Marmalade & Capitalism

This time last year the British media was buzzing with stories about the demise of marmalade. In January, The Grocer reported that sales of marmalade fell by 4.4% in the year to 4 November 2006. Worse still, most marmalade consumers have their best toast munching years behind them — 81% of marmalade is consumed by people over 45.

According to The Spectator’s Rachel Simhon, marmalade’s decline "is due to ‘younger consumers’ – or rather their parents, who bow to demands for honey, jam, Nutella and other sickly concoctions." Market researchers say that children find marmalade too strong. "Well, of course they do", writes Simhon:

Seville orange marmalade is for grown-ups. It’s one of life’s great adult pleasures and cannot be allowed to disappear because of feeble-minded pandering to infant whim.

Now the Sydney Morning Herald’s Richard Glover has unearthed the story — and the implications are more serious than anyone realised. The demise of marmalade is part of an ominous trend. Like Simhon, Glover argues that parents are becoming more indulgent and food is becoming sweeter and fattier:

Sometime in the early ’90s parents were convinced that it was OK to give their children sweets for breakfast. The product was called "hazelnut spread" to make it sound healthy, although the main nuts involved were surely the parents who served it.

And once children become used to food that’s loaded with fats, sugars and colourings, normal, healthy food will look and taste bland in comparison.

But unlike Simhon, Glover traces the problem to its root — capitalism. According to Glover, it infantalises us all by creating products that appeal to our "basest, most primitive instincts". This is why "our food gets steadily sweeter, our TV drama more violent and our ice-creams ever more fattening."

Does Glover have a point? After all, there is a trend towards sickly sweet adult products that taste like they’re made for children. The latest example is beer that tastes like marmalade. But sweet, citrus flavoured beer, ought to make us wonder — is the demise of marmalade really a best example for an argument about the insidious effects of capitalism on food preferences?

Modern marmalade only came into being as the result of international trade. Like tea, coffee and cocoa it is a relatively recent addition to the English diet. And despite being developed in Britain, spreadable orange marmalade’s two major ingredients — sugar and Seville oranges — are imports. The product itself is hardly a health food. While it may contain some vitamin C, it contains a huge amount of sugar. But at least today’s marmalade isn’t adulterated with turnips as it was in the 19th century.

In the good old days of loosely regulated 19th century capitalism, all kinds of odd ingredients made their way into food. According to Walter Gratzer’s book, The Terrors of the Table , ‘raspberry’ jams were occasionally made with a combination of root vegetables and fake raspberry seeds manufactured from pieces of wood. Worse still were the artificial colourings made from poisonous substances like lead chromate, mercuric sulphide and copper arsenite.

And if food under capitalism seems bad, how about food before capitalism? According to historian Kathy Pearson:

The food supply may have been natural, but it certainly was not pure. Contaminants included insects, rodents, fecal matter of various sorts, poisonous weeds harvested along with the crops, dangerous herbs, molds, and viral or bacterial diseases resident in the animal populations.

Pearson reports that malignant tumors are commonly found among the skeletal remains of people from the early medieval period. She speculates that these could be the result of carcinogenic molds such as the aflatoxins and Fusaria. But by far the most serious problem was malnutrition. Lack of food, particularly the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter, led to diseases like scurvy. Life expectancy rarely exceeded 35 to 40 years. As for the over indulgent rich, they probably "suffered from some of the diseases common to contemporary Americans who consume a high-saturated fat, high-sodium diet: obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiac diseases."

So while modern capitalism might give us to nutritional horrors like trans fat laden donuts, deep fried Mars bars and the Monster Thickburger, it’s difficult to argue that food today is less healthy than in the past. And if the kids are refusing to eat marmalade, then maybe it’s safe to keep this in the cupboard.

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21 Responses to Marmalade & Capitalism

  1. Jason Soon says:

    Shows you how pathetic British food is that they’re going teary eyed over the possible demise of *marmalade*. For god’s sake, breakfast food isn’t real food anyway.

