shape. The founding document of what would become the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was a 1936 League of Nations report on nutrition. Reading it today, it is difficult to see why this abstruse document aroused the rhetorical outpouring that ensued. Its findings were ‘little short of revolutionary’, according to the Spectator. For the New York Times the commission had laid bare ‘the challenge underlying the disorders of this epoch, the pretext for modern wars’. The power of the report’s message was conveyed less by the official prose than by a juxtaposition of three categories of numbers: minimum requirements for mothers and children, per capita consumption in various countries, and total volume produced, all in calories. The parallelism implied (‘irrefutably’, commentators agreed) an intimate connection between the crisis of agricultural overproduction in some countries and the problem of malnutrition in others. Relief shipments could carve out permanent new markets and channels of trade, the commission anticipated. ‘Generally speaking’, it noted optimistically, ‘most Chinese are in a state of malnutrition all of the time.’ In 1943, the Roosevelt administration gathered seventy-seven nations to found the FAO, the first component of a new postwar international order. By then, freedom from want had become an American war aim, and the ‘food supply of the future’ that Atwater anticipated had become a political reality.  

Nick Cullather is Associate Professor of History at the University of Indiana and the author of Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54.

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