Anna Zeide, US History in 15 Foods (Bloomsbury Academic 2023), xi, 260pp. Karen Throsby, Sugar Rush. Science, Politics and the Demonisation of Fatness (Manchester University Press 2023), x, 284pp. Anna Zeide, US History in 15 Foods (Bloomsbury Academic 2023), xi, 260pp. Karen Throsby, Sugar Rush. Science, Politics and the Demonisation of Fatness (Manchester University Press 2023), x, 284pp.

Two new books help to unravel the production and consumption of food is bound up with class as well as women’s oppression, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Food is never just food. When we discuss any aspect of food production and consumption, we are talking not just about health, nutrition or production and distribution methods, but the range of social meanings that are encoded in what and how we eat. Under capitalism, foodstuffs are commodities, but food is not only a commodity. As Zeide points out in US History in 15 Foods, food ‘has unusual significance in the way it nourishes and becomes part of us when we consume it’ (US, p.1). This is not always as benign, though, as Zeide makes it sound. Throsby highlights how food choices are widely seen as determinants of both health and moral worth, with all the anxiety that brings. ‘We must be on guard against foods that might make us, or those we care for, acutely or chronically ill or that mark us out as failed citizens for whose poor choices everyone must pay’ (Sugar, p.1).

Zeide’s project in US History in 15 Foods is to bring out how ‘history looks different – clear, more vibrant, more interconnected – when we use food as a lens’ (US, p.1). This reveals how particular types of foods have played an important role in the establishment of US hegemony. These included convenience foods like Spam, which grew out of developments in processing and packaging technologies in the Second World War, and which, Zeide argues, functioned as ‘a canned messenger that conveyed America’s new position as a world power’ (US, p.139). The global spread of US fast food corporations like McDonalds is another example of identifiably US foods playing a supporting role in US imperialism.

Production leads demand

Another conclusion to be drawn from Zeide’s account, although not one which Zeide emphasises herself, is that food production leads consumption, not the other way round. Discussions of diet patterns in populations have a tendency to regard individual choices and preferences as the main determinants of what is eaten, but we can see again and again how major dietary shifts and the rise and fall of particular products have been driven by production decisions, not by demand shaping production.

This can sometimes take the form of elements of the food industry outcompeting their rivals by capitalising on consumer concerns. In the 1980s, for example, the US poultry industry was able to benefit from dietary advice to cut down on red meat and saturated fat, leading to a long-term shift in meat consumption patterns from red to white meat. At other points, food producers have been able to insert products into the American diet in their own interest, such as for example when the meat-packing industry realised that its profits would increase if it could find a way of marketing the waste products, and consequently invented Jello.

Zeide’s focus is often on the aspects of the individual foods which made them desirable to consumers, as for example in the discussion of the rise of the peanut after the American Civil War. This is of course an important consideration, although the history of post-war US convenience foods to my mind is a demonstration that advertising can persuade people to eat anything, however unlikely it may seem. In the case of peanuts, however, it is clear that considerable effort was put into driving peanut production and consumption, with peanut promoters and politicians both encouraging Southern farmers to grow them as part of Reconstruction. The popularity of peanuts did not happen on its own.

This question of the forces that shape our diets is particularly important in the case of sugar, which does not get its own chapter in Zeide’s book but surely could lay claim to being one of the defining foods in the modern West. In discussions of sugar, as Throsby points out, what is presented as a consensus view, for example in debates over the sugar tax, is that ‘we eat too much sugar and it’s bad for our health’ (Sugar, p.2). Throsby is not adding yet another voice to the choir on the evils of sugar, but neither is this a straightforward argument that anti-sugar arguments are wrong. This can confound expectations of what we should be saying about sugar. Throsby comments that she finds that the inevitable response to her work is a worried interrogation about whether sugar really is unhealthy or not, as if she has to ‘concede the wrongness of sugar in exchange for engagement with my critical analysis of sugar’s fraught social life’ (Sugar, p.16). In reducing the conversation about sugar to its effect on health, though, Throsby argues we are missing the important questions.