    Anyway honey is supposed to be good for you

  2. Geoff Honnor says:

    Marmalade is fatally unhip. Who can remember the last French art movie that featured lovers licking marmalade off each other’s naked bods? It’s Old People’s Food. Dated and quaint like Kippers and High Tea and Horlicks and Miss Marple and not surprisingly, it has never really caught on outside the UK and its settler societies. The Americans serve marmalade but it’s more the orange jam (or “jelly” in American usage) of Richard Glover’s worst imaginings. I suspect that the concept of tipping a tanker-load of sugar into a bunch of fruit, in order to produce a product distinguished by its bitterness, seems kind of eccentric to them and indeed, it is.

    Like lots of other old stuff, marmalade’s future is in luxury goods niche marketing: Hand pressed from the finest Seville oranges and West Indies sugar, boiled in 500 year old copper vats, aged for two years in temperature controlled caverns and then individually decanted into exquisite Waterford crystal containers, individually signed by the Master Marmalade Maker. A snip at $500 from DJ’s Foodhall…

  3. Jc says:

    iMarmalade is fatally unhip

    And friggen horrible. What’s wrong with a decent latte, a cigarette (or cuban petit carbone), and a croissant anyway?

  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Whats wrong with a decent latte, a cigarette (or cuban petit carbone), and a croissant anyway?

    As long as you put marmalade on the croissant, nothing.

    Part of the problem is that you can’t get many different marmalades anymore, like tangerine marmalde. Who wants just orange?

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Marmalade is also quite expensive, I think, for what you get. The manufacturers could consider lowering their prices.

  6. Geoff Honnor says:

    “Part of the problem is that you cant get many different marmalades anymore, like tangerine marmalde. Who wants just orange?”

    Marmalade is made from oranges, Sinclair. Other “versions” are just Methode Marmaladoise, pretenders.

  7. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I understand – but I know two consumers who’d pay money for tangerine Methode Marmaladoise, who don’t current pay money for orange marmalde. Poseurs that we are.

  8. Richard Phillipps says:

    Marmalade is terrific. The fact that young people, with their strange hair styles, tuneless music, unflattering clothes, acne, degenerate slang, fondness for John Howard, lack of respect for the more clever generation and incomprehensible desire for recreational drugs don’t like it is just proof of how wonderful it is. On toast or croissants or on bread. With latte or green tea. Perfection. The tragic decline in its general popularity (and btw there are all sorts of varieties on sale, including ginger marmalade) is due to a collapse in our moral values but has nothing to do with the genius of capitalism. If you doubt me on this, notice how ginger beer is making a modest but significant resurgence on the shelves of supermarkets, service stations, and the like.

    Roll on marmalade. Honey of course, is a very tricky substance, and it often carries germs. It is messy if you spill it on your hair. There are no germs in marmalade. Or ginger beer.

    Everyone should eat marmalade. Young people who eschew this godly substance should be sent to marmalade camps in Arizona (or, perhaps, Melbourne) and appear on reality tv being forced to eat marmalade and smile.

    There is a whole lost pantheon of Jean Luc Godard movies about marmalade and naked bodies, but it was agreed by all who were consulted that they were simply too strong ever to be shown.

    Marmalade rules

  9. Geoff Honnor says:

    “There is a whole lost pantheon of Jean Luc Godard movies about marmalade and naked bodies, but it was agreed by all who were consulted that they were simply too strong ever to be shown.”

    If, as I suspect, the actors were drawn from the Kippers, High Tea and Horlicks demographic, I can only applaud the decision.

    Still, Richard, given the extraordinary insights you offer, I think you mount a compelling case for inclusion in Kevin Rudd’s “Two Days To Fix the Future” jamboree – I hope Nicholas Gruen takes note.

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  11. Geoff Honnor says:

    “I understand – but I know two consumers whod pay money for tangerine Methode Marmaladoise, who dont current pay money for orange marmalde. Poseurs that we are.”

    You could make your own, Sinclair. All you need is a vat, some wine to quaff while you tread 300 tangerines and a nutritionist’s nightmare of sugar and voila! Making a movie of proceedings is entirely optional.