Blaming the poor

Throsby sets out how two essentially competing discourses around the harms of sugar – that it is simply empty calories and thus leads to obesity, versus that it is metabolically disastrous regardless of how much or little you’re eating – come together to add weight and urgency to the well-established war on obesity.

In line with her approach to sugar, Throsby does not get into arguments here about the effect of obesity on health, but notes rather the way in which the dominant discourse around obesity functions as a way of blaming individuals for all sorts of social issues. These can be various. As a BBC report had it back in 2008, ‘obese blamed for the world’s ills.’ As Throsby points out though, it is particularly marked when it comes to the NHS, with often poorly substantiated figures on how much obesity costs it routinely wheeled out to cast individuals rather than government as responsible for the health system’s near collapse. Obesity does appear to have some correlation with deprivation at a population level, and its identification with working-class people in particular has enabled the characterisation of obese people as over-consuming and lazy to function as a justification for the effects of austerity, reducing economic problems caused by banks and governments to the result of poor people eating hamburgers.

Discussions of sugar, Throsby argues, are particularly egregious examples of the tendency to see ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ as absolute rather than relative statements about food. As she shows in her discussion of attempts to reduce Coke consumption in Mexico, even obviously ‘unhealthy’ foods like Coke can be a healthy choice if the alternative is contaminated water. The way in which food advice is often given with apparently little understanding of the reality of people’s lives is apparent in the UK as well. Concern about ‘hidden sugars’ is often met with the advice not to buy supermarket food and to make everything at home from scratch. The benefits of this regimen tend to receive more attention than the question of how achievable this would be for most people. It is, as Throsby identifies, also a gendered question. It is perhaps easier to contemplate endless home-baking if you’re only doing the eating, and not the cooking, in this scenario.

Ultra-processed food

Throsby notes that, just as the war on sugar has given impetus to the war on obesity, so the evils of sugar will likely be reinforced and surpassed by a new food concern in the near future. She suggests that the most likely new food demon will be ultra-processed foods, which seems to be a good call, even though, (or perhaps because), no one appears very clear precisely what ultra-processed foods are.

This would conflict with other developments, most notably the way in which some food manufacturers have capitalised on interest in shifting to more plant-based diets through the creation of highly processed vegan food. The simultaneous promotion of inherently contradictory health advice would, however, be nothing new. Throsby notes how concern about sugar butts up against health advice to eat more fruit and vegetables, particularly in children’s diets, with mothers being expected simply to square the conflicting advice that feeding their children fruit is both essential and deplorable because of sugar levels, at the same time.

It is easy to see how concerns about ultra-processed foods build on existing worries about hidden sugars in manufactured foods. The addition of ultra-processing to the mix of food demons would also relate modern food concerns to arguments going back to the nineteenth century. As Zeide shows, the shift in the early nineteenth century from home to commercial bread-making was criticised by figures like Sylvester Graham, inventor of Graham bread, on the basis of nostalgia for ‘those blessed days of New England’s prosperity and happiness, when our good mothers used to make the family bread …’ in the eighteenth century (US, p.48). Here, as in many modern arguments about sugar and ultra-processed foods, resistance to the commodification of food under capitalism was made an individual rather than a collective responsibility, and one which rested on women’s labour in the home. If, after all, the vast majority of foods sold to us in supermarkets are really effectively poison, it is particularly remarkable that the only suggested solution is for consumers to educate themselves to avoid them, rather than any more collective response.

Using sugar in this way as a lens, as Zeide would put it, to view modern society in the UK suggests that the virtuous modern citizen is both required to work in the service of capitalism and to maintain pre-capitalist household management, supplemented of course by judiciously purchased premium products. Throsby avoids giving easy answers in her discussion of sugar; in fact, her book is essentially a plea that we should see issues of food and health as complicated. In this she is undoubtedly correct, but we could perhaps take it as another illustration of the failures of capitalism, that something that should be simple becomes so complex.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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