  12. Greeensborough Growler says:

    Richard Phillips,

    I trace the decline in popularity back to A A Milne.

  13. Richard Phillipps says:

    Would only need one day. Sit down, nice cup of tea or latte and some toast and marmalade, draw a circle around the good ideas, cross out the bad ideas, send the result to Kev. Probably only need half a day, really. I have never had a kipper and I have never had a devilled kidney. But reflect on this. Auberon and for that matter Evelyn Waugh would both have loved marmalade. Hunter Thompson would not.

  14. Chris Lloyd says:

    “Life expectancy rarely exceeded 35 to 40 years” I have always wondered whether such figures include infant mortality. As pointed out on RN today, if 1/3 of the fatalities were new borns then the mean life expectants conditional on suriving the initial period would be around 60. Condition on early childhood diseases up to 10 and it gets higher again. So most of the reduce lifespan of earlier generation may be children mortality – tragic as this is.

    After all, the bible talks about 70 years as being par life span, over 2000 years ago.

  15. Richard Phillipps says:

    Seriously, I thought life expectancy took a dive when we moved from hunter-gatherer to crop grower, and especially when we started eating sugar. Crops meant grain meant high carbs and sugar rotted our teeth. Bible says 3score plus 10; I suspect this was when we were on a low carb and fairly straitened diet.

  16. Don Arthur says:

    … As pointed out on RN today

    Chris – I assume you’re referring to Richard Eckersley’s talk on Ockham’s Razor this morning.

    For those who missed it, here’s what he said:

    In The Biology of Civilisation, human ecologist Stephen Boyden says life expectancy in hunter-gatherer populations was much lower than in rich countries today, but probably higher than in most urban societies before the 20th century. Injury was a common risk and often led to infection. Serious illness was a greater threat to survival; people either recovered quickly, or they died.

    On the other hand, he says, most people were well nourished and they did not suffer the infectious diseases of urban societies or the chronic non-communicable diseases associated with modern diets and lifestyles. ‘Furthermore’, Boyden says, ‘I strongly suspect that most of the time most humans, like other animals living in their natural habitat, were more or less enjoying themselves.’

    Life expectancy figures are deceptive and often misunderstood. ?They represent the number of years people can, on average, expect to live at prevailing mortality rates. One thousand years ago, life expectancy was only about 24, but this was in part because a third of people died in the first year of life. When I pointed this out last year to an American colleague who had quoted Hobbes in a journal paper, he asked what life expectancy would be if you adjusted for these infant deaths.

    I put this to ANU biostatistician Keith Dear, who did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. If life expectancy was 24 and a third of the infants died at age zero (you could say six months, but it makes little difference) then the other two-thirds of the population would live an average 36 years. If, hypothetically, a third of those who survived their first year died before age five (say at age two, on average) then the remainder would have a life expectancy of 53.

    So those who survived childhood would often live much longer than the life expectancy estimates. The Bible gives the human lifespan as three score years and ten, that is 70 years. Hobbes himself, pessimist though he was, lived to over 90.

  17. Marmalade and Kippers. I must start eating breakfast again.

  18. Patrick says:

    Of course, sweetened beer pretty much pre-dated the ‘real’ thing, by only a few pre-capitalist centuries.

    And the home of the modern iteration – citrus-syrup sweetened beer – is uber-capitalist France.

    So that theory is about as stupid as it gets, on every single level.
    ~ ~ ~
    And marmalade is great, and that comes from me, who might just be Richard Philips’ worst nightmare. Just not on croissants.

    And as he notes, capitalism will save marmalade.

  19. Caroline says:

    In reply to #19 and with that came the desire to own land. Bruce Chatwins Songlines has some wonderful insights about many of our yearnings for a nomadic lifestyle.

    Feed the little brats, olives, raw tomato, fetta, cucumber, a boiled egg and toast soldiers for breakfast. Categorically refuse to give the little suckers anything else. They can progress to coffee, cigarettes and crossiants when they’re OLD enough to know better.

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